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Innovation for sustainability

As an MIT Sloan doctoral student, Jason Jay was responsible for advancing the burgeoning sustainability movement on campus. Today, as a senior lecturer in sustainability and director of the Sustainability Initiative at MIT Sloan, he’s ready to bring discipline to the process of sustainability-driven innovation.

“As more and more companies search for ways to integrate social and environmental goals with economic ones, there needs to be a framework to help define sustainability-oriented innovation and entrepreneurship,” says Jay, who earned a PhD at MIT Sloan in 2010.

“I realized a few years ago that we needed to start working on innovation for sustainability … if you want every startup coming out of MIT to at least consider its broader impact, then you have to make that easy for people to do,” Jay says. “You also have to hone in on ways that sustainability aligns with creating a profitable line of business.”

As a starting point, he has embarked on a research project to explore the development of a center of excellence in innovation for sustainability. He is also looking into ways to facilitate investments in sustainability innovation.

“MIT, with its capacity for innovation and the launch of the innovation initiative this past fall, is the most logical place to do this work,” Jay says. “What we’ve learned is that the new enterprises and the corporate innovations that come out of MIT are the biggest multipliers of impact.”

Aerospace company Lockheed Martin is sponsoring the research on sustainability-driven innovation.

“Lockheed wants to understand how they can use sustainability as a driver of innovation for their own company,” Jay says. “How can they look at the technologies they have developed in defense and figure out pathways to commercialization that will have a meaningful impact on environmental and socio-economic sustainability?” The company is also interested in promoting sustainability-oriented innovation more widely in the countries where they do business.

Perhaps, Jay says, this research can offer tools that help the company progress in those areas. The project could offer clear steps to developing a sustainable startup, much like Disciplined Entrepreneurship: 24 Steps to a Successful Startup, the recent book by Bill Aulet, managing director of the Martin Trust Center for MIT Entrepreneurship.

“There are sustainability questions that you want to ask [in creating a business] to make sure you are creating value for the enterprise through the avenue of environmental and social impact,” he says. He has a draft “overlay” to Aulet’s 24 steps for sustainability-minded entrepreneurs, which poses those questions.

Answering those questions, however, will require better tools for managers, students, and entrepreneurs.

“The complex interdependencies between business and the economy and the environment can be difficult to evaluate when trying to understand if an innovation will be helpful or harmful in aggregate,” Jay says. The current generation of tools like life-cycle analysis, which considers the full extent of environmental impact based on extensive supply chain data, is far too costly for startups. Those tools also require a level of specificity that is not possible early on in the conceptualization process.

Jay has recruited about 10 students this spring for a special seminar to examine these challenges. Eventually, MIT Sloan may offer an elective course on the topic of sustainability-driven innovation. He would also like to form a consortium of companies that sees sustainability as a driver of innovation.

“It’s partly about understanding where [MIT Sloan] can have the biggest impact in the world, and where we can do something that nobody else can do,” he says.

As part of building the Sustainability Initiative at MIT Sloan, where he has been director since 2010, Jay has traveled the world speaking to alumni and building momentum about the initiative.

The sustainability initiative has been forming alumni groups focused on topics like renewable energy finance and identifying the different ways in which alumni can contribute to sustainability at MIT Sloan. A number of alumni have demonstrated interest in supporting fellowships for entering students with strong interests in sustainability, or in mentoring young leaders in the field of corporate sustainability.

“People are so passionate about what’s possible,” says Jay. “Part of what we’ve had to figure out is how to engage and empower our alumni to lead together.”

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