Developing Innovation for Change

Åsa Ericson, a lead researcher in one of four studies carried out in cooperation with the Construction Climate Challenge (CCC), an initiative with the aim to put climate on top of the agenda in the construction industry, talks about enablers for sustainability in the construction industry.

Just below the Arctic Circle, in the northern town of Luleå, Sweden, product innovation researcher Åsa Ericson goes to work. Åsa is an Associate Professor at Luleå University of Technology, and the work she has undertaken as a project leader of researchers over the last year has placed her into an important role on the topic of climate change and the construction industry. With the findings from the pre-study, that aimed at putting sustainability innovation thinking at the core of engineering teams, she has recently been presenting the conclusions to leading figures in the industry.

“There has really been some good discussions going on, I’m grateful to see that there is a real interest for this kind of research,” she says.

The research project is funded by the Construction Climate Challenge initiative, an initiative hosted by Volvo Construction Equipment that aims at stimulating dialogue between industry representatives, academics and politicians, as well as providing funding for new research and sharing existing knowledge.

“The way I see it, CCC is an important tipping point for how companies can really start working together to seriously make a change in the climate challenge. A good example of how sustainability innovation needs to be part of the whole value chain, at the core of all processes,” Åsa continues.

And her claims have support in her own research. Her team believe that to make sustainability reach the core, they needed to focus on what was really important and adapt to a different reality from their first, very ambitious aim.

“At the start, we were going to demonstrate how to identify customer value in engineering projects. We thought that if we understood what value creation is then we could go into sustainability and demonstrate in some way, how you could capture that value,” she explains.

But from there, adjustments were needed from their theoretical literature based perspective to a more reality-targeted approach.

“First we realized that we were focusing on the wrong perspectives. We had an engineering approach and thought we knew a lot of things that we could find a solution for to demonstrate this, and then we realized we had to start from the beginning and talk to a lot of people, from sustainability thinkers to industry experts to operators.”


R: What were your main findings when you finished the pre-study?

Å: We found that perspectives in the whole value chain need to be addressed. When you talk about sustainable development, we found that some were talking about sustainability in terms of specific outcomes and some were saying we have to define what is sustainable development before we take actions.

R: Was there anything that surprised you?

Å: When you’re talking to people they say that sustainability is not a core topic. It’s not a core topic in product design, or development literature either. It’s some sort of add on. That’s surprising.

R: When you talk about changing mind-sets, are you referring to switching from economy to environment in people’s minds instead?

Å: Absolutely – in early idea and concept stages. That’s a key to the transformation. For many, sustainable ideas have not been developed because the starting point is “we can’t afford it”. I can’t remember who said it, but an innovation guru said, “do the right things and money will follow”. Right now it’s sort of the other way around.

R: It seems that so much of our current global climate issues have arisen from a greedy pursuit for economic wealth. Do you think people have been too individualistic?

Å: When it comes to innovation perspectives we have tried to see how long it takes for a person to actually really like their own idea best, and it actually only takes a few seconds before a person becomes too fond of his or her own idea. So, I guess in that respect, yes, we are too individualistic. It’s not only about thinking outside the box, but also about making a bigger box to think within.

R: What would you say the most important findings were?

Å: They provided snap-shots for me to make me understand that it’s not a simple problem, it’s a really complex problem and we can not only address one topic at a time, we need to address several topics in parallel.

S: So what’s next? Are you planning on continuing the research?

Å: Now we are doing a second analysis of what we have heard and read and we will try and package that into an easy to read brochure that we will put a lot of questions in to stimulate a climate challenge discussion.