5 Things I Learned from the 2016 MIT Sustainability Summit
[This post was originally published on Sustainability Television]
The 8th annual MIT Sustainability Summit took place on April 15th 2016. Over 250 professionals, academics, investors, entrepreneurs, and students joined for a series of panels, keynotes, and structured networking around Sustainability-Oriented Innovation (SOI) — innovations that deliver value to customers while creating a more environmentally and socially sustainable future.
This MIT News article summarizes the event. Here are my top five takeaways:
(1) Innovation is necessary but not sufficient
The need for sustainability-oriented innovation is widely acknowledged, but the Summit also highlighted that innovation alone is insufficient. In addition to technological advances and new business models, we need effective implementation and transformation. Implementation requires support from an ecosystem of diverse stakeholders. Transformation happens through adoption and diffusion mechanisms that are sensitive to cultural contexts and local needs.
Summit keynotes and panelists provided meaningful guidance on innovation, as well as the required enabling conditions. For example, Jason Jay (MIT) highlighted the different roles that key stakeholders play in accelerating SOIs: entrepreneurs, by bringing disruptive SOIs to scale; corporations, through both internal and external innovation; investors, by developing new financing mechanisms and creating forms that align with impact objectives; and as citizens, we make impactful choices across many aspects of our lives, such as how we vote, what we buy, and where we work.
(2) Internal SOI is both a challenge and an opportunity for corporations
Corporations are increasingly breaking tradeoffs between seemingly conflicting goals such as sustainability and performance. Summit panelists, such as Sophia Mendelsohn (Jet Blue), Kathrin Winkler (EMC), and Hans-Aloys Wischmann (Philips Research) highlighted many examples of successful SOIs. They also emphasized that embracing this approach is still a challenge. For example, taking on an SOI initiative too early, before there is widespread buy-in or before the kinks have been worked out, can cause it to fail. In other words, it’s ok to be a little late, especially in a big corporation. Speakers also discussed the conflicting nature of metrics: metrics can create perverse incentives when they are not implemented holistically, yet there is a necessity for accountability.
Corporate speakers communicated a sense of optimism about the increasing role of SOIs in the future, but there are still challenges to be overcome. One promising solution to internal innovation is Corporate Venturing, as discussed by Erin O’Driscoll (Dow Chemical). Companies from across sectors are launching corporate venture functions in hopes of gaining access to, and becoming part of, the SOI ecosystem.
(3) Startups and Investors still consider sustainability a side benefit
Investors and experienced entrepreneurs, like panelists Temple Fennell (Flagship Ventures) and John Harthorne (MassChallenge), often recommend that SOI entrepreneurs be cautious when pitching the sustainability benefits of their venture to potential investors. Investors want to be sure that portfolio companies have a commercial focus: a viable business model and path to exit. Similarly, investors have to be careful about how they discuss the sustainability benefits of their investment thesis when talking to their Limited Partners.
Panelists emphasized that the need for a commercial and technical orientation doesn’t mean that sustainability isn’t important; rather, you have to tailor the pitch to your audience’s sustainability-orientation. Panelists also agreed that it might not always be this way. As metrics evolve and new funding mechanisms for supporting SOIs arise, sustainability benefits will continue to move to the forefront of the value proposition.
(4) Soft skills are critical for advancing SOIs
SOIs, whether within a corporation or a startup, often cross organizational boundaries and require support from myriad stakeholders. Speakers from across sectors and industries repeatedly emphasized that SOI champions need soft skills — empathy, patience, systems thinking — to attract, motivate, and lead those around them. The theme of mentorship also arose multiple times, including from Paula Loomis (US Coast Guard) and Jonathan Maher (L’Oreal). They emphasized that it’s important to have trustworthy mentors, and being a good leader means being a good mentor.
(5) There’s a discrepancy between the state of practice and state of research
Despite the optimism and positive examples of SOIs discussed throughout the day, SOIs are still far from the status quo and there remains much work to be done. John Sterman (MIT) echoed this sentiment in his opening, as did Dan Esty (Yale) in his keynote address. In practice, many innovators feel the main leverage points for driving sustainability initiatives are cost savings, risk, and compliance. However, the latest research indicates that leaders are looking at sustainability as a revenue driver. Events like the Sustainability Summit, through structured and informal networking, can help to create peer-to-peer learning opportunities to advance the state of practice. There’s also a need for translational research to elevate the state of play.
The MIT Sustainability Summit is a student-run event that takes place each year during Earth Week. The 2017 Sustainability Summit (theme TBD) will take place on April 28th- visit the website or follow on twitter for more information.