Our quest: How might we innovate towards a sustainable business model?

As humanity, we’re facing some intensely wicked challenges that we’ll have to successfully address well within the next century, many of which preferably within the next decade. As more and more people and (business) organizations around the world are waking up to this reality, they are realizing it is necessary to go beyond quick fixes and start pulling their honest weight in the sustainability transition.

As such, the big emerging questions are: HOW? How do we know what really is sustainable? How do we make sense of all the interconnectivity and complexity? How do we know what to focus on? How do we plan and take action? How do we stay competitive while supporting collaboration? How do we eliminate our negative impact? How do we catalyze our positive impact? How do we contribute to a thriving, flourishing and regenerative society within the boundaries of our planet?

Where did it all begin?

During my Master in Strategic Leadership towards Sustainability at the Blekinge Institute of Technology in Sweden, this is the question I started my thesis research with: How do we innovate towards a sustainable business model? After months of research we concluded that, the answer is in the question. 

By diving into the Lean Startup Methodology and other new business development, innovation, and design thinking tools and comparing them with the Framework for Strategic Sustainable Development, also known as The Natural Step Framework, we came to the conclusion that there is a huge gap in the new business development system. There is no clear definition of what sustainability is, what it means for business, and no clear strategy towards systemic success.

You might have noticed I’m writing with “we”. During the thesis period “we” refered to my thesis partner Anna Bagrianski and myself, Thomas van der Molen. Later, during the development of the Sustainable Start Business Model Canvas and Methodology “we” refers to the team behind Sustainable Start, Elissa Cardoso and myself, complimented with the brilliant critical minds of many along the way.

Seen the rapidly changing context and fast increasing pressures of socio-ecological sustainability challenges, today’s (new) business ventures have to learn how to be successful with sustainability integrated throughout their value propositions and business models. Unfortunately, the degree to which today’s popular startup tools and incubation/acceleration programs are integrating sustainability, is far from desirable.

In a nutshell, we found that Eric Ries and the Lean Startup Methodology do a fine job in supporting entrepreneurs and intrapreneurs to test and validate their assumptions and hypotheses using the prototyping loop of Build, Measure, Learn. Throughout, it refers to several systems thinking principles on a (social) level, such as including everyone’s voice in decision-making processes, the focus on iterative cycles and continues learning, the aim to satisfy real customer needs, and the drive to save wasting time, money, and resources. Yet it doesn’t really give any guidelines on how to do all that within principles for a sustainable society.

In a sense, the Lean Startup Methodology in itself does not contribute to sustainable development, nor does it necessarily hinder it. It all depends on the mindset from which we make assumptions decide which ones to properly test and validate, and the sources we use to gather insights to inform  and confirm our assumptions. After all, there are many things we might think to know for sure that turn out to be different when tested. The facts you learn, as well as the opinions you get on any topic, will highly depend on what sources you use and whom you ask.

To map and capture the assumptions about a business model, we then dove deeper into the Business Model Canvas (BMC) developed by Alex Osterwalder and Yves Pigneur. Despite the extensive research that went into the creation of the canvas and it’s immense popularity around the globe, we came to the conclusion that the 9 building blocks of the Business Model Canvas and the corresponding trigger questions are simply not sufficient to design and build a sustainable business model.

The BMC claims to give a systemic representation of how any business creates and delivers value. And I agree with that to a certain degree. The big problem with the “conventional” and now very popular BMC is, that it does not include environmental and social costs and benefits, and prioritizes only one bottom line: financial profit. And as we know, “conventional business” and “business as usual” simply don’t cut it anymore in the 21st century, if in fact it ever did. It’s time for a change. But how? 

As I said before, we found that asking the right questions allows the right mindset and corresponding answers to surface in our collective intelligence, allowing in turn for collective creativity to emerge and for succesful collective action. As such, we decided the biggest leverage point to intervene in the business modeling system was to help people design and build from an intrinsically motivated mindset towards sustainability.

