Top-down venture and government solutions are not enough. Throw open the doors to entrepreneurship
Editor’s Note: This is Part 2 of a series that began with a call to democratize innovation to speed our transition to a green economy.
Can we accelerate innovation to solve the climate crisis by mobilizing millions of people around the world? Can we transform our economies, food systems, and lifestyles more quickly – before climate change makes vast swaths of land unfarmable and uninhabitable, turns 1.8 billion people into climate refugees, triggers more political and societal conflict, and sets off “cascading effects” that make all this impossible to reverse?
Our experience suggests that the answer is yes. We’ve been working with people on five continents from a wide range of backgrounds, through networks of leading global universities, a consortium led by European chambers of commerce, and community organizations such as the Be a Nelson Movement in South Africa’s townships. We’re excited to report that people get almost universally energized and creative when given the tools and opportunity to build solutions for their industries and communities.
In an ongoing certificate program led by one of the authors of this piece, for example, participants around the world created solutions using the RebelBase platform’s building blocks for innovators. We then surveyed them to better understand what happens when they collaborate on real-world experiments to innovate the post-carbon economy. Here’s what we found:
Positive cascading effects
When a wider swath of would-be innovators gain access to the opportunity to collaborate, they rise to the challenge. They also build the skills and mindset to participate in further experiments. This shows how expanding the opportunity to innovate could create positive cascading effects to counter climate change’s negative cascading effects, the extent of which economists, actuaries, and policymakers are only beginning to understand.
Setting off such a snowball effect, to put it another way, might well be the only way to quickly generate the millions of innovations now required to green the many different economies and communities around the world. We’ve seen throughout history that those closest to a problem and most motivated to solve it are often the most effective in finding a solution. And that motivation is growing.
People – especially young people – overwhelmingly recognize that climate change will determine what future they have. And they want action. They also enjoy unprecedented internet access, which could be crucial to solving the climate problem. Most young people use smartphones, including in least-developed economies. Two thirds of the world’s population now has internet access, including 90% in advanced economies and nearly 60% in the developing world. We can build on this connectivity to open up new opportunities in unprecedented places – but not with one-size-fits-all solutions.
One size fits none
One of the authors of this series analyzes diverse approaches to innovation and entrepreneurship across industries. Her research reveals that entrepreneurial activity drives innovation not just at for-profit companies, but also in nonprofit, community, and governmental organizations.
No single innovation approach guarantees success. The trendy formulas for innovation and entrepreneurship we find in business books fail to account for the multiple successful methodologies for innovation that we find in practice. Which approach will be most effective depends heavily on the culture of the organization or community. This makes it all the more important that we avoid cookie-cutter approaches, and instead meet innovators where they are with flexible frameworks and a rich tool kit from which they can draw.
Our experience working with such a wide range of people in 20+ countries reveals that we can dramatically expand innovation if we facilitate local variation, rather than try to apply some presumptively superior paradigm or trendy approach. Encouraging potential innovators to define the problems and opportunities that they see, and guiding them through a flexible and collaborative process of discovering solutions for themselves, works far more effectively than handing down received wisdom or set formulas.
SOLshare’s Technical Writer, Asia Jaman Bonna, working on a micro EV which mimics actual Electric-Three-Wheelers on which lithium-ion batteries are installed and integrated with SOLmobility technologies.
In Part 1 of this series, we mentioned the work of SOLshare to power Bangladesh sustainably. With massive annual flooding compounded by rolling blackouts, Bangladesh arguably comprises ground zero for climate change. Three quarters of its land sits below sea level, and rising sea levels have exacerbated flooding. To serve the needs of the world’s seventh-largest population, living on a land mass roughly the size of Iowa or Greece, innovators must create sustainable solutions tailored to its distinct culture and economy.
Teslas, for example, don’t go far in a country like Bangladesh with its mind-numbing traffic and shaky power grid. Electric three-wheel rickshaws, also called tuktuks, are hugely popular. But when most finish their workday and start charging in the evening, they cause brownouts or blackouts.
SOLshare founder Sebastian Groh flipped the script, feeding remaining power in three-wheeler batteries into the grid, making money by selling that power, and then charging them at night when power usage drops, turning fleets of electric three-wheelers into virtual power plants. He uses solar power to charge his batteries, and contribute clean energy to the grid. The UNFCCC notes SOLshare also “has successfully piloted the world’s first ICT-enabled peer-to-peer electricity trading network for rural households with and without solar home systems.”
In Indonesia, an archipelago nation with 17,000 islands and the world’s fourth largest population that is also threatened by rising sea levels and flooding, New Energy Nexus Ventures notes that Swap Energy has rolled out more than 1300 stations where electric scooter riders can quickly swap out depleted batteries for charged ones.
In Indonesia and The Philippines, houses built on bamboo and balsa-wood platforms are being actively considered for existing urban communities threatened by increasing floods and rising sea levels. Elsewhere, both the Netherlands and New Zealand have developed more modern floating houses.
These are brilliant innovations, but they’re not enough. Groh says SOLshare’s work needs to be supplemented by thousands of independent experiments everywhere.
