Turbo-boost needed to deliver sustainability innovations

How do we get the ball rolling? A forum at the RNE Annual Conference discussed holistic innovation strategies for sustainability and their chances of being implemented. Plus, how policy needs to change for the transition to succeed.

Transformation by design or by disaster? We still have the choice of which path to take, but the window of opportunity is shrinking as we speak. That was Ulla Burchardt’s urgent appeal for a rethink as the politician and member of the German Council for Sustainable Development (RNE) opened the topic forum “Fostering Innovations for Sustainability! Socially. Technologically. Institutionally.” at the RNE Annual Conference with her keynote speech. Whether and how innovation succeeds is the key to the sustainability transition – but also to the success of the Joint Action for Sustainable Development, the joint federal and Länder initiative officially launched just a few hours prior at the same event.

“When we call for innovation and transformation to be turbo-charged, it’s nothing to do with ethics or fashion. It’s about acting in such a way as to avoid economic and social upheaval, which are inevitable consequences of the further destruction of our natural basis of existence”, said Burchardt in her introduction, in which she also gave a brief insight into the latest RNE statement on the subject of innovation policy.

Stop fixating on technology

The RNE has already been warning “for some time” that the efforts being made are not sufficient to achieve the global Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) and tackle multiple crises to boot. The key message, continued Burchardt, was therefore that “Innovation policy needs a new direction”. She called for a holistic understanding of innovation, away from the fixation on technology that is still the touchstone in the masterminding departments: “We need system innovations and other practices in our dealings with resources and people, new habits and different patterns of consumption. Social, cultural and institutional innovations must be accorded the same value as technical ones.” And crucially, all stakeholders must be included and involved. Because whenever something new comes along, something old also has to disappear. But no one should fall by the wayside.

The RNE is therefore advocating a holistic and cross-ministerial innovation strategy, which comes under the Federal Chancellery and is based around the United Nations’ 17 SDGs. “It took six years to develop the hydrogen strategy. That’s how long the departments took to agree on the details”, Burchardt reported. Given that time is running out, this should flag up that “We also need innovation in our administration, namely to speed up decisions with a new culture of cooperation”, she said.

The affair of the chip fork

Nora Griefahn, Co-Founder and Executive Director of the NGO Cradle to Cradle, called out the fact that all too often actors focus on “doing less damage”, for instance by producing fewer emissions. “But goals like that do not lead us into an innovative future”, she said. “Why don’t we start by setting ourselves different goals, by asking ourselves how we can have a positive impact?” At the same time we need a holistic understanding of innovation. One example is that currently everyone is focusing only on the energy question, with the result that “We’re building houses with materials that are not innovative and we’re creating a massive waste problem for ourselves”.

Griefahn’s own work shines a light on perspectives that can be ideally scaled up. Often she finds herself up against political barriers. In the summer, for example, Cradle to Cradle helped to organise three concerts as part of the “Labor Tempelhof”, featuring the bands Die Ärzte and Die Toten Hosen on the Tempelhofer Feld in Berlin. The goal was to make these large-scale events not only climate-neutral but in fact climate-positive. Not everything worked out: a chip fork made of biodegradable plastic, for example, never made it to production. Due to the ban on single-use plastic – whether biodegradable or not – they couldn’t find a single machine in the whole of Europe that could have been used to make the forks. A further problem was that “For a project like that, you only get funding if you can say that you’ve done five years of research on it first”, criticised the NGO representative. But that’s no way to get it off the ground. Here too, she had another example: “The Joint Action was agreed in 2019, and now three years later it’s only getting started”, she said. “We need far too long.”

Promoting regional innovation ecosystems

Kai Gehring, chairman of the Committee on Education, Research and Technology Assessment of the German Bundestag, explained that policymakers need to set firmer goals in the transition process and work towards their achievement with incentives and, if necessary, sanctions. That said, such political control must not be imposed top-down, but can only succeed in conjunction with civil society and science. It is essential to create regional innovation ecosystems. The sustainability community, the pioneers of change in the scientific community, Fridays for Future, Scientists for Future and many more can “link arms for the common goals”.

What will it take for people to commit to innovation and transformation, asked moderator Tanja Ferkau in her wrap-up, also with regard to the Joint Action for Sustainable Development. It is important to shed more light on the positive examples – a climate-neutral university campus, say, or a resource-positive concert – so that they can be emulated, the round-table agreed. Over a long period, people had thought about the transfer between science and business, pointed out Green Bundestag member Gehring, but at the same time had neglected society. But only with broad-based expansion of best practices can there be a change in culture. It was also clear that policymakers must create other framework conditions and space for experiments. Ulla Burchardt appealed to the voters to step up their demands for such a change from their politicians. After all, “It is also a question of supply and demand”.