Sustainable Business Model Innovation: Design Guidelines for Integrating Systems Thinking Principles into Sustainability Assessment Tools in the Early Stages (2023)

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Cleaner Production Magazine

Available online December 28, 2022

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This document develops guidelines for incorporating systems thinking principles into sustainability assessment tools for use in the early stages of sustainable business model (SBM) innovation. Describing the sustainability of business model innovations is often done without robust assessments and without considering the broader system in which they are embedded. In particular, the lack of quantitative data, time and skills at the start of the innovation process poses a problem. To overcome this, methods can be employed that indicate future impacts and principles of use consistent with consistent principles of life cycle assessment and risk modeling. system integration. . This article presents the principles of systems thinking, illustrates its role in the context of innovation in EDA, and discusses its integration into three selected early sustainability assessment tools. Design guidelines are proposed to effectively integrate these principles into tools for sustainability assessment at the initial stage of EDA. The article shows how incorporating systems thinking into SBM innovation process tools can reduce unintended consequences and negative trade-offs and better understand the sustainability of the initiative.


The concept of Sustainable Business Models (SBM) has received extensive attention in both research and practice, with significant public funding contributing to the development of various SBM programs in recent years. SBMs are generally seen as a way to generate income, reduce the overall environmental impact of a business or service, and/or increase its social benefits (Kaplan, 2012; Løkke et al., 2020; Lüdeke-Freund et al., 2018; Schaltegger et al., 2016). Despite this fundamental goal of moving the company towards greater social and environmental sustainability, one of the main challenges associated with SBM innovations remains to assess their impact.

Proposals that focus on integrating and evaluating economic, social, and environmental sustainability in EDA are relatively few, and Bocken et al. (2016) to confirm this."It is currently unknown what potential positive (or negative) impact these new business models could have."(p. 4). A crucial element in assessing the sustainability of new business models is recognizing the interconnectedness of business activities within the organization, while recognizing that a business model is connected to and influenced by other initiatives within a larger system ( Boons and Bocken, 2018). ; Bocken et al., 2019). A systems perspective and system understanding are considered extremely important when innovating for sustainable business models (Løkke et al., 2020; Mortensen and Kørnøv, 2019). This is due to the intertwining of social problems:“If we look at the state of the world today, what is particularly striking is that the major issues of our time – energy, environment, climate change, food security, financial security – cannot be viewed in isolation. They are systemic problems, which means that they are all interconnected and interdependent.”(Capra y Luisi, 2014, p. 362).

The term "systems thinking" describes a holistic approach to individual business initiatives, in which they are analyzed based on their systemic (internal and external) effects on a company. If systemic effects beyond corporate boundaries are not accounted for, SBMs can be assessed without regard to dependencies that exist within increasingly complex value chains, which can lead to inconspicuous sustainability assessments and, often limited. If the stakeholders involved in business model development do not critically assess the broader potential positive and negative contributions to sustainability, a business model can lead to unwanted trade-offs and be misperceived as sustainable. In some cases, limited sustainability assessments can even lead to greenwashing."[...] misleading communication about activities or environmental performance"(Bowen and Aragón-Correa, 2014, p. 107).

Systems thinking and its principles are widely applied in sustainability management research (Williams et al., 2017) and are particularly recognized for explaining the importance of contextual boundaries of AED innovations (Shakeel et al., 2020). .

The application of systems thinking theory to business model innovation can be explored in a number of ways: brainstorming techniques are based on simple models, while more complex applications involve building formal models, complex diagrams, and statistical knowledge (Alter, 2011). However, researchers such as Alter (2011) call for new and simple tools for sustainable business model innovation (SBMI) based on systems thinking, that is, tools that are accessible to practitioners and thus can help guarantee a systemic vision of the SBMs and their associated sustainability. This is particularly important in the early stages of SBM innovation, where the details of possible solutions are not decided. However, research on SBM innovation is scarce when it comes to providing direct tools that integrate systems thinking into their design.

Bhatnagar et al. (2022) highlights, but at the same time argues, the systems perspective as a central principle for the design of ODA sustainability assessment tools."Most of the methods and tools still go to the boundaries of the organization"and that should be future research"investigate how to take interorganizational or social boundaries into account"(Pieroni et al., 2019, S. 210).

