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Products and Design
McDonough Espouses the Power of Principled Innovation

Innovation is a hot topic. You hear daily about its democratization, globalization and acceleration. But in all the breathless wonder at our speed of progress, one question seldom gets asked: is every innovation good for us? This is where the concept of principled innovation comes in.

Innovation is a hot topic. You hear daily about its democratization, globalization and acceleration. But in all the breathless wonder at our speed of progress, one question seldom gets asked: is every innovation good for us?

This is where the concept of principled innovation comes in.

I first heard the term from William McDonough, with whom I first spoke prior to the Sustainable Brands '13 conference. McDonough introduced the world to Cradle to Cradle thinking, and is now pushing for a radical rethink of sustainability with his new book The Upcycle.

In our conversation, he said the massive disruption we need to create companies that are futureproof (those that help create a better world, for example, instead of those that shoot for ‘less unsustainable’ output) will only come with a new twist on innovation.

In his words, “The most powerful enterprise is driven in the opposite direction of conventional business. The innovation methodology of conventional business — which begins with metrics, short-term tactics and strategic goals — makes truly positive disruptive progress difficult. It’s designed to perform against — and is subsequently constrained by — benchmarks.”

“When I set out to innovate, on the other hand, I start with my values — I ask myself how this innovation will benefit all the children of all species for all time. Then I overlay the filter of my principles. Finally, I overlay the business goals, strategies, tactics and metrics the innovation should answer. That’s how principled innovation happens.”

Putting principled innovation to work — start with principles!

Clearly, principled innovation can’t happen without a foundation of principles. That means understanding why your company exists — what deeper purpose it serves (no, making money doesn’t count — that’s a result, not a purpose).

This isn’t easy. It involves digging deep and expressing how your corporation should fit into — and positively impact — the world around it. However, I find McDonough’s Hannover Principles a refreshing (and refreshingly plain-spoken) place to start. Here they are:

  1. Insist on rights of humanity and nature to co-exist in a healthy, supportive, diverse and sustainable condition.
  2. Recognize interdependence. The elements of human design interact with and depend upon the natural world, with broad and diverse implications at every scale. Expand design considerations to recognizing even distant effects.
  3. Respect relationships between spirit and matter. Consider all aspects of human settlement including community, dwelling, industry and trade in terms of existing and evolving connections between spiritual and material consciousness.
  4. Accept responsibility for the consequences of design decisions upon human well-being, the viability of natural systems and their right to co-exist.
  5. Create safe objects of long-term value. Do not burden future generations with requirements for maintenance or vigilant administration of potential danger due to the careless creation of products, processes or standards.
  6. Eliminate the concept of waste. Evaluate and optimize the full life-cycle of products and processes, to approach the state of natural systems, in which there is no waste.
  7. Rely on natural energy flows. Human designs should, like the living world, derive their creative forces from perpetual solar income. Incorporate this energy efficiently and safely for responsible use.
  8. Understand the limitations of design. No human creation lasts forever and design does not solve all problems. Those who create and plan should practice humility in the face of nature. Treat nature as a model and mentor, not as an inconvenience to be evaded or controlled.
  9. Seek constant improvement by the sharing of knowledge. Encourage direct and open communication between colleagues, patrons, manufacturers and users to link long term sustainable considerations with ethical responsibility, and re-establish the integral relationship between natural processes and human activity.

Sound a bit daunting? According to McDonough, setting out principles like these at the start of the innovation process usually throws fuel on the fire, getting teams thinking of possibilities they may never have considered before.

Feedforward and feedback

When I originally crafted this story, I included a piece on The Natural Step’s backcasting process as another useful step in creating principled innovation. In essence, backcasting involves envisioning your success from a future point in time, then using that vision to guide you to your goal.

McDonough, however, had a better idea. “I use ‘feedforward’ to help guide my thinking and keep me on track. Feedforward lets me look ahead, and see what the future is telling me in the present tense.”

Feedforward is easier to understand if you consider it in the same light as feedback. In essence, we use feedback to tweak our work according to the observations of those around us. Feedforward is essentially the same, but it relies on the observations of future generations — those most impacted by our present-day decisions — to shape our path and tweak our thinking.

What are you waiting for?

Innovation is a wonderful process. Framed properly, it can have a profoundly positive effect on our planet — both today and tomorrow.

At the very least, embarking on an innovation program with a goal like this will invigorate your team. It could lead to ideas that help futureproof your company. At best, it could help create a better world.

I’m excited to hear how it unfolds for you.

This story first appeared in The Huffington Post on November 6th, 2013.


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