When we think about new ideas and products, we think about growth, differentiation and innovation. Based on our sustainability strategy and our pioneering curiosity for enhanced functionality and beautiful style, we drive innovative thinking of our associates and business partners with social and environmental considerations in mind.We are excited to share our conversation with Christy Davis – executive director for Asia P3 Hub – and Ravi Varanasi – our general manager business development sustainability. They discuss combinatorial innovation, multi-sector partnerships and why these approaches are so important to how we design solutions for complex challenges.
Eric Schmidt (executive chairman of Alphabet, former CEO of Google) said in his book “we are entering … a new period of combinatorial innovation.” This happens, he says, when “there is a great availability of different component parts that can be combined or recombined to create new inventions.” What is your definition of combinatorial innovation?
Ravi: The great American actor and environmental activist Robert Redford said “problems become opportunities when the right people come together”, so in a way, he was talking about combinatorial innovation way back. I personally believe that the entire concept of combinatorial innovation exists in organizations in doing day-to-day activities. In other words, we simplify it, it’s called teamwork. But in my opinion, there’s a lot more to discover than to invent, and discovery happens when people actually talk to each other and know what each other is up to, and see if they can help add value to what the other person is doing. So in a way, we all simplify combinatorial innovation and call it teamwork. And that’s my definition of combinatorial innovation.
Christy: I love that, that’s such a great response! You know it’s funny because I confess my perspective about innovation changed in January 2015 when I read an article by John Elkington. At that time, I was thinking a lot about how are we going to create new ways to solve old problems? Everyone said, “we must innovate, we must innovate!”, which frightened me because I’m not particularly an innovative person, and I think about innovation, it’s new ideas, new processes, new products. It’s usually something that has not yet existed previously, right? When I read this article by John Elkington who’s a sustainability expert, it was an essay/article that he wrote in January 2015, and he said, “instead of breakthrough innovation flowing from individual eureka moments or single giant leaps, most important innovations are combinatorial, pulling together existing ideas.” And then he goes on to give the example of the jet engine which combines the compressor with the combustion chamber and the turbine, none of those technologies were new at that time.
And so, to me, that was kind of a lightbulb going off. And as you said Ravi, I love your use of the term “discovery” and how we can add value, what we have to do to one another, so that the sum of the whole is greater than the sum of the parts. So that kind of freed up my mind. So, for me, combinatorial innovation means that each of us is bringing to the table our unique assets. They might be financial, but it’s ideas, technical expertise, knowledge, people, and networks. I think in that discovery process and the desire for everyone to find new ways to tackle old problems, I just think that it’s definitely the way to move forward.
Why do we need to have a look at combinatorial innovation in the context of multi-sector partnership? Is it due to today’s economy?
Ravi: What is relevant today is more ecological economics than just plain simple economics as we knew it. Ecological economics for this entire humanity to last longer, and thrive not just survive, is the intersection of economics, social inclusion and nature in society. And it needs to be built up in our minds that our planet is not a machine but a network of patterns and complexities. It’s a self-regulating living system. So, if we look at this very definition of ecological economics provided by Prof. Fritjof Capra automatically there is multi-sector model involved and therefore automatically there is multi-stakeholder involvement, and the entire economy becomes a network of different components which talk to each other. It’s like the mycelium layer under the forest where a lot of fibers connect the roots to the soil and the microorganisms in it, which then speak to each other to make the forest what it is…a beautiful place to be. And that exactly would be the result of a multi-sector/multi-stakeholder involvement in today’s economy which I believe is moving towards ecological economics more than just plain and simple financial economics.
Christy: Building on that, absolutely, tenets of complexity theory were coming to mind. When you were talking about ecological economics, I’m struck that what you describe are all features revealed in complex adaptive systems. This multi-stakeholder environment in which we live and work is an ecosystem, not a linear system, and as with the natural sciences we must examine and learn to function within the uncertainty in the world, the nonlinearity of the world. This means we prepare to deal with conditions of uncertainty and the unexpected and what happens when the different stakeholders are interacting in intense and intimate ways, in ways that we’ve not experienced before. I think with the complexity of the world comes the complexity of problems, and solving them requires a collective effort of individuals and institutions from all the different sectors – private sector, public sector and the social sector. Bringing government in from the beginning and really including them as a partner, a stakeholder from the very beginning to tackle and co-create new types of solutions. And of course, civil society, society as a whole, community-based organizations, not-for-profits, charitable organizations, foundations, academia have so much to contribute. So, how can we then create systemic change and sustainable solutions that are scalable in the communities that change people’s lives for the better but also make good business sense, have market-driven implications so solutions are sustainable and strengthen economies? Partnering across the sectors in a multi-sector approach means that we share both the risks and the benefits. The risk is shared and is lowered, and opportunities for successful outcomes, however, we are defining those – to pilot and scale, to see a multiplier effect – those are also increased.