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The World Cup – and why it shouldn’t be our model for low carbon innovation

14 June 2014
The World Cup – and why it shouldn’t be our model for low carbon innovation

Molly Webb, Head of Smart Technologies, The Climate Group is currently on secondment to Zennström Philanthropies to develop an innovation strategy for the foundation. Here she writes about the need for low carbon innovation to be global, time-bound, mission-driven and open to disruption, in order to score the goals we need for a smarter, safer future for all.

Innovation – when an individual or societal problem is solved by a new product, service, process or approach – is happening around us all the time.

Sometimes it is invisible, such as new cars becoming less polluting than older ones, or the fact our bins get collected more efficiently. And some are very visible or require action on our part: for example, we start using AirBnB to make extra cash from renting our homes, or we use the new cycle hire scheme to get to meetings faster.

And what do visible and invisible innovations have in common? The conditions for any kind of new idea to come to market are created by governments – usually national governments. They provide funding for new ventures, education for potential workforces, incentives for companies to invest in research, and regulation that makes some things harder to do than others (for instance, fuel efficiency standards that make your car more efficient whether you care or not).

So in this way, innovation is a bit like the World Cup: a national competition for excellence, where countries foster their best players, and try to create the best conditions to win in a global contest for economic growth.

But this approach to innovation is not sufficient.

This is because there are some social and environmental problems that are global. Climate change, clean water, pollution or lack of mobility are universal. We can’t use public transportation if it hasn’t been built or isn’t easy to use, so we get in our cars and cause traffic and fumes. We cause these problems locally, but they don’t stay local. These problems will affect us all. 

Secondly, these problems are urgent. The IPCC says we need to see emissions peak in 5-10 years if we hope to avoid ‘dangerous’ climate change. But people are already dying and getting sick from pollution, greenhouse gas emissions are causing extreme weather events, and slowing economic growth and lack of water means people can no longer grow food or develop the businesses they need to survive.

Thirdly, they require us to be mission or needs-driven: we can’t just supply our economies with good talent, good intellectual property regimes or tax breaks for new businesses and expect to magically solve societal and environmental challenges. (Unfortunately, the conditions for innovation can create problems as well as solving them.) For example, Denmark set out to create a wind industry. China set out to manufacture solar panels cheaper than anywhere else. These countries had a vision of desired outcomes, and organized resources to achieve them.

Finally, we can’t expect innovation to happen as we predict, and for companies that are strong today to succeed tomorrow. So we will need to be open to ‘disruption’ that could solve seemingly intractable problems faster than we predicted. We didn’t need to solve the problem of how every child would get a laptop. Instead we needed children to have connectivity in order to have access to education, and smartphones or other ways of organizing remote education could solve that problem too.

So ‘green’ innovation will need to be global, time-bound, mission-driven and open to disruption. It will need to be a little more like Pro Football -- where a Brazilian can play for Barcelona -- than the World Cup.

For green innovation, we can’t afford for any country to lose, because that means we all lose.

To really foster a new ‘green revolution’, we will need a new ‘innovation consensus’ that shifts our collective efforts. The International Energy Agency’s 2013 report to the Clean Energy Ministerial warns: “progress has not been fast enough; large market failures are preventing clean energy solutions from being taken up.”

We hear more about the exciting fruits of entrepreneurship than the rather unsexy side of innovation where governments need to mobilise huge resources to create conditions for markets to form.

But we can learn from the entrepreneurs and tap into their insights to drive policy intervention that will make a difference to not just their business, but their competitors and creating whole new industries.

To be successful, entrepreneurs have to fall in love with their problem (not their first idea of a solution) and single-mindedly identify and overcome barriers along the way, most likely changing their approach as they go, all the while focusing on their customers.

Policy and regulation will have to respond rapidly to insights from the market in order to ensure more successful matches between citizen problems and market solutions, and be entrepreneurial in its own right

We have 5-10 years. Players take the field.

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