Innovation leaders today are looking to make their businesses more environmentally sustainable and trying to replace existing products with new, innovative carbon-neutral offerings. But available technologies such as cloud computing or energy consumption monitoring only marginally support sustainability efforts in traditional IT. Looking at manufacturers, fully recyclable materials are not only scarce but also limited in use due to their specific chemical and physical compositions. Recycling these materials is expensive because the materials currently available weren’t designed to be recycled.

So what can R&D units and innovation leaders do to not only drive innovation around sustainable products but also make the innovation process more environmentally friendly, as well? Below, I have summarized some of the key first steps you can take in this regard.

  • Move sustainability efforts beyond IT carbon neutrality. As sustainability isn’t limited to reducing the corporate carbon footprint but to anything that is harming the planet, company leaders must look at their whole value chain to identify those externalities. The Forrester Technology Sustainability Framework provides a comprehensive tool to discover, structure, and tackle environmental side effects of doing business with a focus on information technology but not limited to IT.
  • Understand that setting up an R&D lab requires appropriate experience and huge funds. Setting up your own technology or material research lab requires huge financial investments and hiring and retaining scarce talent. As experimentation timelines are long and the probability of promising results is hard to predict, there is a significant failure risk that not many enterprises are able to afford — which is why there is much slower progress in materials research and development compared to digital innovations and inventions that don’t require tangible hardware.
  • Replace experimentation with simulation to increase sustainability scores. Simulation is faster, less energy-intensive, and safer than experimentation. Global consumer packaged goods giant Reckitt, as an example, has adopted molecular modeling software for sustainability innovation initiatives and expedited its R&D timelines by 10 times compared to its traditional, purely experimental approach. Procter & Gamble simulates the properties of carbon-free, water-soluble packaging materials before piloting them in reality, leading to significantly faster results than with physical experimentation.
  • Leveraging research as a service (RaaS) is an option to kick-start simulation, too. Eonix, a company focusing on novel energy storage materials, leverages RaaS to identify compounds that improve energy density and the charging rate of lithium-ion batteries for grid storage, electric vehicles, and other applications. US-based software company Schrödinger provides the research service based on its computational platform and develops physics-based machine-learning models. These models enable screening of hundreds of thousands of chemical candidates for the desired properties without conducting a single experiment.

Enterprises that are serious about saving the planet while staying in and growing their business should consider “research as a service” beyond working toward reducing their IT operations’ carbon footprint. Sustainable materials and unharmful manufacturing operations are urgently needed for our planet!