Two Steps Forward

Can we innovate our way out of this mess?

Kathryn Cooper/GreenBiz Group

Adapted from GreenBuzz, a weekly newsletter published every Monday.

"Innovation" has become a much-used — some would say much-abused — buzzword in business, and no less so in sustainability. The online literature is chock-full of articles and reports on sustainability and innovation (sometimes awkwardly converged into "sustainable innovation") from Harvard Business Review to, well, GreenBiz. There's a Sustainable Innovation Forum at each and every COP climate conference.

The convergence of sustainability and innovation will be center stage at this week's VERGE 18 conference and expo. The event focuses on new and novel technologies to address clean energy, transportation and mobility, the circular economy, food and water, the built environment and more.

Ultimately, all of it gets lumped into a single-word meme: #Innovation.

Which begs the question: Can innovation save us?

Asking the question quickly divvies folks into one of two camps: techno-optimists, who believe that tech will solve many of our problems; and techno-pessimists, who believe that technology is the root cause of problems and unforeseen consequences and dangers.

Of course, it's a neither-nor situation. Innovation isn't inherently good or bad, any more so than a hammer, or a pen and paper; it’s what you do with it. Depending on how it's deployed, technology can be our redemption or our ruin.

Much of it cuts both ways. Computers and other information technology have transformed society and opened borders but also have led to mountains of waste containing materials that are valuable, toxic or both. Innovations in agriculture could enable us to feed up to 10 billion mouths in the coming decades but can degrade soil and pollute water or trap small farmers in cycles of debt. Vehicle-sharing services can democratize mobility and save energy or they can widen the equity gap between rich and poor neighborhoods.

Innovation is not just about technology, of course. It can be about new products, services, processes, materials and business models, some of which are decidedly low-tech — drip irrigation, for example, or passive solar buildings. And, as I said, there is business and delivery model innovation — the re-emergence of reusable packaging and products is one such development.

As I've watched the world of sustainable business unfold over three decades, and morph into what we now call the clean economy, I have seen nearly unlimited opportunity for such innovations to solve our greatest challenges, spurring energy and resource conservation, climate adaptation and mitigation, healthier buildings and materials, and widespread access to affordable food, renewable energy, clean water and other things.

As a result, I trend toward the optimists, although am always cognizant of the downsides.

Climate change poses the biggest opportunities from an innovation perspective. Tim Harford, economics writer for the Financial Times, put it this way in a recent column:

The modern world produces two things in abundance: carbon dioxide and ideas. Both swirl around, defying our attempts at control. We’d like more ideas but already have more than enough carbon dioxide. The future of humankind may depend on a strange race: can we keep living standards rising yet restrain consumption of resources and production of pollutants?

VERGE has helped shape, and temper, a lot of my thinking about innovation. When we launched the event in 2011, coming out of a global recession, we were unabashed techno-optimists. "The growing convergence of energy, transportation, building and information technologies will help us solve some of the planet's most pressing social and environmental challenges," we said at the time. We set out to showcase and amplify the technologies and innovations we were seeing.

Our goal was, and still is, to be solutions- and opportunity-focused, to demonstrate how these innovative products, services and companies — most but not all built on the platform of big data, the cloud, ubiquitous connectivity, inexpensive analytics and distributed systems — are making our world smarter and more efficient. In turn, they stand to help us survive and thrive on a resource- and climate-constrained planet.

Our perspective has become more nuanced over the years. Yes, technology and innovation can unlock a wide range of efficiencies and can democratize access to life's necessities and luxuries. But there is a time, place and appropriateness for innovation of all types.

Yes, appropriateness. I grew up in a time when the meme was "appropriate technology." That was the underlying philosophy of the Whole Earth Catalog (which, by the way, celebrated its 50th anniversary last weekend) and of the unofficial manifesto of the time, "Small Is Beautiful," a collection of essays by British economist E.F. Schumacher. It  challenged the 20th century's intoxication with "bigger is better." Small, in this case, meant local, handmade, human-centric. People over profits.

The appropriate technology movement grew out of the energy crisis of the 1970s, along with the growing understanding that companies needed to take adequate consideration of social and environmental impacts as well as economic ones. (It would be a decade later before John Elkington would coin the phrase "triple bottom line" that essentially summed up this approach.) By 1980, the OECD identified in its Appropriate Technology Directory more than 1,000 organizations involved in such endeavors.

These days, we rarely talk about what's "appropriate," but the sentiment behind the term has grown ever more prevalent. We now talk about "sustainable development" and "design for the other 90 percent," among other phrases. But the underlying goal remains largely unchanged. Appropriate technology was meant to address four problems: extreme poverty; starvation; unemployment; and urban migration. Sounds an awful lot like some of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals.

Today, what's "appropriate" is about people — technologies and innovations that actually improve lives and livelihoods around the world, especially for those lower down on the economic ladder, and particularly for those living at subsistence level. It's no longer innovation for innovation's sake. What good are our best ideas and most sophisticated know-how if they can't raise the well-being for everyone on the planet?

We'll be exploring this and other questions this week at VERGE 18, in more than 100 sessions with more than 300 speakers. We won't necessarily answer them definitively. But, as we've found, there's power in convening a diverse community and creating the conditions for such questions to be thoughtfully considered.