The importance of innovation in sustainability systems

By mid-2020 it had become obvious that the restrictions limiting movement across the globe in response to the covid-19 pandemic were not fleeting. As with many organisations in this time, sustainability systems had to consider how they adapt their business to remote ways of working. For assurance, we saw this accelerate an existing interest in remote audit approaches to action.

With the support of the ISEAL Innovations Fund, four ISEAL Community Members undertook pilot projects to explore different remote audit approaches and tools. A growth in risk-based hybrid audit approaches and the uptake of supporting technology has followed, outlasting the restrictions that helped spur them into place. 

This is one example of innovation supporting sustainability systems to adapt in a rapidly changing external environment. In the seven years of operating the ISEAL Innovations Fund, with grants of more than six million Swiss Francs awarded across 49 projects to date, we have learned that innovation takes many forms. It is not only found in disruptive change fed by major events, but in responding to emerging legislation and due diligence requirements, and the everyday innovation that comes from having a pulse on the developing needs of an organisation and those it works with and for.

While external factors drive creativity and catalyse investment for innovation, key moments in time for sustainability systems can also present opportunities for innovation, such as in the creation of a new organisational strategy or during a standard revision process. The stage of a sustainability system’s development can also dictate its approach to innovation. Investing in getting the basics right, on which innovation can then build, is often the main priority for organisations at earlier stages in their development.

With a variety of drivers and opportunities for innovation, it is also important to consider what it takes for innovation to succeed. It requires an understanding of all steps in the process, from inception to adoption. Investing in and catalysing innovation can start as simply as listening to and encouraging both internal and external stakeholders to share their experiences and ideas. Putting in place innovation-focused roles or teams within sustainability systems can also help place innovation at the centre of addressing core business challenges.

Not every innovation piloted will be a success, but learning from failure can still provide a step forward, whether prompting a clearer strategic direction or leading to further iterative change. When an innovation is successful, having the right enabling conditions is important to be able to move from piloting to business adoption. The level of investment required for this step cannot be underestimated and should be factored into project decision-making and design upfront.

ISEAL has a role in helping its members anticipate and find solutions for potential roadblocks to the uptake and replication of innovations. With this in mind, the first call for expressions of interest under phase two of the ISEAL Innovations Fund was launched in March 2023. It called for ISEAL Community Members to submit ideas for projects responding to opportunities and challenges from previous Innovations Fund initiatives, and to deblock barriers to innovation in their organisations. Eighteen EOIs were received from seventeen different ISEAL Community Members, with selected projects expected to start from September 2023.

The first thematic grant round under phase two of the ISEAL Innovations Fund will launch in early July 2023 and build on key learning from phase one — that convening a community of innovators working in parallel and in collaboration around core topics can generate greater impact and accelerate learning for both those involved and the wider community.

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