Heroic imagination is required to protect health and ensure prosperity in a world of climate chaos, according to Thomas Friedman at the recent New York Times ClimateTECH conference. This potential is ours to realize, says Friedman, due to the unleashing of new technology a decade ago. With Twitter, YouTube, GitHub and the like, the interdependent power of many has never been greater, and the independent power of one has never shone brighter.
Not surprisingly, Friedman’s words inspired the conference audience of entrepreneurs and established companies there to discuss new clean tech innovations.
The problem is that although inspiration and imagination can help motivate change, they are not strategies to achieve it. Building a climate-friendly economy will help us realize the greatest opportunity of our lifetime — creating jobs and protecting health.
Seizing the opportunity to build prosperity while facing climate chaos requires more than a field of a thousand blooming start-ups. It requires massive, continuous innovation, and exponentially increasing investment to bridge the gap between inspiration and implementation.
Here’s how to address both challenges.
Put your money where your GHG commitment is
The Brookings Institute recently found that patents for clean tech have been dropping, and clean tech venture capital funding was down 30 percent between 2011 and 2016. Furthermore, there are fewer deals, and those that do take place fund later-stage, near-profitability firms. This suggests that the pace of innovation is too slow. Meanwhile, 25 companies—household names such as Microsoft, Johnson & Johnson, Ford, and Pepsi–are sitting on $1 trillion in cash. Systematically, not enough risk is being taken.
As companies make greenhouse gas reduction commitments and join movements like We Are Still In (which more than 1700 companies have signed) and We Mean Business, catalyzing innovation needs to be part of their toolkit to act on their promises. Those balance sheets can and should be directed to encouraging faster, better—and yes, riskier—innovation, both internally and via partnerships with start-ups.
Follow the oil & gas industry’s lead (yes, you read that right)
One of the hardest things about designing new clean tech solutions is getting early, constructive feedback from potential customers. When BP, Exxon, Shell, and other global oil and gas companies committed to provide financial and operational support to the development and deployment of innovative methane technologies, it was a huge step in the right direction.
In-kind support, such as access to facilities or staff advice, combined with robust investment in internal R&D, acquisitions, purchase commitments, exclusive licensing and the like improves the quality of solutions, sends a demand signal, and accelerates the speed of clean tech adoption.
Embrace failure to spark creativity
Corporate culture needs to work hand in hand with corporate cash.
Astro Teller of Alphabet’s X also spoke at the ClimateTECH event. He described how at his moonshot factory, an indispensable part of how he encourages innovation is by praising failure. Killing an idea at the right time for the right reasons earns you a vacation.
Why is this corporate culture indispensable? He explained that, as social beings, we are well attuned to cues about what those in authority actually reward. Praising only successes leads team members to focus their efforts on safe bets, but praising failures creates an environment that breeds creativity and genuine risk-taking.
If more companies combined cash and culture to direct creativity towards environmental challenges, the pace of innovation would certainly accelerate.
Ask for help
Fortunately, corporations and start-ups don’t have to go it alone.
Incubators like Greentown Labs are making enormous strides in bridging the gap between inspiring innovators and implementing change by harnessing the people, the facilities, and the capital of the corporations that already touch peoples’ lives every day.
At EDF, we have worked in partnership with companies and entrepreneurs to develop methane leak detection technologies, help green the global shopping cart, analyze agricultural supply chains and precision ag technologies, and to monitor air quality at a hyperlocal scale.
To turn Thomas Friedman’s heroic imagination into reality, to prosper in a time of climate chaos, and to accelerate the development and deployment of transformative technologies, we cannot work in silos. The opportunity of our lifetimes requires that everyone – companies, start-ups, non-profits, academic institutions, governments, consumers, and more – have a seat at the innovation table.
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