Pioneers Insights: Reaching Sustainable Development Targets Through Open Innovation

Ongoing issues in society, the economy and the environment have drawn a huge amount of attention to the topic of sustainable development. It’s becoming an essential part of how we live. The concept of sustainable development centers around ways to secure responsible production, as well as the allocation and consumption of resources, goods and services with the prospects of future generations in mind.

Corporate Innovation & Sustainability

While awareness is growing, the majority of the companies are still missing a link between innovation activities and sustainable development goals. The major difference between these two topics is in the strategy your company is pursuing: are you motivated to innovate by sustainability goals or motivated to sustainability by innovation goals? By answering these questions, it’s easier to specify which innovation agenda will lead to the best results, both short and long-term.

Having innovation as your primary motivation implies such goals as revenue, profitability and market share as the first priority. In this case, sustainability is one of the means of reaching these goals. When sustainability is the main driving force, on the other hand, there’s a shift in focus from financial KPIs to the impact on society and the company’s contribution to resolving global challenges related to sustainability.

Whatever a corporation’s sustainable development motives with respect to innovation, almost all of them have certain innovation strategies in place. And various forms of startup-corporate collaboration usually feature.

Startups as drivers of sustainability

Being fully focused on radical innovations and developing products/services that solve real problems for this generation, startups are the key drivers of sustainable development – sometimes without even being aware of it! Of course, not all startups develop impactful solutions, but a high percentage of these solutions have either a direct or indirect impact on sustainable development.

Some startups directly tackle directly the issues of water scarcity (eg. Desolenator), air pollution (eg., agriculture waste (eg. mycotech, pictured above), etc. Other startups develop solutions which have positive applications and use cases for sustainable development, such as sensors for smart cities (eg. Terabee). Many solutions like this might be directly applicable to your company, both in terms of your own innovations and of creating net positive impact on the society.

Formats and Approaches

There are two approaches on integrating sustainable goals into your company’s innovation activities. Depending on your industry and strategy, company can either host an innovation challenge focusing solely on sustainable solutions or integrate the topic of sustainability into existing innovation activities.

In the first case, such an initiative could fall under the remit of the Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR) department. A call can go out for innovators tackling the sustainability-related topics relevant for the company. The program can be organized as an acceleration program, startup weekend, ideation hackathon, challenge competition or venture investment fund. One example is the CSR department at, which is running three initiatives for sustainable tourism startups.

In the second case, a company defines two or three sustainability topics and integrates them into their existing innovation programs. Here the company has to make sure that the topics do indeed bring value to its development and that these areas play an important role as a part of the program. For example, Airbus has called for startups with innovative concepts and technical solutions for sustainable development goals to take part in its BizLab acceleration program.

Innovating for Sustainability: Leading Case Studies

Tourism Industry

One of the great examples of the sustainable initiatives is Booking Cares, the CSR department focusing on promoting sustainable tourism. Through Booking Cares, the company runs three initiatives such as Booster, Booster Labs and Cares Fund. Booster is a three-week acceleration program working with later stage startups and supporting their scaling activities. Booster Labs are weekend programs supporting early stage startups to develop their ideas and promote sustainability. Booking Cares Fund is a €2 million fund programme to champion changemakers in sustainable tourism. With these programs, is showing its support for making tourism a force for good.

Energy Industry

A leading utility company, Engie. The company is running the Engie Factory, a startup accelerator in Latin America. Engie supports startups in the world of sustainability, making them grow rapidly until they can bring real contribution to the market with excellent products and services. With this initiative Engie is seen as contributing to a real change of mentality and behavior regarding the importance of sustainability in the world.

Interested in learning more about collaborating with startups to achieve your sustainable development goals? Then find our what our consultancy arm can do for you here.