The Buck Stops With Us: Aligning Innovation, People and Purpose for Sustainability

We often hear about barriers to addressing climate change, whether it’s corporate climate pledges that don’t go far enough, clashing political ideologies that hinder government policy changes or resistance to energy transitions that reduce fossil fuel dependence. Meanwhile, rising temperatures are creating more extreme and unpredictable weather patterns, and the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has confirmed that global temperature rise will not stay under 1.5 degrees Celsius without serious action.

The good news about this “now or never” moment is that we are seeing a reinvigorated push for innovation to explore new climate solutions. Clean tech products are often the first port of call—something that harnesses an always-present source of energy, repurposes waste or stores energy. However, effective innovation is about more than just inventing a new technology: we must also innovate ourselves to deliver solutions that society will embrace and demand that businesses, governments, and technology scale. Take the limited roll out of solar photovoltaics (PVs), for example. PV cells date back to 1954 and they’re constantly improving and becoming more efficient. However, solar PV accounts for only 3.1% of global electricity generation. Why? Because mentally, we remain wedded to fossil fuels over solar. The mindset shift required for uptake has not yet fully taken root.

What it Takes

Innovation happens around the world daily. Some ideas catch on, most however do not. The technology might be strong, the need for the solution critical but they often lack the basis of a successful idea—purpose, resources and process.

A clear purpose. Innovation without a clearly defined outcome or intent will struggle from conception. Having strategic alignment on the problem you want to solve or change you want to spark is key for persevering. Thomas Edison once said in his work constructing the electric light bulb, “I have not failed. I have just found 10,000 ways that won’t work.”

Dedicated investment. Resourcing is about more than funding; it’s about encouragement, prioritization, and holding space for mistakes. An innovation without adequate time, monetary, and sociocultural investment is just an idea. A dream. And the reality of dreams is that most won’t come true. That is, unless you create a safe environment for people to experiment and learn from both doing and failing.

A well-managed implementation process. Even with aligned purpose and dedicated resources, an innovation needs follow-through. Because innovation is iterative and often a long game, the technology requires organization and management that can evolve with it. The process must also be accountable and inclusive to sustain innovation.

When innovation leads to a successful solution, it’s because these three factors are combined with a technically sound product. For example, advancements in climate-smart agritech like drip irrigation are changing the game by feeding more people on less arable land as desertification and urbanization increase. Take the avocado in Spain and Israel—Spain is Europe’s leading supplier of the fruit and Israel is the 10th largest global producer. Both countries have successfully implemented clean technology to support their economies and as a result are piquing the investment interest of other countries. They were able to do this because they innovated holistically. There was a clear purpose: grow a high-demand, temperamental crop under increasingly unpredictable climate conditions with less water and less fuel than importing avocados from overseas farms to tableside guacamole.

They had the dedicated investment: 95% of Spanish avocados rely on drip; in Israel, it’s 99% and 75% of all crop production. Sociocultural shifts in Europe have driven higher demand for more ecofriendly, affordable produce, and water conservation has been survival imperative for Israel since before the country’s founding. These conditions created the societal buy-in for the front-end investment needed for the extensive network of tubes, valves and drippers.

Now, the technology is at a point where it has been implemented successfully at commercial scale. For this technology to be adoptable to the nearly 80 percent of farmers that do not operate at commercial scale, adjustments must be made for accountability and inclusivity for sustainment. As a result, tech companies are now shifting to become more water-conscious, utilize AI and undergo constant reengineering of solutions and business models to make a historically expensive innovation cheaper, simpler to install and use, and accessible.

Looking Ahead

Unlike in the past, we don’t have time to wait for clean tech to be executed at scale. We are at a point where the world needs to act before the impact of climate change is irreversible. This is where innovation can help. Innovating for a sustainable future requires that we get real about the purpose, dedicated investment, and management of innovation in service of that future. It also depends on making a strong connection to how and what people think, how they see the impact of these solutions in their daily lives, and how it integrates into present and future applications. We did it with the light bulb, and again with the internal combustion engine. Surely, we can do it again with an idea being born at this very moment.