Mike Tennant’s talk at the 6heads Innovation & Sustainability Forum

Mike Tennant – is there such a thing as radical innovation?

Mike Tennant opened the discussions by asking whether talking about radical and/or systemic innovation is just blowing smoke. Since last April when the 6heads (at the time six students at Imperial College) decided to focus on this type of innovation for their research projects, he started to ask himself some questions and think about the subject quite intensively. This time resulted in two main lessons:

–       The need for completely unfettered experimentation

–       The need to change the vocabulary we use

To illustrate these points, Mike gave the examples of the treehopper (based on a paper from Nature published in May 2011). Through what the paper calls ‘body plan innovation’, treehoppers have developed ”third wings” that can act as disguises to protect themselves against predators.  These “third wings” were able to develop as they “…escaped the stringent functional requirements imposed by flight.” What does this all mean for innovation and sustainability? Mike used this analogy to express the need for experimentation in order to survive the shocks of sustainability, which are inevitable. But the need for experimentation is not new in business – what Mike was emphasizing was the need for experimentation which is not required for functioning of main business proposition and is not tied down by regulatory mechanisms.

He then went on to discuss the need to change the language of sustainability. To demonstrate this point, he showed Darwin’s famous Tree of Life.

“Businesses don’t really exist as tangible entities. They exist as buildings people go to work in or as functions that act to buy and sell things, but they don’t meaningfully exist outside of the vocabulary we use to describe them” – he explained. We constrain ourselves by using a certain vocabulary – and that we set ourselves on a path dependency (on this Tree of Life) by using certain words or expressions over others. For example, “the business case for sustainability” is commonly used everyday in this field yet by saying that, we’re predicating all our actions on the idea of making money (i.e. the business case). Mike then proposed flipping these words around to talk about the sustainability case for business. What this does is open up a whole new spectrum to take action by thinking about sustainability first. As a linguistic species, the vocabulary we use enables and constrains our thoughts and actions,  but that language may be changed.

To conclude, Mike introduced a quotation by Mike Oakeshott:

Not the cry, but the rising of the wild ducks impels the flock to follow him to flight’

Building on this, he said “we need followers as well as leaders. Followers don’t just necessarily follow blindly but create niches for innovations to happen and this is really important. We need to speak. We need to act together. Because that’s how we create the necessary systemic change that sustainability needs.”

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