The sustainable innovators typology

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Having spent a lot of time at sustainability events recently, Chris Sherwin has been chatting to a range of sustainable innovators, resulting in him putting together a ‘sustainable innovators typology’

Through the work I do I’m meeting more and more people who are involved in green or sustainable innovation.

Sometimes this is formally written into their job titles, but one thing I’ve discovered is that they’re approaching or working on it in rather different ways.

It can make for fascinating discussion as we go over our separate approaches to the same goal. And it can sometimes be a bit confusing, even uncomfortable, to discover we are working on the same thing from some new or strange angle.

As a little thought experiment, let’s map a few of these, in the interest of understanding what’s going on here.

Below, I’ve listed five different types of sustainability innovators I’ve recently come across — a sustainable innovators typology if you will.


There’s a fair amount of artistic licence in this, and the list is by no way comprehensive yet, but one has to start somewhere.

The green bean counters

These types of sustainability innovators work on the metrics and assessment side of sustainability.

They will often be specialists in lifecycle assessment or some other form of product impact assessment or footprinting.

Their role is to inform sustainable design and innovation by identifying key sustainability impacts from products, processes or systems, or else to measure or validate the impacts and eco-improvements or innovations once delivered.

You could also call them ‘eco-metrics specialists’. Sustainability consultants Best Foot Forward or WRAP’s new Product Sustainability Forum are good examples of these ‘types’.

The world changers

They work on and deliver innovations driven chiefly by the needs of people and the planet.

Their success criteria and primary motivations are to solve societal problems, like climate change, waste, pollution or health.

They are usually highly entrepreneurial, involved in the instigation and development of new organisations, new models of enterprise and they frequently operate outside of traditional business structures.

They might be known as a social innovator or entrepreneur, found for example in the ‘Britain’s 50 New Radicals’ list.

The eco-investors

They are the sustainable innovators found financing and kick-starting innovation rather than actually doing it themselves.

Given that innovation is recognised to be one per cent inspiration; 99 per cent perspiration, they play a crucial role in helping sustainable innovations to fly.

They will be driven by a more long-term view of innovation, for either personal or societal gain.

They may also be known as the green funders/financiers, as the socially responsible capitalists or philanthropists, and can be found in the UK Sustainable Investment and Finance Association (UKSIF) or Bethnal Green Ventures.

The green problem solvers

Often found working in greener or more efficient technical development, science and technology are usually their means and starting point for sustainable innovation.

They are likely to be from a technical or engineering background, working extensively with data, will be creative problem solvers with analytical minds and practical ways of working.

You can also call them the ‘cleantechies’ and they might be involved in the RSA’s Great Recovery project or a cleantech hub like that in Cambridge.

The greenspirators

These are sustainable innovators from the creative industries, arts and humanities.

The list reflects the richness and diversity of the movement, the growth and flourishing of this exciting, new area. Same goal, different means — how cool is that?

They approach sustainability using more traditional creative processes such as brainstorming, user-centred approaches or visual expression — like most designers or marketers.

They work on desirability, imaginational and inspirational aspects of the sustainability debate, even if their approaches can seem sometimes less rigorous or scientific.

You can find them in the eco-artistic world of Julie’s Bicycle or in many creative innovation consultancies — such as my own.

First things first, no one is doing sustainable innovation wrong. The list reflects the richness and diversity of the movement, the growth and flourishing of this exciting, new area. Same goal, different means — how cool is that?

Also, our sustainable innovation ‘types’ are not mutually exclusive, as it’s possible to be excellent at ‘green bean-counting’ and a fabulous ‘green problem solver’ (it may even be essential!). You can clearly inhabit more than one world.

The list is also not complete or exhaustive, as I haven’t managed to include disruptors or digital innovators…at least not yet.

A friend of mine pointed out that these types might just mirror the different interpretations of design and innovation itself, which is probably true.

They could fit neatly into a fairly standard product development/diffusion of innovation process: moving from insight (World changers), to ideas (Greenspirators), through prototype and proof-of-concept (Problem solvers), to testing, scaling up, then launching (Eco-investors).

In this sense, sustainable innovators may be just innovators in their various guises.

Despite that, it does help me identify, understand and respect these different angles. And however many types there are, we’ll probably need all these innovators on our longer journey to sustainability. Do let us know of any additions to the list.

Green bean counters, world changers, green problem solvers and greenspirators

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