We developed a set of so-called “Strategic Sustainable Trigger Questions” (SSTQ’s) to integrate a systems thinking perspective and shift the design mindset towards sustainability by using simple principles and concepts embedded throughout each building block of a business model.

We connected the “Theory of Human Needs” by Manfred Max-Neef with the Customer Segment and Value Proposition blocks, connected Principles for Social Sustainability from the FSSD and elements that have proved to support adaptive capacity and resilience to the Channels, Relationships, and Key Partner building blocks, Ecological Principles for Sustainability and circular economy to the Activities and Resources blocks, and Strategic Guidelines to Costs and Revenues building blocks.

How might I bring this new approach to the world?

Shortly after finishing my master’s degree I moved to Rio de Janeiro, where I started to transform the results of the thesis research into a practically useful tool. A lot of time and conversations went into refining the SSTQs, connecting them with the appropriate canvas building blocks, shaping the participatory process elements of the methodology, and hosting several initial workshops to gather feedback and insights.

Overall, we learned that our approach of integrating sustainability concepts and simple systems thinking principles by asking provocative trigger questions was a fun and effective way to engage people into rethinking their business model through a future-oriented mindset. It did however soon become clear that we needed a more visual representation to better show the change in the business modelling process and mindset we envisioned: our own business model canvas design template.

To be honest, during the thesis research period we had initially already played with different designs and ideas for an alternative, in our eyes more appropriate (systemic) canvas, yet had consciously chosen not to do so and focus on complementing the existing BMC with better questions. Many “improved” and altered versions of the BMC exist already, yet by now we believe to have succeeded in making the first design that clearly illustrates the transformative business modelling journey we invite you to endeavour with us.

The most important building block(s) of the “Sustainable Start Business Model Canvas” (SSBMC) is, in essence, the unique value proposition. And I hear you say: how is that different? Rather than just talking about a value proposition sec, the SSBMC has a Triple Value Proposition at its core:

  • Your Human Value Proposition for your direct beneficiaries and customers,
  • Your Social Value Proposition for your overall contribution to a healthy and resilient society, and
  • Your Ecological Value Proposition for your added value to the natural systems you interact with.
We believe that any organization is, in essence, a group of people, organized around a shared sense of purpose to satisfy one or more needs for other humans, society at large, and/or the environment. 

Where we are now? Where are we going?

I’ve moved back to my hometown Amsterdam mid 2018, and it has been a time of tumultuous transitioning since. Changing country, context, and culture. 

While growing and expanding my local network I’ve been giving presentations and hosting workshop with the SSBMC and the SSTQs about once a month, some shorter, some longer. Amongst other things, I traveled to Paris for a workshop the innovation community at Orange telecom , held a workshop at the Impact Hub in Amsterdam where we worked on four real startup projects, applied the methodology to existing corporates with the GreenBuzz sustainability professional network, and provided several workshops for the trainees from the Digital Society School / Amsterdam University of Appplied Sciences. It’s been great so far and we’ve continuously been learning and developing. Making things simpler, designing more clear templates to support the different steps of our innovation process. All together, we’ve come to call this the “Sustainable Start Canvas Methodology”.

Now, it’s time to start sharing more. With you, those people that might benefit from the SSBMC, the SSTQs, the Sustainable Methodology, and the concepts, principles, and frameworks it is grounded in. You might want to use it to start your company sustainable from the beginning or redesign and innovate your existing business model and start building towards a fully sustainable business model. Either way is fine, as long as it moves in the right direction us as a whole.

As a consulting and training business of ourselves, the goal is additionally to gather feedback in a more structured way. Basically, we’re looking to learn from your reflections, constructive criticism, critical questions, innovate ideas, engaging experiences, and real-life examples!

About the author 

Thomas van der Molen

Systems thinker specializing in strategic sustainability, business model innovation, multi-stakeholder process facilitation and (inter-)personal leadership development. MSc in Strategic Leadership towards Sustainability, a BSc in International Business.


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