Addressing the design-implementation gap of sustainable business models by prototyping: A tool for planning and executing small-scale pilots

Brian Baldassarre*, Jan Konietzko, Phil Brown, Giulia Calabretta, Nancy Bocken, Ingo O. Karpen, Erik Jan Hultink

*Corresponding author for this work

Research output: Contribution to journalArticleAcademicpeer-review


Next to the redesign of industrial products and processes, sustainable business model innovation is a strategic approach to integrate environmental and social concerns into the objectives and operations of organizations. One of the major challenges of this approach is that many promising business model ideas fail to reach the market, which is needed to achieve impact. In the literature, the issue is referred to as a "design-implementation gap." This paper explores how that critical gap may be bridged. In doing so, we contribute to sustainable business model innovation theory and practice. We contribute to theory by connecting sustainable business model innovation with business experimentation and strategic design, two innovation approaches that leverage prototyping as a way to iteratively implement business ideas early on. Using a design science research methodology, we combine theoretical insights from these three literatures into a tool for setting up small-scale pilots of sustainable business models. We apply, evaluate, and improve our tool through a rigorous process by working with nine startups and one multinational company. As a result, we provide normative theory in terms of the sustainable business model innovation process, explaining that piloting a prototype forces organizations to simultaneously consider the desirability (i.e., what users want), feasibility (i.e., what is technically achievable), viability (i.e., what is financially possible), and sustainability (i.e., what is economically, socially and environmentally acceptable) of a new business model. Doing so early on is functional to bridge the design-implementation gap of sustainable business models. We contribute to practice with the tool itself, which organizations can use to translate sustainable business model ideas defined "on paper" into small-scale pilots as a first implementation step. We encourage future research building on the limitations of this exploratory study by working with a larger sample of companies through longitudinal case studies, to further explain how these pilots can be executed successfully. (C) 2020 Published by Elsevier Ltd.
Original languageEnglish
Article number120295
Number of pages15
JournalJournal of Cleaner Production
Publication statusPublished - 10 May 2020


  • Sustainable innovation
  • Business model innovation
  • Business experimentation
  • Design thinking
  • Implementation
  • Prototyping

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