If we are to address the world’s social, economic and environmental challenges, we need to draw on our best renewable resource: human innovation. And for this, we need to embrace transformational innovation, make it part of our business culture.

We should create an environment for experimentation and co-creation that supports bold and visionary new ideas. Few can do this alone. We need to increase collaboration between businesses, academia and the public and third sectors. And we must prepare young people to take the lead.

On National Inventor’s Day this year (2 December) we launched a report, the Invention Index. One of its findings was that schooling reduces young people’s propensity for inventiveness. As pupils move through secondary school, they are less likely to consider themselves inventive thinkers. Although more than half (54%) of 12 year olds consider themselves inventive people, under one-third (32%) of 16 year olds think the same.

This is taking us in the wrong direction. We should have invention and innovation on the school curriculum, to liberate the young generation to create a more sustainable future. And we should provide young people with the platforms for their voices to be heard, so they can lead the way to a better future.

An agent of innovation

Information and communications technology (ICT) can help us innovate towards greater sustainability in two key ways. Firstly, by providing technologies that help reduce carbon emissions. The Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) report SMARTer 2020 proves that ICT has a role in driving a sustainable future. It demonstrates how using video conferencing and smart building management can cut the projected 2020 global greenhouse gas emissions by 16.5%. This amounts to $1.9 trillion in gross energy and fuel savings and a reduction of 9.1 gigatonnes of carbon dioxide. This is equivalent to more than seven times the ICT sector’s emissions in the same period.

An example of how innovation in ICT can drive sustainability was recently recognized at the Tech4Good Awards. The BT Ingenious Award 2014 winner was Buffalo Grid, a cashless means of allowing remote mobile-phone users in East Africa and India to solar charge their mobile phones, and pay for the service by text message.

Secondly, ICT allows people to collaborate on innovation projects. Take, for example, the R&D collaboration platform we provide to the Life Sciences industry. It enables all the numerous parties in the pharmaceutical R&D community to bring new medicines to patients more quickly, and in a way that is not only totally secure but complies with Food & Drug Administration regulations.

The right environment

I’d like to share some practical examples of how BT tries to create an innovative environment to support sustainability. We aim to be a force for net good. Our people are inventing products and services that will help customers reduce their carbon footprint by three times our own by 2020.

For example, the field force automation technology we’ve developed has helped one of our UK customers, Northumbrian Water, cut the distance its field engineers drive by 20%. And intelligent building management has helped another customer, Banca Civica, save 25% on its carbon emissions by installing automated energy-saving systems in its offices and branches.

We also try to innovate for sustainability in our own business processes. Our suppliers produce 66% of the CO2 we are responsible for. So we work closely with them to reduce their use of resources and design more energy-efficient products for our customers.

The process has resulted in a new design for our Home Hub wireless router, which uses less material in manufacture and less electricity in life. We made it with spring-out feet so it fits through a standard letterbox, reducing failed deliveries and the wasted fuel and CO2 emission that involves. You can watch the video here

Innovating for a more sustainable future is not something any individual country, organization or business can do on its own – we have to act collectively. And we have to inspire and empower young people to lead the way.

This is important to BT, and it’s why we are a founding partner of Collectively, which celebrates and connects the people, places and cutting-edge ideas that are shaping the future. It offers a global platform to millennials, who are already starting to make life choices that strengthen society and minimize their environmental impact.

Collectively is funded by more than 30 global corporations, including competitors such as Johnson and Johnson and Unilever, PepsiCo and Coca-Cola; and it involves NGOs such as Forum for the Future. Editorially, it is independent – written by young people, for young people. This is a completely innovative model for corporate engagement in social and environmental issues.

The four best things leaders can do to innovate towards sustainability

  1. Give your people the space to think and grow. They need time to read, reflect and share ideas with others.
  2. Make sure that mechanisms exist which allow both organizational and peer recognition for excellence.
  3. Help, guide and empower young people by removing any real or perceived barriers.
  4. Be prepared to take personal risks, because in large and bureaucratic organizations it is often more productive to ask forgiveness than permission.

For more on the four essential ingredients of a successful innovation culture, see the full study.

Author: Emer Timmons is President of BT Global Services, UK

Image: A bus passes a green “Solarbox” to charge his phone in central London October 3, 2014. REUTERS/Luke MacGregor.