Sustainable development strategy requires a culture of innovation to be successful.

When world leaders met during the 2012 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development (called RIO+20), they agreed that there is a need for a stronger United Nations Environment Programme. The result of the conference was the creation of the United Nations Environment Assembly or UNEA.

Today, UNEA is the world’s leading body focusing on environmental issues, and it creates and organises various intergovernmental actions regarding the environment. Members of the UNEA meet every two years in Nairobi, Kenya to discuss and create new environmental policies and laws. What the United Nations achieved when they created the UNEA is that the environment now has the same status as other important issues like poverty, peace, national security and health.

The fourth UNEA meeting

Latest Environment Assembly (UNEA-4) was held on 11-15 March, and it gathered many government officials, non-governmental representatives and other prominent individuals. Before this, there were three meetings in June 2014, May 2016 and December 2017.

Each of these meetings had one environmental issue as a central topic. The first meeting focused on the effects of climate change, the second was about the health of people and the environment, and the third was about the ideas of how to achieve a pollution-free planet. This year the attention turns to ideas and solutions to environmental issues and sustainable consumption and production. Furthermore, other relevant topics were issues in the environment caused by poverty, management of natural resources, resource efficiency, waste management and the development of a sustainable business.

Some information released before the start of the meeting suggested that one of the key discussions is going to be how to create an innovation culture that will drive sustainability further.

The ideas shared at UNEA-4 are quite promising, but the decision-makers that support innovation for sustainable development need to realise that they must rely on academic research. Scholars that want to contribute to innovation must reach out to relevant individuals that are included in policy and decision-making.

However, there are some efforts to bridge the gap between academic and policy leaders. The bigger problem might be to find out what exactly is needed to drive innovation. For UNEA representatives, the role of leadership is crucial, but how can it help us achieve sustainability? The leadership role here might be ideal for individuals who are not only interested in these ideas but also someone who can inspire others. While this approach might seem reasonable, experts believe that a charismatic leader might not be able to drive change and innovation in the real world.

UNEA wants us to look at leadership from a different angle – like a set of conditions, that could enable someone to have the awareness, the resources and the tools to act. This kind of leadership would have to challenge how organisations and societies work. Some of these organisations have great managers that could have everything that is needed to drive change.

Each individual has different views on certain situations, determined by our values and cultural predispositions, but this can make us unwilling to change, further slowing down the innovation. Managers that UNEA has in mind should always be ready to look at any given situation from different angles and to be prepared to create common goals.

Experts believe that management theory could show us how to drive the change and how to shape innovation for sustainability within organisations. On the other hand, the organisation is not enough to drive change. We need legal, educational, financial and technological innovations for sustainability. UNEA-4 participants now have to make sure that the work of the Assembly is going to give us an agenda for the future of the environment and society.