Innovations and investments in the climate space are reaching new heights. According to a 2020 PwC report, climate technology amassed $16.3 billion venture capital investment in 2019, compared to $418 million in 2013. Companies are allocating their dollars towards greener goods and greener processes — electric vehicles, solar panels, wind turbines and more have grown in both popularity and affordability within the past decade. Meanwhile, Silicon Valley and tech industry leaders continue to wrack their brains for ways that technology can further minimize our carbon footprint.
But for low-income communities around the world, these innovations can prove still inaccessible, irrelevant or even futile. If we are all to take part in restoring our planet’s health — which is necessary if we wish to see significant progress on the climate front — innovation will have to expand beyond its current boundaries.
Addressing the heart of the matter
Climate change deeply affects communities in very personal ways. Coastal towns see their livelihoods slowly being erased, agricultural fields become unsuitable for native fruits and vegetables, hurricanes grow in frequency and severity. As a result, food insecurity, migration, disease and pollution are becoming a distressingly common reality.
Leaders, innovators and those with the capacity to invoke change must listen to the specific needs of the most vulnerable in order to build solutions that properly reflect the entire scope of the issue.
Stephanie Rivas is the California regional coordinator for The Climate Initiative, with a strong background in social justice. She admitted to feeling conflicted about Silicon Valley and the tech industry’s contributions to solving and exacerbating the climate problem.
"On the one hand, they’re obviously striving for innovation and for change and for growth," Rivas said. "But at the same time, there’s a group of people that see innovation in a way that isn’t necessarily embedded in technology. A lot of traditional ecological knowledge that indigenous communities hold comes from living, sustaining and having a reciprocal relationship with the land for centuries."
But at the end of the day, businesses respond the most to incentives.
Rivas mentioned that this stark discrepancy in problem-solving is not new — it bubbles up here and there in the humanitarian field. With the rush that comes with emergencies, issues can arise from copying and pasting solutions into similar situations without heeding the cultural, regional, economic and ecological factors that come into play.
"There was this one article that talked about how a food bank opened up near a refugee neighborhood, but no one was attending, and they didn’t know why," Rivas recalled. "And it was because all the foods weren’t cultural foods to those refugees. So they didn’t even know what it was, they didn’t know how to cook with it."
Community and corporate collaboration
For businesses, divestiture in fossil fuels and an overall look at sustainability is a step in the right direction — but we can’t expect drastic changes overnight, despite the need for bold action.
Jim Bean, entrepreneur, tech seed investor, and former vice president of retail at Apple pointed out that corporate influencers have stepped up to align with the values of environmentally conscious consumers, but it’s not always easy for them to do so.
"I think CEOs and companies need to start thinking about running their business in a climate friendly way, but you can’t always justify it by the numbers," Bean said. "Shareholders will ask you why you’re doing certain things. You need a long term strategy around why you’re adopting a different business model on some of these things. You have to look into the future and have a vision of where you want to be and how you want to position your business."
Regardless, some enterprises are taking their chances. During his tenure at Apple, Bean saw the company successfully shift its operations to a model that’s entirely carbon neutral. Patagonia and Levi’s have adopted "degrowth" strategies to reduce unnecessary waste by reusing and reselling clothes. "The cost of not having a choice can be more expensive than adding a little cost to your current business model," Bean justified.
But at the end of the day, businesses respond the most to incentives. Corporations are required by their governing boards and their investors to consistently hit a certain percentage of earnings every year. Moreover, ideas of rewriting capitalist structures have been around for a very long time, and yet we’re seeing that it’s a very slow movement.
That’s why community partnership, coupled with government support, is crucial.
A report from the Center for Global Development found that 63 percent of carbon emissions come from developing countries, highlighting the need for climate-based resources and education in these areas. Luckily, Silicon Valley, corporate leaders and non-profit organizations already have these tools in their disposal — it’s just a matter of distributing them in ways that make sense and includes everyone, even the most marginalized.
In the U.S., this strategy is already being applied to aid indigenous communities in building their own form of climate resilience. In November, the Biden administration approved a bipartisan infrastructure deal, allocating $216 million to Native populations specifically for climate-related programs. Such efforts, however, need to be widely adopted.
"It’s really about learning from everyone and looking at those educational experiences, and seeing where that takes you," Rivas said. "That in and of itself is innovation: not being a leader, but rather accepting yourself as a community member."
Striking an intersectional balance
The density of talent, capital and inventiveness Silicon Valley and the tech industry at large possesses has undoubtedly granted us opportunities to reverse some of our not-so-eco-friendly habits in unique ways, but that doesn’t mean it should stop there.
We must move forward by approaching this crisis from many angles. For the Silicon Valley types and leaders within the tech industry, focusing on the knowledge and experiences that already exist but are often left unheard can provide deep insight into climate-related innovation efforts. Innovation is what drives our society forward, but the greatest innovations come when we listen and take a closer look at the needs of those around us.