To fill this research and indication gap, this study examines selected tools for SBM innovation. It explores how the principles of systems thinking can be used in the creation of tools for innovation in BM and provides guidelines for future easy-to-use sustainability assessment tools.

The study is based on the following research question:What guidelines should be followed when incorporating systems thinking in the design of tools for early-stage EDA innovation?

To this end, it examines how sustainability assessment tools should stimulate systems thinking and what lessons can be learned from their inclusion in the early stages of innovation in EDA.

Therefore, this article starts from the theory of systems thinking and combines it with an analysis of practical operationalizations as suggested by Alter (2011). Systems thinking theory is historically based on a structural-functionalist ontology, which is sometimes criticized for its intrinsic lack of change orientation (Geels, 2010). By providing guidelines for integrating systems thinking principles into SBMI's initial sustainability assessment tools, we intend to operationalize the abstract principles of systems thinking and show how they can facilitate change.

The results show that systems thinking can help to assess the sustainability of SBMs in the early phases of the innovation process. The review highlights that this can be possible by designing appropriate tools, and eight design guidelines are recommended: (1) define scope, (2) design for collaboration, (3) incorporate the principle of "connections", ( 4) ) Integrate the principle of "causal relationships and feedback loops", (5) Integrate the principle of "change and adapt the system", (6) Consider the dimensions of sustainability, (7) Ensure the flexibility of integration and (8) Ensure compatibility with other assessment tools.

The article is structured as follows. In section 2, the state of the art presents three core principles of systems thinking and develops existing systemic perspectives on EDA management and research. Section 3 describes the methodology. Section 4 first presents the implementation of ST principles in STEMI practice and the analysis of selected tools. Guidelines for integrating ST principles into early-stage sustainability assessment for AED innovations are discussed below. Section 5 contains final comments and suggestions for future avenues of research.

excerpts section

Systems thinking: theoretical starting point

Systems thinking (ST) is both a paradigm and a learning method (Senge, 1990) seen as a means of providing knowledge about systems that goes beyond basic modeling and includes elements of system dynamics (Senge, 1990; Richmond, 1994). or as a subset and "door opener" for the discipline of system dynamics (eg Forrester, 2010).

Systems thinking definitions tend to repeat certain elements (Arnold & Wade, 2015), including 1) interconnectedness and interrelationships


The three basic principles of the systems thinking concept described in the prior art (section 2) formed the basis for the analysis. Coward. 1 visualizes the application of ST principles in further analysis and the connection between the relevant sections of this article. The study on which this article is based consists of the following phases: 1) development of the state of the art, which feeds the subsequent phase 2) execution of the analysis and phase 3) results.


Translate the principles of systems thinking into elements for the evaluation of sustainability SBMI

"Some [systems thinking advocates] may dream of a society competent in computer modeling of complex systems."(Plate and Monroe, 2014, p. 3), but compared to the intensive practice of system dynamics carried out by"privileged and few", systems thinking can build"Ability to generate systemic insights"for a greater number of people (Richmond, 1994). ST can be seen as a subset of critical thinking skills, such as:Synergistic analytical skills used to enhance the ability


This article began with a fundamental challenge for practitioners involved in sustainable business model (SBM) innovation: ensuring that changes in a business activity lead to positive change in the sustainability of the overall system, and having easy-to-use tools. available at an early stage. innovation processes that allow their systematic consideration.

Translating the principles of systemic thinking into elements that can be identified within the innovation process for sustainable business models allowed us to differentiate ourselves

Contribution statement written by CRediT

Leonie Schuetter:Conception, methodology, validation, formal analysis, research, writing - original draft, writing - review and editing, visualization, supervision, project management.Cornflower solitaire:Conception, methodology, writing - original draft, supervision.Lucia Mortensen:Conception, methodology, writing - original draft.Soren Lökke:Conception, methodology, writing - original draft.Kasper Storr:Conceptualization, Writing - Correction and Edition.Ivar

Conflict of Interest Statement

The authors declare that they have no competing financial interests or known personal relationships that might influence the work described in this article.


The idea and content of the survey were inspired by participation in the "Sustainable Synergies" project, funded by the EU and operated by the AAU. The project was funded bythe National Operational Program for the European Regional Development Fund, 2014-2020. We would also like to thank the Port of Aalborg for co-financing so muchIS aid projectand the doctoral project to which this article belongs. Thanks to Anton Malmkjær Møller for his contribution to graphic design.


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