For a Green Revolution, look beyond Silicon Valley
We know we need to transform the global economy to beat climate change. And fast. But with powerful headwinds, we don’t know how or if we will get it done in time.
Major governments and some companies have begun adopting climate-focused policies. Exciting new technologies continue spilling out of name-brand universities, incubators, and startups despite the risk-off investment climate. Yet these innovations have barely made a dent.
The current pace of innovation is not keeping up with advancing climate change. Relying chiefly on the supposed “best minds” of Silicon Valley, MIT and other innovation super hubs risks – or even ensures – that we will fall further behind.
An ambitious proposal
It’s time for a new and more audacious plan. We need more innovation and entrepreneurship, more quickly, and on a more global scale.
That means we need to rely less on sourcing innovators from elite universities and tech strongholds such as Silicon Valley, and more on equipping people closest to the problems to devise solutions. It means making climate innovation an everyday activity for everyday people, not just policymakers and investors.
It means we need to democratize innovation.
Can we really mobilize millions of people and organizations all over the world to help change the ways we live and work?
Yes. We’ve done it before. During World War II, when 16 million men went to war, the U.S. mobilized millions, especially women, with powerful Rosie the Riveter and We Can Do It! messaging, and reorganized its economy. Who did jobs they hadn’t been allowed to do previously? People who always had the ability, but not the opportunity. That’s telling.
What will it take to mobilize this time? More money would help. As the International Energy Agency (IEA) notes, we need to increase clean energy investments alone from $1.8 trillion this year to $4.5 trillion every year through 2030 if we’re to achieve Net Zero carbon emissions by 2050.
If all we care about is a 100X return, we’ll never address the cascading effects of desertification, for example, much less how to reverse them.
Even if we could reach these investment levels, who’s in the room when policymakers and investors decide what’s worth trying?
If all we care about is a 100X return, we’ll never address the cascading effects of desertification, for example, much less how to reverse them. How do we empower those who understand the realities on the ground – their ground?
Top-down, venture-capital-based innovation simply can’t go far enough. Instead, we need to tap into a global “hive mind” by empowering people worldwide – in schools, communities and businesses – to participate in conceiving, implementing and iterating solutions so that we can accelerate progress toward a post-carbon economy.
Give students around the world opportunities to find solutions, rather than just study yesterday’s “right” answers, and engage everyday people to rewire their communities, literally and figuratively.
Yes, this idea runs counter to the conventional wisdom of venture capital: maximize potential, minimize risk, and therefore invest only in the so-called “best and the brightest.” To solve a crisis of this scale, we need to scale innovation itself, by opening doors to people who are closer to the extraordinary multiplicity of problems – and potential solutions.
“An explosion of ideas”
In The Medici Effect: What Elephants and Epidemics Can Teach Us About Innovation, author Frans Johansson describes the force multiplier power of such a bottom-up approach: “Bringing together different disciplines and cultures and searching for the places where they connect,” he writes, leads to “an explosion of extraordinary ideas.”
A decade ago, for example, a private-public partnership of governments and philanthropists committed $1.5 billion to the Vaccine Alliance. The collaborative efforts of many hundreds of scientists accelerated the development of pneumococcal vaccines by at least five years, vaccinating more than a billion children and preventing more than 17 million deaths.
Tackling climate change will require transforming life and work in countless ways, rather than imposing one universal solution. The global economy is so complex that we’ll need many small players to commercialize solutions at each level of every industry and community around the world.
Achieving systemic change on this global scale will require transforming work and life in countless ways, rather than imposing one universal solution.
The digital age offers powerful tools to help teach people the key steps of innovation – at scale. The innovation-enabling platform RebelBase that we developed and have been bringing to companies, universities and communities around the world helps people in any community and in any industry to develop the entrepreneurial skills they need to solve the problems around them.
When given the opportunity, tools and support, we’ve seen that people from all backgrounds rise to the challenge. Collaborating on Rebelbase, they bring diverse talents to a project, resulting in more effective solutions.
The chance to try
Call this the Kitty Hawk Principle, in honor of the bicycle mechanics who built the first plane. Empower today’s version of those bike mechanics everywhere.
