Adopting a Life cycle perspective in innovation

The modern sensibility towards sustainability makes a responsible handling of environmental and social issues imperative for any enterprise. Regulations and standards, and even more the public opinion, are extending the accountability to the whole value chain, well beyond the company’s domain (so do for example ISO standards and supply chain regulations ). Environmental management is no longer limited to good plant/site management, social standards are more than complying to local rules. Environmental and social aspects must be integrated in all processes, from supply chain to product development, purchase, marketing.

To make it possible we must adopt a new perspective on our activities, one based on the whole life cycle from cradle to grave (or cradle-to-cradle, in a circular perspective): life cycle thinking. This approach offers one invaluable benefit: the company must understand and model the system around the product.

Often, life-cycle thinking is treated as a typical Operations topic that starts, best case, from direct suppliers and stops at the factory exit gates. 

But the most effective life-cycle, where the innovative potential is highest, begins in the ideation phase and widens the lens from the product itself to the context in which it will be used:

  1. understanding the system where the product will be embedded improves its understanding, with positive effects on product development, marketing, and customer relations;
  2. the focus moves from product to function, and this paves the way for alternative product concepts and disruptive ideas. It open ups the horizon in marketing, helping to disclose new markets, but also to detect early indirect competitors and other threats.
  3. It is the most effective way to develop circular business models, which demand a systemic approach and strong involvement of different actors.

Why is life-cycle thinking not so popular then?

Because it is perceived as difficult and resource-intensive. In many cases life-cycle thinking is understood as Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), which is the most comprehensive implementation of this approach, and indeed difficult and resource-intensive, but not the only one. Life-cycle thinking can start organizing one workshop to raise awareness across the company, and develop gradually to higher complexity and integration in the company processes. It doesn’t have to be a stiff procedure to release new products, much more it should become a “way of thinking”, that can unleash and bundle innovation in different company’s divisions.

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