Standardization and Experimentation Both Needed for Innovation

My colleagues and I have been grappling with what seems to be a persistent conundrum in the sustainability community: that standardization is both a rallying cry of industry and a warning cry of sustainability advocates. Can standardization (via consistent metrics, reporting structures, etc.) help to drive innovation in the long run, or does it instead reinforce the status quo, thwart innovation, and result in higher orders of “sufficiency”?

This is perhaps a false dichotomy, however, as it’s not clear that standardization and innovation are truly at odds with each other. Why should we have to choose between our need to standardize processes versus the desire for continued creativity and experimentation? Ultimately we need both for greater innovation and more sustainable practices.

It is not only PR or marketing departments that want greater consensus and alignment about which sustainability issues are important to prioritize and which are more tangential or well-intentioned “eco-noise.” The ever-present challenge of limited resources (time, attention, human, financial, etc.) with which to explore emerging sustainability issues naturally leads companies to seek standardization to ensure that such exploration is profitable.

But in the eagerness to drive sustainability into something that is more predictable, manageable, and efficient, we must realize that we are just stepping onto the learning curve, not cresting the apex of it. Otherwise the impulse to standardize terminology, conceptual frameworks, what’s important to measure, how it gets measured, and progress assessments may well create another dangerous form of inertia called “sufficiency.” If we drive everything too much toward standardization, sufficiency may move us towards the lowest common denominator—and lose the unpredictable innovation that has defined the sustainability movement.

Like forms of democracy, the human energy, creativity, and experimentation necessary for us to evolve our understanding and practice of sustainability is going to be long, messy, and non-linear. To truly balance the “planet, person, prosperity” equation will require patience, humility, and different measures of progress than we are accustomed to using.

Despite the debate of consistency versus creativity, the truth is sustainability has relied on both standardization and innovation as changes to the status quo often follow the rhythm of divergence and convergence. Pragmatism, caution, predictability, and efficiency favor the forces of convergence (standardization). Creativity, disruptive thinking, risk-taking, and experimentation favor the forces of divergence (experimentation). It is this necessary form of co-dependency that leads to innovation of all sorts. So while one side laments the glacial pace of consistency and the other laments the messiness of the process, we must remember that standardization encourages experimentation, and vice versa, which leads us, unpredictably, to new forms of innovation.

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