Purpose – Recognizing the need for “a more general theory of life exchange processes that overcomes the divide between and integrates the economic, social, and environmental dimensions of life and related systems and disciplines” (Reynoso et al., 2018: 254), this paper contributes a Helix reference model to inform management practices. The paper also contributes to the ongoing debate about frameworks that support understanding innovation in service ecosystems and innovation practices for sustainability. Methodology/approach – A literature review of managerial studies is conducted focused on explaining the way key actors for sustainability pursue innovation processes. By shifting the observation level from Service Systems, to Service Networks, up to Service Ecosystems, with the interpretative support of service and systems research, the theoretical basis for developing a unitary interpretative framework are defined and a possible reference model developed. Findings – By connecting the dots across levels of Service Systems, Networks and Ecosystems research, the paper proposes a ‘helix’ representation as a possible reference model useful to interpret innovation for sustainability. According to the proposed model, innovation for sustainability emerges and dynamically evolves as outcome of virtuous interactions among key actors’, based on information sharing, cognitive alignment and value co-creation logics. Research implications – Clarifying the links among the multiple actors involved in innovation dynamics, their reciprocal influences, and the ways in which they evolve as a consequence of internal and external pressures, the paper shows the complexity of innovation processes for sustainability and enriches previous managerial literature about innovation practices with a concise interpretative framework able to explain how innovation can emerge in a multi-dimensional, multilevel and multi-actor context. Practical implications – Integrating the contributions provided by studies rooted in multiple research streams, the paper highlights the risk of a local and reductionist view in managing innovation practices in isolation. The scalable interpretative framework supports practitioners in better understanding innovation dynamics for sustainability. Originality/value – The paper refreshes and integrates previous managerial contributions rooted in service and systems research and provides a novel interpretative framework (a helix reference model) for supporting the understanding of innovation dynamics for addressing sustainability.
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