Koomey: Why Entrepreneurs Offer the Best Hope as Climate Heroes

For the last year, we have been talking at great length about the convergence of technologies that promise to reshape business, people and the planet. The concept of VERGE explores the massive opportunities for business created by innovations in buildings, energy, vehicles and IT (and by the way, we're hosting a three-day VERGE event next month in Washington, D.C. -- be sure to check it out).

Jonathan Koomey, who's long been one of the leading researchers on green IT -- energy efficiency in data centers, among many other topics -- has harnessed his 25 years of work as a research and analyst on energy, climate and IT issues in a new book that explores how those opportunities are ripe for the plucking by entrepreneurs.

Jon Koomey"Cold Cash, Cool Climate: Science-based Advice for Ecological Entrepreneurs," published today by Analytics Press, does what it says on the tin: Offers a look at the size and scope of the climate challenge, from a science-oriented perspective, how climate change will affect businesses, and highlights areas where innovative individuals and companies can tap into the booming demand for efficiency-boosting technologies.

Dr. Koomey and I had a running discussion by email over the last two weeks discussing, among many other things, how the rapidly accelerating pace of innovation means there are reasons for hope in the transition to a cleaner future.

Matthew Wheeland: Why are entrepreneurs the best hope for this scale of carbon reductions -- is the policy realm really so bleak?

Jonathan Koomey: We do need policy action to tackle this problem, but to create the game-changing innovations we'll need, the entrepreneur's role is critical, and that's why I chose to focus on that audience.

I've been studying climate solutions since the mid 1980s, and it's been clear since then that this issue would be an important one for humanity, but aside from scattered corporate leadership and regional action (in Europe, California and a few other places) there's been little progress in making the big shifts that we need to tackle the problem. Over the years I grew frustrated writing detailed technical studies that were only rarely put to use, so I started to turn to what innovative businesses could do to change the debate.

What is also fascinating to me, as someone who's been working with economic forecasting models for a long time, is that the use of these models in analyzing climate policies enshrines rigidities that don't exist in the real economy but are instead an artifact of modeling practice.

Book coverThat means that the policy discussions are hamstrung by modeling exercises that don't actually reflect what is possible when real entrepreneurial innovation gets rolling (I explore these issues in Chapter 3 and 4 of Cold Cash, Cool Climate). That realization made me want to help create the conditions for rapid innovation instead of studying what might be possible in a less dynamic world.

MW: What are some of those primary conditions needed for rapid innovation?

JK: The most important requirement for fostering rapid innovation is getting people to let go of their self-imposed constraints. I talk in the book about one example of such constraints from the recent biography of Steve Jobs, but there are many others.

To sweep away these constraints and clarify your choices, I use the "working forward toward a goal" approach -- determine where you want to go and assess what you need to do to get there, adjusting dynamically as reality dictates. The other important concept is that of whole system integrated design, where you optimize the whole system, not just its parts. Together, these ideas will help you create revolutionary products that deliver both large emission reductions and other compelling benefits.

MW: Where do you see the most promising gains being made already -- either in terms of technologies, global regions or specific companies?

JK: Innovation in modern industrial societies has been driven in the past two centuries by a series of what economists call "general purpose technologies" or GPTs, which have far-ranging effects on the way the economy produces value. The most important of these were the steam engine, the telegraph, the electric power grid, the internal combustion engine, and most recently, information and communications technologies (ICTs).