How can my research contribute to sustainable innovation?

Posted on: 4 June 2024 by Natacha Wilson (Number of words: 660; Read time: 3 minutes, 18 seconds) in Blog posts

A picture of Natacha Wilson

Natacha Wilson, founder and director of Cambridge Insights, discusses how you can link your research to sustainable innovation and the 3 strategies that will help you get started.

By reading this blog you are already interested in the topic of sustainable innovation and keen to ensure your research is applied and creates a positive impact.  Research funders are keen to provide evidence of research impact outside Academia so your interest will benefit you in more ways than you can imagine. In this blog I will share 3 key strategies that will help you boost your research impact and contribute to sustainable innovation. Before I do this, I want to expand on what is meant by sustainable innovation and how can researchers contribute.

Sustainable innovation is a process where environmental, social and or economic impact are taken into consideration for products, services, technologies, methodologies, processes, new business and organisational models. In other words, it relates to the way we can create/work in a more sustainable way. Under this large umbrella, you can work in eco-innovation which relates to a more efficient use of resources and a green/low-carbon transition, as well as social innovation which aims to improve welfare and wellbeing of individuals and communities. Depending on your field of research, you can tap into different aspects of sustainable innovation. So where do you start?

1. Define your “sustainability compass” and secure funding

As a researcher, you are the heart of your project and for it to function well, you need to have oxygen, in other words the resources/funds to make it work. Most of us are passionate about our research and many of us can see a clear link with a sustainable goal such as health, education or net-zero. In any case, you need to think about the possible applications of your research and see how you can meet the criteria of the funders – you can check their sustainable strategic themes (mostly linked to the sustainable development goals on their website and make closer links between your research, its applications and what funders are looking for.

2. Build your sustainable innovation ecosystem

In research and in life, networks are critical to our growth and survival. Building a fit for purpose network and understanding the ecosystem in which you and your key research partners are operating in, will help you increase your research impact.  You can start by mapping out your ecosystem: add who are you connected to/should be connected to; assess how the information is exchanged between all the actors in the ecosystem; identify the enabling drivers and restricting forces in the system.

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This map will help you create new connections, literally, but also identify new ways to think about your research and its applications for sustainable innovation. It is also a wonderful way to ensure knowledge exchange occurs between you and other members of the ecosystem, such as patient, teachers, industry partners, policy makers… throughout your research, to maximise your impact.  You can be as creative as you wish, and a visual map can really help you make these connections and see who is missing.

3. Lead collaborations in your sustainable innovation ecosystem

Collaborations will help you increase your reach and drive sustainable innovation in your field and relevant applications. Funders are keen on interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary research groups which will require you to increase your communication, leadership and interpersonal skills. You will need to learn from others; understand and respect their needs, perspectives and actions; deal with conflicts in groups; and above all, facilitate collaborative and participatory problem solving. You can learn from mentors and peers, gain access to training on these essential skills and reflect on your practice.

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Where might this lead you? It really depends on your chosen pathway. Many researchers contribute to sustainable innovation as research leaders and academics, whilst others opt for the enterprise route or a switch to another sector, leading innovation in organisations. The choice is yours and remember that your research and contribution is supporting the sustainable goals and helping society at large. The world needs you. 

Further reading

'Report: social sciences are ‘secret sauce’ essential for UK innovation' -

'QS Sustainability Rankings' -

About the author

Natacha Wilson, founder and director of Cambridge Insights, is an experienced development consultant and coach, specialising in leadership and innovation in the context of research. Natacha gained multi-sector experience and worked in the technology and innovation sphere before joining the University of Cambridge. She worked for the Judge Business School and the Centre for Personal and Professional development on a range of leadership programmes, skills development initiatives and impact evaluation.

Natacha designs and delivers development workshops and programmes for Russell Group Universities, government, and research-intensive organisations. Natacha’s research interest focuses on identifying the skills, traits and conditions needed to become a successful leader in research and solve global challenges. She is passionate about supporting researchers on their leadership journey. She is a mentor for the UKRI Future Leaders Fellows Development Network.