Apply the Kitty Hawk Principle to forge an economy that regenerates rather than depletes our resources, and that will sustain rather than threaten civilization – and the planet.
The data is clear: When you enable bottom-up innovation, it works. Urgent, mission-critical needs and existential threats often generate the most effective or breakthrough ideas. People outside the status quo – better known today as “disruptors” – often find innovations that better-resourced, established, or legacy organizations miss.
When people close to serious problems get opportunities to participate in experiments to solve them, they develop the mindset, skills, and thirst for more experimentation. Ecosystems grow around them, attracting networks of talent and expanding access to skills and resources for promising experiments. Over time, some experiments open up new directions or rework old ideas in distinctive ways.
People outside the status quo – better known today as “disruptors” – often find innovations that better-resourced, established, or legacy organizations miss.
For more than a decade, for example, the United Nations High Commission on Refugees (UNHCR) has turned to those closest to humanitarian crises to respond. “Faced with significant constraints, they adapt to find solutions of their own and navigate new and challenging environments. In doing so, they often support one another along the way,” said the 2015 report Refugee Innovation.
How to scale innovation
Difficult environments can present immense obstacles, such as lack of digital tools, talent, resources and stable conditions for work. Yet efforts to overcome those obstacles often release immense energy, determination and creativity.
That is innovation.
And technology can scale the impact worldwide. Using RebelBase, our colleagues have helped people develop the skills to build real-world solutions in Bangladesh, Belarus, Bulgaria, Colombia, Ghana, Kenya, Kyrgyzstan, Palestine, South Africa, Spain, Taiwan and the U.S.
RebelBase library of “building block” solutions models
When offered clear guidance, a constructive and collaborative spirit, and the support to bring ideas to life, we’ve seen people come alive to their power; they get a chance to imagine a different way and learn by doing. In anonymous surveys we found that:
- 90+% gain or retain the confidence to launch something new going forward;
- 85% learn to collaborate on diverse teams;
- 84% come out prepared to recognize opportunities where others might see barriers;
- 86% come out with the confidence that they can contribute innovative thinking to a group.
This shows what happens when we refocus work and education away from doing only what we’re told, and instead work toward entrepreneurial experimentation. Few of the respondents started with “traditional” entrepreneurial backgrounds. But they had direct experience with and personal motivation to solve problems seldom seen up close by those in ivory towers.
Bringing resources together
This bottom-up model for fostering innovation flies in the face of conventional wisdom about how to find and support the most successful new ventures. But our work shows that experience attempting innovation itself builds new capabilities.
Magic happens when those who used to import ideas from outside their communities instead find solutions that make sense locally. Then political will, resources, skills and infrastructure develop around them.
In Cities and the Wealth of Nations, author Jane Jacobs argued that magic happens when those who used to import ideas from outside their communities instead find solutions that make sense locally. Then political will, resources, skills and infrastructure develop around them.
Democratizing innovation on a global scale might seem too enormous a cultural shift to be feasible. But as economist Bernard Lietaer observed, “We have this odd tendency to create a world, forget that we have created it, and then throw up our hands and proclaim our inability to change the system.” But it “is our creation, constantly evolving….”
Yes, the climate crisis is more complex, slow-moving, and diffuse than past global crises. But it’s bigger. And we know it threatens our survival. So, at least among those who recognize the threat, it is finally beginning to change minds, attitudes, laws, business practices, lives and even the ways we think, despite well-financed resistance and disinformation from entrenched interests. We can build on that energy.
Fail Fast, Fail…Widely
To shift rapidly to a green economy, as they say in the startup world, “experiment and iterate.” Majorities around the world now call climate change our greatest threat. And data shows that it’s accelerating.
So let’s get serious, and figure out how to build “an army of entrepreneurs,” as Zayed Sustainability laureate and SOLshare founder Dr. Sebastian Groh puts it. Then let’s arm them with the tools and opportunities to launch solutions of their own. That’s how we triumph over climate change.
Featured photo: Students working together using RebelBase. Credit: RebelBase
See our related story: Eight deadly sins – What analysts get wrong on the energy transition.