This observation fuels discussions on the need to define what is to be regarded as part of the sustainable product innovation (SPI) research domain, and what is not. In order to answer this question it is necessary to focus not only on topics, but also on research methodologies used (case study research, explorative research, descriptive or prescriptive research), case studies analysed, and theories used (such as innovation theory, institutional theory, organisational learning, entrepreneurship, technology management, or design theory).
A recent survey, carried out under the umbrella of a Nordforsk funded project bringing together PhD supervisors in the Nordic countries, has identified over 200 completed PhD research projects that address research questions relevant within the SPI domain. An initial attempt to map and/or visualise past and present Nordic research into sustainable product innovation has lead to a map proposing five dimensions, which together should describe any piece of research within the SPI domain. Each dimension can further be broken down into three or four levels of contributing aspects.
- Research aim. Here, a general distinction can be made into prescriptive and descriptive research. Descriptive research usually takes a level of either explanatory research, thick descriptions of societal phenomena, with or without the ambition of theory extension, which can in turn be through for example modeling or hypothesis testing. In contrast, prescriptive research is considerably more popular and can take many forms. Distinctions can be made in audience (companies of different size, consumers, and policy makers), types of outcome (management tools, policies, creativity tools, evaluation tools, etc.) and ambition level (ranging from incremental improvement, product innovation, function innovation, to system innovation).
- Research method. It is suggested that research in SPI usually depends on either 1) field or case study research, using various techniques such as questionnaires, experiments, interviews and observations, 2) literature research, both on theoretical domains such as organizational theory, institutional theory, actor-network theory, as well as engineering-type literature. 3) action research, which is popular in studying industrial innovation processes in real time, and 4) various types of modeling, including life cycle modeling and various types of economic modeling.
- Level of analysis. Here, four levels can be distinguished, 1) artefactual (components, products), 2) organizational (institutions, industry sectors, companies, departments, individuals such as designers), 3) technological, and 4) societal, focusing on policy, culture and/or public or private actors.
- Object of analysis. Here, a number of objects can be distinguished, including processes (management, technical, etc.), phenomena (such as trends or controversies), infrastructures, actors, but also environmental data, policies or product categories.
- Stage of the product life cycle. Here again, different sub-dimensions can be used to distinguish sublevels, mainly using the life cycle stages of the product itself, or using a developmental focus, distinguishing between fuzzy front analysis, idea and concept generation, detailed design, commercialization, etc.).
In order to exploit to the best of our ability existing and future research, it is meaningful to discuss, among other things, how departmental research evolves, and how researchers have extended and elaborated on each others’ theories and scope. Generally departments evolved from studying disciplinary research questions (be it theories of technical systems, theory of dispositions, environmental impact assessment, product disassembly, environmental technologies, and resource efficiency) to more overarching themes, such as superartefactual environmental problems and augmented product thinking, actor- and user thinking, product stewardship, environmental management of industrial systems, integrated product policies, environmental technology transfer, sustainable consumption and corporate social responsibility.
A related question is to determine how scientific research on the PhD level has been disseminated by successive generations of students that have obtained their PhD degree. To what extent has knowledge and expertise been transferred from research institutes to, and adopted by, industry, government bodies and NGOs, not least by the researchers themselves. Do LCA researchers end up doing LCAs? Do companies that employ people with PhD degrees benefit from trans-disciplinary scientific insights and expertise?
This paper aims to discuss the questions put forward here. The method of analysis is a partial analysis of the extant body of PhD dissertations within the sustainable product innovation field as published in Northern Europe. Focus will be on the Nordic, Dutch and British regions, as research at universities there represents perhaps a unique kind of multidisciplinary, creative school of research, as opposed to a more engineering and quantitative orientation elsewhere in the world. Selected interviews with representatives of this research school that now work academically, industrially, or in policy making, will inform this discussion.
The result will be a reflection on what can be regarded as the scientific research domain covering research supporting sustainable product innovation, including learning from historical developments, towards future research strategies and their industrial application.