Accelerating sustainably in Tel Aviv’s fast lane
Another day, another airport, another city … but this time things feel weirdly different, charged, accelerated. We are landing at Ben Gurion Airport, outside Tel Aviv, 58 years after my first and only previous visit to Israel, back in 1959. I was nine years old — agog to see the source of biblical stories such as Jonah and the Whale.
Now, we are visiting the imminent future, not the semi-mythical past, in the form of cleantech pioneers.
We enter a timeless world — but one that continues to accelerate away from its neighbors. True, as we speed from Tel Aviv to a kibbutz in the Negev, then on to Jerusalem, I am surprised by how much I recognize. But, despite spotting a lifeless Better Place electric car recharging station near the Dead Sea, a sad reminder of Shai Agassi’s unwitting role as technology’s version of John the Baptist to Elon Musk’s electric mobility Jesus, we are continuously reminded of the existential threat hanging over Israel that has helped make it an innovation powerhouse.
The wizardry spans defense electronics and augmented reality, biotech and solar photovoltaics, voice cloning and novel forms of farming such as aeroponics — with plants growing in air or mist, rather than soil and water. But we are hosted by a still-in-stealth startup called UBQ Materials, working to transform garbage into valuable materials.
As our car speeds into Tel Aviv, I am involved in an email exchange with a colleague back in London about what Tom Friedman dubs the Age of Accelerations. What we see in Israel — and what I experience in India a few days later — fuels my confidence that there is an historic opportunity to shift a growing proportion of the sustainable business convoy into the fast lane.
Tel Aviv is in the fast lane. This is a remarkable city, particularly viewed from age-old Jaffa nearby. Here human settlement tracks back over 9,000 years — and Jonah apparently came through here on his way to the sea. From Jaffa you could almost picture Tel Aviv as an urban whale swallowing Jaffa’s Jonah. The modern city’s momentum is palpable, with the tech-driven future evolving faster here than anywhere else in the Middle East.
The first start-up accelerator was founded in Tel Aviv as recently as 2011. By late 2015, however, the city had accelerated like a Tesla — there were over 200 incubators and accelerators. Will we soon see incubators and accelerators outnumbering startups?
Asked what sort of businesses these accelerators help, iAngels founding partner Shelly Hod Moyal explained, "High growth is what makes a startup a startup — and technology is what allows you to scale and become profitable without much capital intensity. In other words, your local restaurant or dog-walking business doesn’t qualify to take part in an accelerator, not unless there’s a lot of technology involved and not unless it has potential to disrupt an entire industry."
But what if the industry to be disrupted involves not walking dogs — or walking tourists around holy sites — but piping the sustainability agenda into corporate boardrooms and C-suites?
This question took on additional urgency when I flew on to Delhi for a U.N. Global Compact event on how to convert the Sustainable Development Goals into local business opportunities. Among other things, we were launching our Project Breakthrough platform, co-evolved with the Compact’s New York team.
Speaking at the event, Finance minister Shri Santosh Kumar Gangwar underscored the accelerations impacting all major economies. This has amazing upsides and, in India, appalling palpable downsides. And a key driving factor behind the country’s mind-boggling challenges is the forecast growth of its population to over 1.5 billion people by 2030, a 23 percent increase from 2012 — potentially making India the world’s most populous country.
Exponential problems demand exponential solutions. In the final plenary session, Zenia Tata of the X Prize Foundation warned that we are trying to solve 21st-century challenges with brains that enjoyed their last big evolutionary spurt some 50,000 years ago. Switching gears, she described the Moonshot mindset now driving exponential innovators and entrepreneurs.
I explained that next-generation stakeholders no longer are demanding 1 percent improvements by business. Nor do they just need 2 percent improvements, as in India’s 2-percent-of-profits CSR tax. They are not asking for 10 percent progress. Instead, they want 10-fold (or 10X) change. I spotlighted an Israeli aeroponics venture that increases the density of plants per meter of soil fiftyfold — and cuts water demand twentyfold.
Soon, everyone seemed to be using the e-word. But what should companies do in these exponential times? A new report from the Business & Sustainable Development Commission in sustainable business opportunities in India advises companies to adopt the Global Goals as part of their growth strategies. It encourages business leaders to help drive transformational change in the market, financial and governance systems. And it concludes that the economic prize could be worth at least $1 trillion by 2030 for the Indian private sector alone.
I also chaired a session on "Breakthrough Innovation for the SDGs." As our panelists spoke, it struck me that all three were ecosystem players — committed to working with others rather than flying solo.
Juliane Frömmter, director of T-Hub, described the Hyderabad-based accelerator as "India’s fastest-growing startup engine." It links three leading academic institutes: IIIT-H; ISB; and NALSAR. Gualter Chrisóstomo of Portugal’s Centre for Innovation, Engineering & Product Development (CEiiA) described how they work with governments — and cities — to enable innovation. And Covestro CSO Richard Northcote spotlighted how his CEO, Patrick Thomas, is driving a startup mentality across the business — including building novel ecosystems of partners.
Nine thousand years separate old Jaffa from today’s Tel Aviv, whereas by the time the UNGC event closed, less than 5,000 days were left to deliver the Global Goals. Global Compact Executive Director Lise Kingo knows that the Goals are exponential because getting to no poverty or zero hunger by 2030 demands an off-the-scale rate of change. She is stepping on the accelerator. Can the rest of the sustainable business movement do the same?