Sustainable innovation – An interview with Sascha Nick

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Sascha Nick

On May 6th I conducted an interview with Sascha Nick after having him as a guest professor for a class at HEC Lausanne, UNIL. He is a professor, an entrepreneur, and a visionary for what innovation can do for human society. Touching numerous points such as sustainability in a corporate environment, implementing strategies in the real world, and using innovation as a tool to create human well-being, he shared some of his thoughts with us:

J: Could you tell me a little bit about yourself and what you do at BSL and UNIL?

S: I’m passionate about sustainability and I try to share this passion with almost everyone who listens to me. That, in practice, is students who are from different universities, and the companies I work with. I teach at BSL where I am professor of sustainability and a lecturer at the university of Lausanne. In addition, to that I’ve been teaching a module on environmental finance at the University of Zurich since about 2008. On the corporate side I have started several companies including CO2 monitor which is the main business I run now and which is about sustainability awareness in companies. We are trying to engage company employees in a somewhat similar way that you would with students of sustainability. Of course, the context is very different, so we need to adapt it to the reality of corporations.

J: That’s an important point, sustainability doesn’t stop at profession, it’s about engaging with everyone and living a sustainable lifestyle.

S: Right. Of course, what is important about being a professor is you’re in a certain structured environment. So, it’s a much more structured process, it’s not just talking about things that I care about, but in terms of content, it is. Then of course there is the research side of questions which mean keeping on top of the scientific literature of the field and there’s a lot of it. While it is true in more or less every academic discipline, sustainability is so fundamentally interdisciplinary that you need to keep up to speed on numerous areas. All these things fundamentally influence sustainability, so while it’s not any more complicated than other disciplines, there are different things that enter the equation.

J: You touched on it a bit earlier, but I was wondering if you could tell us more about CO2 monitor and what it aims to achieve?

S: CO2 monitor aims to help corporate customers engage their employees. What happens in most companies is you have tens of thousands of people working for the company and then you have a small number of specialists who know a lot about sustainability and they work on it every single day. The non-specialists don’t really know much about sustainability, maybe they haven’t even read the company’s sustainability report. They may read articles from time to time, but they are more interested in their private lives than in staying up to date with the topic. The challenge is really going from a few specialists of sustainability and engaging the rest in some appropriate way. Of course, you can’t engage all of them to the same level, but you can get them to a point where they understand what sustainability is and why it matters. So that’s what we aim to achieve. It’s very similar to a university course but adapted to the reality of the workplace.

J: It’s important to make sure people who generally wouldn’t be involved in sustainability initiatives have basic knowledge of its importance and why they should be doing their part.

S: Right, and hopefully everybody else who doesn’t intend to do something today, will understand what this whole thing is about, why it’s important and why in the future they should get involved as well.

J: Simply teaching people know about the sustainability problems of today will allow them to come back to the issue later and innovate new products and technologies that can help solve this crisis.

S: In a sense, what I am saying is nothing new because innovation is all over the place, left, right and center. No self-respecting manager would say innovation is not absolutely key, but the point is, what is the purpose of the innovation? How do you know if the innovation you’ve just tried is any good or not? Innovative means it’s new, it’s different. It may end up worse or better or not making a difference. This is the tough part. How do you know a company is doing something useful? Well it’s creating jobs, fine. If you’re a slave trader, you’re creating jobs, but are those jobs good jobs? So just being successful, making money, gaining market share, etc. if the thing you are doing is destructive, then that’s no good. Human well-being is not about money, it is about satisfying fundamental human needs. So are we helping people to be healthier, to protect them, to find an identity, or affection, all these things that humans need. That’s one half of the story. The other half of the story is: are we undermining the conditions of the future? To know this, you look at the ecosystem and planetary boundaries. These two parts together, the human well-being and the environmental context, are the two main metrics that will tell you if your experiment is any good or not. Firstly, you need a vision to know where to go, a metric to know if you’re going in the right direction or not, and then rapid experimentation can follow. Everybody agrees on innovation and this is true for anywhere you go but what we don’t necessarily agree on is the vision and if the result will be beneficial.

J: I guess that’s true. There’s no way to know, but you can use these simple building blocks of: do people need it in their life and can you do it in the long term. If you can’t say yes to these questions, it may not be an idea worth pursuing. If you’re not helping people with their basic needs or not doing it with longevity in mind, the idea’s not sustainable.

S: Of course, the human society within the biosphere is a complex, adaptive system so you do something in one area, you’re going to have all sorts of repercussions elsewhere and you don’t necessarily know in advance what they’re going to be.

J: My last question, which is quite general and has no right answer is:  what’s one piece of advice you can give to young entrepreneurs and innovators of today?

S: Think really hard about what kind of society you want to live in. What are its characteristics? What’s your place and what kind of relationships would you like to see in that society? If you have a good vision, share that with others. What we are sorely missing today is a positive narrative of the future. The last century we’ve had this narrative of positive economic growth is going to solve all problems, etc. and for a short while it did solve some problems, but when it’s creating more problems than it solves, we need to replace it with a better narrative. To do so, we need something better in its place. Creating this better narrative is going to engage people for a better future, and then we experiment. Once we know what that better future looks like, it doesn’t mean that it’s just going to come about on its own. In a complex, adaptive system, going from A to B is not really a straightforward process that you can design. This where the innovation, rapid prototyping, and rapid testing come in. It doesn’t really matter what the narrative is. It could be about human relations, it could be about religion, it could be about self-realization, and finding some inner wisdom or some combination of those things, but at some point, we need to know where to go.

Justin Noble

Last modified: 23 May 2019

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