Micro-scale innovation accelerators are becoming go-to places for entrepreneurs to unlock desirable benefits. These socio-technical networks challenge traditional corporate environments, encourage unlearning and questioning the openness of institutional functions in order to incite new possibilities within organizations.

Researchers at Delft University of Technology in the Netherlands (*) have reported that "responsible innovation" is a major factor impacting knowledge network openness among early-stage spinoffs from academic institutions. While constrained by their limited resources, these companies are uniquely positioned to break away from established path dependencies and venture into new sustainability challenges with greater autonomy.

How a knowledge network can help

Entrepreneurs can now capitalize on the flourishing opportunities of sustainability in important fields such as health, food/consumption, energy/water and more. Responsible entrepreneurship seeks to innovate for societal needs while still having a marketable product or service that positively benefits others. This concept is gaining momentum internationally with strategies like the European Innovation Strategy 2020 and China's Science & Technology Roadmap 2050 leading the way forward. To truly make an impact within innovation clusters – inside or outside academia – stakeholders must share knowledge through dynamic interactive processes to drive success. Incentive structures provide further vision into potential returns from these endeavors when executed correctly.

By strategically embedding a set of incentives within its organizational profile, each cluster can encourage knowledge sharing and transfer among all participants. This free-flow of information within open networks is more likely to promote wide-spread innovation opportunities for all involved.

Nevertheless, it takes time for a knowledge network to evolve and to build a diverse cohort of participants. Academic accelerators usually involve university researchers and scientists in the early stage of knowledge network development. Partners more likely to add value in the commercialization/go-to-market phase usually come in during a second iteration of the knowledge network. Openness to new partners is key to accumulating transfer knowledge capacity and bringing in timely metrics of impact that may not have been introduced during the early days of the innovation cluster. These provide complementary assets. An example is the funding and commercialization of green hydrogen solutions at scale. The technology development cycle from lab-scale to industrial-scale is inevitably linked with delays in the launch of second-generation services. 

Organizational learning for impact

To foster sustainable innovation, organizations of all sizes must leverage the power of an open knowledge network. A clear vision is a great start but executing that plan requires leveraging collective cognition to maximize potential and catalyze growth – something only achievable when collaboration takes center stage.

Access to systems thinking tools has become an invaluable asset for businesses on their sustainability journey. Access gives them the capacity to identify, visualize and maximize value in dynamic settings beyond financial or economic relationships. It also allows us to see past individual limitations giving insight into the underlying linkages of complex organizational decision-making processes while building a mental model that incorporates environmental and social dimensions not previously part of a company’s strategic planning tools. 

In closing, it is important to remember that micro-scale innovation accelerators are seen as catalysts of organizational learning. These same researchers suggest that “responsible innovation” is a leading driver for openness in knowledge networks. With this in mind, sustainability can offer opportunities to create benefits at the intersection of social and environmental fields; this has found renewed support from novel research hubs around the world. The structure of embedded incentives facilitates knowledge sharing among participants which enables open networks to take hold and spread wide. Because academic accelerators involve university researchers during early stages while corporate partners are more likely to add to the commercialization efforts at a later time; openness is key to successfully drive both efforts. 

To learn more about how to foster innovation as a sustainable and responsible organization, be sure to read my book, The Impact Challenge — which discusses how to start including micro-innovation as part of your sustainability learning journey.

(*) Van Geenhuizen, M., and Q. Ye. 2014. “Responsible Innovators: Open Networks on The way to Sustainability Transitions.” Technological Forecasting and Social Change 87: 28–40. doi:10.1016/j.techfore.2014.06.001.
About the Author

ALESSIA FALSARONE, SASB FSA, is a sustainable finance expert and a fellow of the Aspen Institute Business and Society Program. Her work bridges the gap between sustainability, financial innovation and risk management. A sought-after commentator for media outlets and contributor to academic programs, Ms. Falsarone is a member of high-level advisory groups that promote environmental and climate finance, including the G20 Environmental Ministerial, the London Stock Exchange, the Sustainability Accounting Standards Board (Value Reporting Foundation) and the UN Principles for Responsible Investment. In recognition of her innovative vision for business and society, she has received an Honoree Award from the Women’s Venture Fund and the 2021 Global Leadership Award by the SheInspires Foundation in the UK.

She is an alumna of Stanford University, the MIT Sloan School of Business and Bocconi University. Ms. Falsarone holds certified director status with the National Association of Corporate Directors. An avid advocate of sustainability in business education, she has contributed to educational initiatives on the topic at the Asian University for Women, the Society of Corporate Compliance, the Swiss Sustainable Finance Initiative, the United Nations, the World Bank, Stanford University and University of Chicago, including delivering training on climate risk and green finance in Asia Pacific and Latin America.

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