The biggest hurdle to sustainable innovation isn’t the technology – it’s how to shift public consciousness, promoting the acceptance of technologies and practices that could make the way we live more sustainable.
A shift in consciousness is the biggest hurdle that sustainability faces, and to understand the difficulties in winning over the public we need look no further than our love/hate relationship to the paper and plastic bag.
Most of us have dozens of reusable shopping bags stashed in the various corners of our lives – tucked in our car, hanging in our kitchens, stuffed in our desks at work. Yet how often do we approach the grocery checkout, knowing that once again, we forgot the bags? We forget our bags despite the signs in the parking lot, the 10¢ rebate, their presence scattered everywhere, and the years of saying to ourselves “don’t forget the bags.”
The reason is simple: being able to get a bag at the point of purchase is the most convenient approach to carrying our groceries because it requires nothing of us. Since it doesn’t cost anything (at least that we notice) it’s both convenient and cheap.
When it comes to how people behave, and whether they adopt a new innovation in behavior or technology, comfort and convenience, along with the gain of money or time, are what drive an innovations widespread adoption and diffusion – not its perceived social benefit. Innovations most quickly spread when they allow us to do more with less, expanding the possibilities in our lives. The ease and ubiquity of paper and plastic bags, a recent 20th century innovation, competes fiercely with our best intentions to limit our waste stream. Their ever present, easy availability shows us just how hard it is to change behavior that would usher in the simple return of an old practice – bringing a means with which to carry our purchases when we shop.
Innovations may be global in reach, but they are fundamentally local and social in their impact. The greater the integration of an innovation into our day to day landscape, the more essential it is to our functioning. One day we look back and cannot remember how we lived without an answering machine or the Internet. We’re certainly not going back.
So, we may have 20 bags, but if they only make it to the store 50% of the time, it’s clear we are only part way to having adopted the innovation. And there is the rub. The best and greatest innovations are only successful if they are used. Getting people to adopt an innovation requires that an adopter change the way they think, which shifts consciousness.
We know how to save the environment – we just don’t know how to get people to participate in the behaviors and practices that will facilitate a sustainable future. Rather than focusing on the innovation, change agents need to focus on changing consciousness. The human factor often seems to be the one environmentalists and the developers of sustainable technologies understand least.
There are three critical variables that should always be kept in mind when trying to create change, whether of a belief, practice, or technology:
1) Engage stakeholders early and often in the design process
To increase the likelihood of an innovation’s success, include those folks for whom an innovation is intended in their design, implementation, and evaluation. Do they tell you it offers them comfort, convenience, money, or time? Lack of stakeholder feedback on design requirements can inhibit technologies from taking root. Also notice: how do they want to use it? Does their use create unintended consequences the way ethanol from soy, Smart Meters, and water in plastic bottles did? The more change agents (or product managers) enroll the various stakeholders in the design process, the sooner we understand the barriers to an innovation’s adoption.
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