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Innovation for Sustainability: Beyond Idea Generation

Published onJun 21, 2023
Innovation for Sustainability: Beyond Idea Generation
Fatima Khitous1,*
1 Department of Marketing, Management and International Business. Oulu Business School. University of Oulu. Finland
* [email protected]

Extended abstract


Sustainability is a wicked problem (Rittel & Webber, 1973) as it is shaped by many actors with sometimes conflicting goals and values. These actors include those who are in the present moment in addition to “future generations” as sustainability is about “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” (United Nations, 1987). Therefore, transitioning to sustainability should encompass a futuristic perspective with a long-term vision.

To date, the United Nations, governments, companies and NGOs have proposed various initiatives to embrace sustainability. However, most of these initiatives fail to uptake due to the lack of actors’ engagement. Zooming in, one could realize that – to some exceptions – most of these initiatives are designed from a one actor perspective (e.g., government, city, company) thereby overlooking other actors’ needs, goals and values along with the potential conflicts they underpin. Furthermore, most actors are motivated by short term goals while sustainability is about long-term planning and gains. For instance, companies are motivated by the short-term profit, and so are the leaders of countries elected for relatively short-term mandates. Even students at universities are motivated through grades gained in short term courses. There is a need to imagine future alternatives (Gumusay & Reinecke, 2022; Sharma et al. 2022) while embracing system thinking (Fehrer & Wieland, 2021; Verganti et al., 2021) and long-term vision. In this vein, this paper will focus on the role of university students in addressing the wicked problem of sustainability, by addressing the following research questions: How can students engage in solving the wicked problem of “sustainability”?

To answer this question, this study builds on the case study approach (Eisenhardt et al., 2016) and the process ontology (Langley et la., 2013). This methodological approach is suitable given the novelty and complexity of the topic (Eisenhardt et al., 2016; Gehman et al., 2017). The data are collected during the spring 2023, based on a Master level course at a Nordic Business School.

The analysis is expected to further enrich the actors’ engagement literature, the sustainability literature, and the design thinking literature.

Literature analysis

Sustainability is about “sustaining the possibility that human and other life will flourish on this planet for generations to come” (Ehrenfeld, 2019). Sustainability depends on the work of various actors with different values, interests, and sometimes conflicting goals. These actors are also in different geographical and timing locations. Hence, sustainability is a wicked problem, defined as “a class of social system problems which are ill formulated, where the information is confusing, where there are many clients and decision makers with conflicting values, and where the ramifications in the whole system are thoroughly confusing.” (Churchman, 1967, p. B142). Addressing sustainability is a continuous learning process (Brønn & Brønn, 2018) where actors interact and exchange resources with the aim to reach a less unsustainable state. According to the Service Dominant Logic (SDL), these actors will aim to cocreate value for themselves and for other actors in the system (Vargo and Lusch, 2008; 2016). Creating this value guarantees their own engagement in the sustainability transition process but also the engagement of all other actors they need to involve.

Actors’ engagement is defined as “a dynamic and iterative process that reflects actors' dispositions to invest resources in interactions with other connected actors in a service ecosystem” (Brodie et al., 2019, p. 183). Thus, actor engagement is a multidimensional concept affected by the interplay of actors' connections and dispositions. Engagement could appear through two dimensions, the behavioral and emotional dimensions (Brodie et al., 2019). Once actors are engaged, they contribute with various resources (Storbacka, 2019). However, for the engagement to occur, there is a need for platforms, as they facilitate and orchestrate connections among multiple actors in the service ecosystem (Storbacka et al., 2016). The engagement platforms could be physical or virtual wherein actors’ engagement occurs through shared practices (Lim et al., 2022).

Sustainability initiatives may emerge within the organization, or throughout collaborative projects with third parties. These projects provide an interesting example of an engagement platform as various actors meet, interact, and share resources with the ambition to cocreate value. However, many collaborative projects fail to create value because they fail to engage actors during the cocreation process. Therefore, this paper will address the following questions: How can students engage in solving the wicked problem of “sustainability”?


This study relies on the qualitative approach of multiple case study (Eisenhardt et al., 2016; Gehman et al., 2017). The case study revolves on a Master level course focused on the transition to sustainability based on the approach of design thinking. First, six Master students selected the course service design as an optional course offered to Marketing students. Second, these students underwent an intensive training on design thinking (Michelli et al., 2018) for one week. Following, they were presented with the wicked problem of sustainable fashion and asked to develop an innovative concept and its business model. To shed light on the turning points shaping the design thinking innovation process, the study applies the process ontology (Langley et al., 2013). The processual view is further relevant for the sake of this study as it allows to address the value cocreation from a systemic perspective (Kohtamaki & Rajala; 2016). The project spans over 8 weeks, during which the following data are collected:


Time (estimated)

Learning diaries

25 (5 per student, submitted on week 0, week 2, week 4, week 6, week 8)

Interviews with students

8 hours (week 5, week 7)

Cocreation workshops

8 hours (week 3, week 6)

Public presentations

3 hours (week 4, week 8)

Secondary data (various materials produced by students)

All over the course

Final reports

2 (week 8)

The learning diaries have been the main source to understand the progress of the students throughout the whole project. Additionally, interviews with students have been conducted with the aim to closely follow their progress. These interviews provide an opportunity for the students to reflect on the rehearsal process and the innovation outcome. The interviews are also aimed to share and check the researcher’s interpretations of the data, thereby improving the trustworthiness of the researcher’s conclusions (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). The interviews will also allow the researcher to check his emergent model and theorize via participant checks (Lincoln & Guba, 1985). To ensure that students engage in cocreation with key actors (e.g., consumers, fast fashion brands, fashion designers, fashion journalists, sustainable fashion brands), the researcher teaching the course required students to contact these players (stores visits, interviews, surveys). Furthermore, the researcher organized a cocreation workshop where key actors participated (Figure 1).

Figure 1: workshop aimed at steering cocreation between students and systemic actors

These data have been collected during the period March 2023 to May 2023. All the audio materials will be transcribed verbatim (Yin, 2017), added to secondary data, observation notes and fields notes used all together to ensure triangulation (Eisenhardt et al., 2016).

The data analysis will progress along the data collection process. Following an abductive approach (Dubois & Gadde, 2023), the researcher will iterate between empirical analyses and literature reviews to identify the key themes and concepts.

Initial results

The initial aim of this research project was a cocreation initiative where companies provide a sustainability challenge that students would address. However, due to some difficulties to engage companies, the researcher decided to alter the cocreation initiative so that the students will still lead the cocreation initiative aimed at addressing the wicked problem of sustainability in its real context.

The primary results show how the mental models of students could impact their engagement into the cocreation initiative.

The final results are expected to bring about new theoretical insights on innovative ideas generations to address the wicked problem of sustainability. Therefore, this study contributes to the actors’ engagement literature, sustainability literature, and design thinking literature.


sustainability, wicked problems, actors’ engagement, mental models, design thinking.


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