Stimulating Innovation to Create More Sustainable Cities

Andre Veneman is corporate director for sustainability and HSE with AkzoNobel .Environmental Leader, 11/12/2014
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It won’t be long before the world’s population reaches nine billion and by 2050, 70 percent of the world’s population will live in cities. All around the globe, population explosions are putting city infrastructure under severe strain. And at the same time climate change is posing serious challenges.

How will we cope? Can our cities accommodate so many people?

Yes it can, but we have to do things differently. We have to use our ambition and imagination to more efficiently manage the world’s limited resources.

Ultimately, the future health of our cities – and the people who live there – will hinge on our ability to do radically more with less. We need more innovation, less traditional solutions, more collaboration and less introverted thinking.

The widespread idea that innovation is driven by a lonely genius, a specific department, or a special group of champion innovators is not the case. Instead, success hinges on organizing and driving innovation through a team effort and a strong sense of a shared mission.

For many businesses, this should start with building strong relationships between different departments.

The problem is that in large corporations there is often a strong inward orientation. The structures, rules and regulations in place can hamper the ability to establish open relationships — both within an organization and externally. Perhaps the biggest challenge that companies face is creating a more open and forward-looking mindset; that is, thinking beyond current business issues and immediate future horizons.

To engage in sustainable innovation successfully, companies need to be prepared to work in a much more collaborative way. This means working effectively across procurement, operations, marketing and sales functions, and by partnering with suppliers and customers. A strong alignment between sourcing, research & development and marketing, for example, is vitally important to delivering sustainable solutions that work commercially and provide a practical benefit to urban environments.

A collaborative approach will make it possible to not only uncover exciting new ideas but help those ideas reach market faster than what would be possible through traditional models.

At AkzoNobel, we believe in establishing a collaborative, welcoming environment where ideas can be explored. When people have an idea, they are encouraged to reach out to anyone in the network to pursue the opportunity.

For example, on a flight home from a meeting, Peter Greenwood, a business development manager, came up with the idea to add colloidal silica to paint to enhance its self-cleaning properties. When he returned to the office, he reached out to another department to explore the idea. Before we knew it, a cross-departmental collaboration had developed between AkzoNobel’s Specialty Chemicals and Decorative Paints Business Areas resulting in a coating that can last up to 16 years, 25% longer than a standard product.


These types of collaborations are encouraged among senior level management. Of course, linking up departments is not enough on its own. They need to be aligned and focused on identifying sustainable solutions that customers need. Our company has a strong track record of creating innovations that benefit not only our customers but urban environments across the globe.

Sometimes, the insight to enhance urban environments comes from unexpected places. Our research and development team, for example, observed animals in nature to determine how they withstand cold and prevent ice from forming in their bodies. That insight led to Ecosel AsphaltProtection, a fully biodegradable additive for deicing brine. It works by slowing the freezing process, resulting in soft, slushy ice, rather than hard, abrasive ice.

There are many opportunities for businesses to develop commercially viable and sustainable product offerings that could make our cities more enjoyable, liveable and resilient. The key to success lies in the business model and in making the right connections: engaging effectively across the whole value chain and working in an open way open way with external stakeholders such as city councils, urban planners, NGOs, businesses and universities.

Companies can play an important role in safeguarding the future health of our cities. The world is changing and businesses must change with it to provide innovative products that make the world a better place.

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