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Analyzing Sustainable Innovations

What are the characteristics of sustainability innovations?  Which factors influence sustainability innovations and what are their specific outcomes? Dabard and Mann (2022) answer these questions in their new paper on Sustainability Innovations.

A leading tenant of the sustainability movement is the belief that solving environmental issues requires both technological and holistic system changes. Sustainable innovations are clearly a necessity. However, our understanding of which characteristics make a transition or innovation sustainable is often implicit. Three frameworks that are commonly used to conceptualize these transitions are the Multilevel Perspectives Framework (MLP), the Technological Innovations Systems (TIS) approach, and the Social-Ecological Systems (SES) framework. All three frameworks focus on specific dimensions of transitions. Dabard and Mann (2022) contribute to the definition of Sustainability Innovations and propose an alternative approach to sustainability transitions through the Sustainability Innovation Framework, which is generic and therefore can be more comprehensively applied to a wider range of variables.  

Dabard and Mann (2022) see sustainability innovations as improvements that have positive impacts on social-ecological integrity and equality within a specific context. They include place-specificity in their definition because what may be considered sustainable for one situation may not be sustainable under different circumstances. They propose the following definition: “sustainability innovations are multi-scalar, multi-actor processes that develop new ways to define and meet social needs and induce positive outcomes in terms of social–ecological integrity and equity—in a specific and complex social–ecological context” (Dabard and Mann, 2022).

Working with this expanded definition of sustainability innovations, Dabard and Mann examined two case studies on the outskirts of Berlin in order to test the versatility of the sustainability innovations framework. The sustainability innovations framework, through which they examined the two case studies, features four dimensions (context, actors, process, and outcomes), which can then be subdivided into 31 categories. The four tiers were inspired by the social-ecological systems framework, which takes a transdisciplinary and case-specific approach to research.

Context means all external influences. Actors are all relevant stakeholders. Process refers to what actors do and how they do it. Outcomes include the innovation types, the development stages, and the sustainability outcomes.

The two cases they examined were the Solar Explorer, a solar-powered catamaran on the Webellin lake in Schorfeide-Chorin Biosphere Reserve, and the Brodowin Ecovillage. Though both cases are considered sustainable innovations, they have their own individual victories and struggles, making them perfect examples of why we need the flexibility of the sustainability innovations framework.

Both cases have their unique successes and setbacks. The Solar Explore experienced a chronic lack of funding during its development, but the strong commitment by the relevant actors prevented failure. Originally, the stakeholders imagined the ship having a dual purpose for public education and research. Eventually, after overcoming the difficulties of limited public transportation to the lake, the Solar Explorer thrived as a high-quality public education innovation. However, the research equipment has been less useful than originally envisioned because of the continuous search for funding. The Solar Explore has strengthened regional equity in a rural area where quality environmental education is limited due to finances and resources.

Brodowin Ecovillage, founded in the 1990s, is a private large-scale biodynamic farm. Its proximity to Berlin provides a ready market for its produce and its reputation as an organic haven draws admirers of ecotourism. The open decision-making processes of its members grew Brodowin Ecovillage into a resilient and powerful actor within the region.

Both cases exemplify the definition of sustainability innovations, however their altering success, contexts, and struggles underline their clear differences. Both emphasize the importance of trust within the actor network and the success of experimental learning. However, whereas in the Brodowin Ecovillage securing funding proved crucial to the success of the farm, the Solar Explorer relied on awareness-raising and social-ecological stewardship.

These case studies prove that the sustainable innovations framework is applicable, generic, and comprehensive and thus can cover an extensive range of variables.

If you are interested in the full research paper, follow this link.

Dabard, Caroline Hélène, and Carsten Mann. “Sustainability innovations: a proposal for an analytical framework and its empirical application in the Schorfheide-Chorin Biosphere Reserve.” Sustainability Science (2022): 1-14.


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