3.2 Paradigms and Mind-Sets

Learning Objectives

  1. Explain how paradigms and innovation affect our perception of the possibilities for sustainable business.
  2. Understand why new ideas, often introduced through innovative thinking and action, can meet with initial resistance.

The early decades of the twenty-first century will mark a transition period in which conventional economic models that assume infinite capacities of natural systems to provide resources and absorb waste no longer adequately reflect the reality of growth and its related environmental and health challenges. Providing material goods and creating prosperous communities for expanding populations in ways that are compatible with healthy communities and ecosystems are the core challenges of this century.

Not surprisingly, entrepreneurial innovators are stepping up to provide alternatives better aligned with the constraints of population growth, material demand, and limited resources. This activity is consistent with the role of society’s entrepreneurs. They are the societal subgroup that recognizes new needs and offers creative solutions in the marketplace. However, innovators and their new ways are often misunderstood and rejected, at least initially. Understanding the challenges facing the sustainability entrepreneurs who produce new products and technologies is enhanced by understanding how a paradigmA well-accepted thought pattern or theoretical framework that becomes integrated into our worldview such that it guides and can constrain the legitimacy of questions asked. is created and replaced.

Education, cultural messages (conveyed through family, media, and politics), and social context provide us with ideas about how the world works and shape our mind-sets. Formalized and sanctioned by academic fields and canonical textbooks, assumptions become set paradigms through which we understand the world, including our role in it and the possibilities for change. Despite new knowledge, the reality of daily living, and the results of scientific research generating empirical evidence that can challenge core assumptions, it is well known that individuals and societies resist change and hold fast to their known paradigms. Why? Because the unquestioned assumptions have functioned well for many in the population, inertia is powerful, and often we lack alternatives that will explain and bring order to what appears to be contradictory information about how new or unprecedented events are unfolding.

The fact that reality does not correspond to our assumptions can be ignored or denied for a long time if no alternative path is perceived. For years, pollution was acknowledged and accepted as the price of progress, the cost that must be paid to keep people employed and maintain economic growth. “Clean commerce” was an oxymoron. Furthermore, specialized disciplines in academia create narrow intellectual silos that become impediments to broader systems views. In business, functional silos emerge as companies grow. Communication between research and development and manufacturing breaks down, manufacturing experts and marketing staff are removed from each other’s work and even geographically separate, and sales departments rarely have the opportunity to provide feedback to designers. These realities present barriers to understanding the complex nature–human relationship shift in which we are now engaged.

It is only when the incongruity between reality and our perceived understanding of that same world presents a preponderance of data and experience to challenge accepted thought patterns that new explanations are permitted to surface, seriously discussed, and legitimized by the mainstream institutions (universities, corporations, and governments). Recently, climate change, toxin-containing household products, the collapse of ocean fisheries, the global asthma epidemic, and other challenges for which no simple answers seem possible have provided incentives for people to imagine and begin to build a different business model.

In fact, business consultants, architects, engineers, chemists, economists, and nonprofit activists have been grappling for many decades with limits to economic growth. Interdisciplinary science has become increasingly popular, and higher funding levels signal recognition that research and solutions need to bridge conventionally segregated and bound areas of thought (e.g., economics, biology, psychology, engineering, chemistry, and ecology). The new approaches to resource use, pollution, and environmental and equity concerns have opened new avenues for thought and action.

A body of ideas and approaches reflects movement toward inter- and even metadisciplinary understanding. Similarities across these approaches will be readily apparent. In fact, in combination, each of these seemingly disparate efforts to close the gap between what we have been taught about economic growth and what we have observed in the last few decades reveals common themes to guide entrepreneurial innovation and business strategy. In Chapter 3 "Framing Sustainability Innovation and Entrepreneurship", Section 3.3 "Core Ideas and Metaconcepts", we will explore some metaconcepts.

Key Takeaways

  • Educational institutions, cultural values, and everyday practices create and sustain assumptions that become paradigms, which then influence what we consider possible.
  • The 1990s and first decade of the twenty-first century witnessed a variety of difficult and growing environmental and social problems and, in response, the introduction of new concepts for business. These sustainability concepts may offer an approach more attuned to the problems businesses face now and will face in the future.


  1. How do paradigms and entrepreneurial innovation interact?
  2. What are the advantages and disadvantages of specialization when thinking about social and environmental issues and business?