Bottom-up, not top-down
Communities around the world share Bangladesh’s combination of rising waters and the need for clean, sustainable energy. While the UN’s COP28 Climate Conference claimed success with a global agreement that nations would “accelerate action” to green their economies, the Alliance of Small Island States called it “incremental…when what we really need is an exponential step.” Experience has shown that even as climate change accelerates, those with a vested interest in business as usual will use their power to perpetuate it. So taking that exponential step will be up to everyone else.
“We face a choice,” SOLshare’s Groh emphasized in his keynote at COP28. “Either invest in those people who have the means, but don’t understand the problem, or invest in those people who lack the means, but have a really good grasp of the problem.”
Entrepreneurial activity has been declining for forty years
Our work shows the power of the latter option, despite the vastly greater capital that goes to the elites at the top, with expectations that their inventions will trickle down. That worked for big tech. But as Cara Kiewel, energy program manager for the Bard MBA in Sustainability, observes, top-down solutions only get us a fraction of the way toward net zero. While more than a third of large firms have committed to hit net-zero goals by 2030, Accenture projects that 93% will fall short if they stay on their current trajectory. Can they make it after all? That depends on whether they foster innovation at every level.
Most of us have been trained to expect that major decisions and solutions will come from above us, whether from governments, corporations, big tech, or social institutions. Top-down solutions appeal to our desire for simple narratives and strong leaders. But they often lack the adaptability to address the needs of different industries, markets, and communities. As five-year plans and the famines that followed have long demonstrated, such top-down solutions promise scale, but often fail – tragically.
However, if we make it a priority – if we weave a culture of innovation into the very fabric of our companies, communities, schools, and even value systems – we can enable millions of people around the world to try out millions of potential solutions. That would give us much better odds at success. So why not try it?
“Lower the price of admission”
Massive roadblocks to widespread innovation have arisen not only in the developing world, but also in historical centers of entrepreneurship. In the United States, despite a welcome uptick during the pandemic, entrepreneurial activity has been declining for forty years, according to the Economic Innovation Group. When facing higher personal overhead – including exorbitant education, housing, food and health care costs – experimenting can seem to be an out-of-reach luxury.
The decline and potential rebirth of American Dynamism
Source: Economic Innovation Group
When Amazon founder Jeff Bezos explains his success, he emphasizes his access to innovation when he was just an upstart.” How do you get that kind of entrepreneurial dynamism in space?” Bezos has said, speaking of his dream to innovate space exploration. “You need to lower the price of admission.” Bezos argues that companies like Amazon and Facebook depended at their start on low thresholds for entrepreneurs. “I started Amazon in my garage 24 years ago and drove all the packages to the post office myself.”
“How do you get that kind of entrepreneurial dynamism in space?” Bezos has said, speaking of his dream to innovate space exploration. “You need to lower the price of admission.”
Billionaires reminiscing about launching businesses from their garages can sound like self-indulgent nostalgia. Today, Amazon accounts for $37.8B of US ecommerce, and the FTC alleges that it squeezes the little guy. Still, Bezos has a point: Transformative solutions could start at low cost in the equivalent of someone’s garage. Today, by numerous measures, the price of admission for trying new solutions has soared. That makes it harder for everyday innovators – and for our society – to innovate at the pace and scale we so badly need now.
The tinkerer and the planet
This applies not just to individuals, but also to storied hotbeds of innovation. Silicon Valley arose after the chance to innovate became accessible to the average Joe. For example, a couple of college friends launched Hewlett Packard in a one-car garage in an agricultural region. After they’d built a $200 million company, a 12-year-old Steve Jobs found Bill Hewlett in the phone book, and called to ask for spare parts. Hewlett gave Jobs the parts – and a job on the production line.
It’s time to restore that heady sense of opportunity. In the 20th century, California made experimenting an everyday game for generations of nerdy kids. Today, Silicon Valley and other global tech centers have become impregnable fortresses, far removed from most scrappy tinkerers. Today’s Hewlett or Jobs too often lacks access to today’s version of that one-car garage and the fertile networks that grew up around it.
A new innovation ecosystem
We’ve found that a remarkably broad array of people across disciplines and cultures jump at opportunities to develop experiments. Our survey of participants in the Open Society University Network’s Certificate in Sustainability and Social Enterprise found that over two years:
● 93% reported strong or increased confidence launching a new solution;
● 95% reported an increase in at least one entrepreneurial competency, such as surveying a competitive landscape, creating a marketing strategy, or developing a social impact model;
● 65% reported greater understanding of calculated risks;
● participants described significant gains in collaboration skills, flexibility, critical thinking, and perseverance.
With access to a platform that offers guidance, collaboration, and structure, but also flexibility and creativity, everyday people discover their power to remake the world around them, and conceive solutions with real potential. Can we open up new Kitty Hawks all around the world? To paraphrase Brad Bird’s film Ratatouille: Not everyone can become a great innovator; but a great innovator can come from anywhere.
Not everyone can become a great innovator; but a great innovator can come from anywhere.
Has it ever worked any other way? Before Microsoft, Apple, Alphabet, Amazon, and Meta became “big tech,” they were all started by scrappy individuals on a budget – when the price of admission was lower. With our futures at risk, we need to drop that price again to spark a global wave of experimentation that could find solutions eluding today’s leaders. As climate change accelerates, we need to drop the price of admission, so people everywhere can get going to build a viable future.