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The Key to Sustainable Innovation: Linking Customer Needs with Societal Benefits

A few months ago my TV suddenly showed a broken pixel in the upper left corner. It’s an older model and I am not very well-versed technically, so after a few tries of turning it off and on, disconnecting the power supply and giving it a few smacks, I said to myself: “Well, why not buy a new one, maybe a model that’s a little bit larger too?”

From an ecological and sustainable point of view, this situation is more than unfavorable. According to a study by the German Federal Environment Agency, less than half of the discarded television sets are actually defective. The majority of the analyzed sets were still working or could be repaired with a minimum amount of effort. This is even more severe if you keep in mind that the grey energy, that means the energy required to manufacture, transport and dispose of a television set, is at least two to three times greater than the energy the TV consumes during its entire lifetime, according to a Swiss Information platform on energy and environment. Furthermore, manufacturing electronics is extremely resource and chemical intensive, as Benoit Cushman-Roisin, a professor of engineering sciences at Dartmouth College, outlines: “Typically, the manufacturing process involves using many more times in weight in chemicals than end up in the body of what’s being manufactured.” TVs contain rare-earth metals and possibly also harmful substances such as flame retardants, heavy metals and plasticizers.

As chance would have it, just right after my TV seemed to break, I read the scientific paper “Towards circular business models: Identifying consumer needs based on the jobs-to-be-done theory” from Hankammer and Piller et al. In this paper the authors used Outcome-Driven Innovation® (ODI) to identify underserved needs for TV consumers that want to solve an entertainment interruption, and they demonstrated how the methodology can be used to identify value creation potential for both – consumers and the environment.

The most underserved needs across several segments in this context were:

  • Minimize the likelihood that the cost of repairing an old TV is greater than the cost for a new TV (with an extremely high opportunity score of 14,97!)
  • Minimize the likelihood that costs will be generated purely for troubleshooting – without actual repair (opportunity score 14,64)

I was flattened, because all my considerations and doubts regarding my TV situation were condensed in these two very precise and demarcated outcome statements. The truth was, I did not really want to buy a new television set. It was not a “need” of mine to have a larger TV, it was more of an internal justification to get rid of the bad feeling I had, because I would throw away a device that might still be working or is easy to repair. But I lacked information on who could repair my TV, how much it would cost and whether it could be repaired at all – and I did not want to invest too much time and money into finding these things out.

Scientist Hankammer and his colleagues argue that customer centricity is a key for developing product-service systems (a coordinated mix of tangible products and intangible services), that deliver value for consumers linked with societal and ecological benefits. Consumers will only (or rather) accept a resource-saving and sustainable solution if it comes alongside a benefit. It is the task of the companies to connect the needs of individual consumers (= needs that can be identified with Outcome-Driven Innovation®) with concrete aims regarding sustainably and resource-efficiency (which represent jobs and needs from the perspective of the society).

The ODI study conducted by the scientists revealed that the most underserved needs, when solving an entertainment interruption, were related to stress and effort resulting of a lack of know-how and information. This insight could be a valuable resource for developing new services that facilitate self-repair, such as error detection software, a repair instruction database or a repair community. It could also be used to design a TV in a way that it can be more easily repaired, e.g. through modularity.

As more and more consumers incorporate sustainability aspects in their daily purchasing decisions, companies have to integrate these aspects into their product and service innovations and into their business models in order to stay competitive. Global leading companies are already moving on this path, as Samsung’s comprehensive informational website on sustainable manufacturing and resource efficiency demonstrates. Customer-centric innovation approaches such as Outcome-Driven Innovation® (ODI) will become even more relevant in the future, as it can help in linking individual underserved customer needs with the creation of societal benefits. It’s not only companies that have benefits from being customer-centric, but also the environment and society can gain from a customer-centric vision, from customer-centric products and services and from customer-centric marketing and sales messages.

Would you like to know how my personal entertainment interruption problem has been solved? I went for a two-week holiday, and when I came back my TV just worked flawlessly again. I really felt relieved that I didn’t have to buy a bigger one, and I enjoyed an undisturbed movie evening with my perfectly fitting old TV.

Circular Economy:

Circular Economy
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