Sprints, Thinkathons and Hackathons: Getting creative on sustainability

Everyone wants to be more creative and get good ideas and we'll certainly need this for our looming ecological and climate crisis; but how do you practically do this? This blog unpacks lesson's learnt from recent sustainability-led creative events.

Sprints, Thinkathons and Hackathons: Getting creative on sustainability

The last months have been a whirlwind of creative activity on sustainability. In reverse order, in Spring I was facilitating edie’s Energy Leaders Design Sprint using design thinking techniques to ask corporate energy managers ‘how to unlock innovation in your business’ (the session summary is here).

Rewind to mid-Feb and I was co-designing and co-facilitating the London Plastic Hackathon, a one-day event aimed to create Reuse and Refill innovations (an under-served strategy in my opinion) that could be brought to market quickly to tackle plastic packaging waste. A summary of the day is here whilst the winning Hackathon idea – Mindful Mini’s, a concept to tackle waste created from personal care travel samples, where circa 5,000 tons are thrown away each year at airport security – is one of three Hackathon ideas under consideration for a leading cleantech accelerator program.

Just before that, I led the mysteriously titled Plastic Thinkathon workshops at edie’s Sustainability Leader Forum 2019. This aimed to give ‘the sustainability community an opportunity to spark new ideas and actions that will help businesses collectively solve the problem of plastics pollution’, delivered through two 2.5 hour sessions on innovation and behaviour change respectively. Sarah George’s write-ups explain the process and ideas from the ‘Innovation’ session – where the ‘Lazy Lunch’ and ‘Time to Eat; Time to Meet’ concepts are well worth a look!

Late last year, it was the UK Green Building Council’s Sustainable Innovation Sprint keeping me busy, looking to generate ideas and concepts around four Built Environment Challenges. The best of these was then posted on the UK-GBC’s Innovation Portal, and voted-for by the Industry, to win the chance to pitch the idea for investment and scale-up.

It’s not hard to see an overlap in these creative sessions and this blog unpacks two areas of common ground in these separately organised events.

Finding Space for Good Ideas

One striking feature of the above was that all had a primary focus on ’ideas’; getting participants to generate and develop a new business or product-service concept around specific sustainability challenges. I’ve always been surprised how little we value ideas and creativity in the sustainability world, given the mountainous challenges we face. In all the discussions about business models, collaboration, systems thinking, and other on-trend concepts, we can lose sight of the fact that behind most sustainable solutions there lies a really good idea.

As a result, we’re not very systematic or disciplined about getting good ideas. Yet mainstream innovators, marketers or designers often spend an age and a fortunate on structured idea generation tools and techniques; so why not on sustainability too? To help with systematic idea generation, we developed a set of Innovation Cards for the Plastic Hackathon, featuring fourteen Reuse and Refill models that participants used as creative triggers to get better ideas.

This can be liberating and empowering, helping reframe challenges and change the conversation on sustainability: “It was an interesting creative process and I liked that there was a real feeling of optimism in the room,” said John Lewis Partnership’s senior corporate responsibility manager Zoe Brady at edie’s Thinkathon. “While we talked about challenges, we deliberately didn’t get stuck on the barriers, which was very refreshing.”

Getting great sustainability-driven ideas takes discipline and structure blended with a good dose of bravery and playfulness too.

Opening-up to get creative

A second commonality is that all these events draw heavily on Open Innovation: a concept first coined by Henry Chesbrough some 20 years ago, in which ‘people share ideas and work together through open and transparent networks for commercial or social purposes’. The benefits of collaboration are widely understood in sustainability and Open Innovation is its creative cousin. This form of co-creation and co-design helps to dramatically widen the opportunity space.

edie’s Innovation Thinkathon worked by having the full packaged goods value chain present; with brands, waste handlers, retail and hospitality players all bringing insight, in-depth know-how and ideas. The UK-GBC Sprint invited a mix of student, young innovators and entrepreneurs, and corporate players to tackle their sustainability challenges head-on. It is critical to cast your participant net wide, bringing-in fresh minds and unusual suspects to trigger out-of-the-ordinary conversations, to stand any chance of something new emerging.

Next up in August I’ll be helping out with the UK-GBC’s Community Engagement Sprint and it will be interesting to build on the learnings.

To some, these kinds of fun, high-energy, creative events can sound frivolous, a distracting folly from the real, tough business of saving the planet profitably. Yet the UK creative economy is worth almost £100bn, and we are world-class at it too. Your next big idea thing might just come from getting creative on sustainability.

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