Todd Khozein is the Founder and Co-CEO of impact and innovation company SecondMuse.
Plant a tree in the desert, and it won’t grow. Drop a seed in a rainforest, and watch it sprout as water, nutrient-rich soil and rays of sun collaborate to nurture the new life. In the world of innovation, the same concept holds true. Launching an innovation or business in an every-man-for-himself environment is a recipe for failure. Doing so in a town or city — or sector — in which governments, foundations, corporations, investors, community members and other stakeholders collaborate around shared goals can result in predictably more positive outcomes.
This is the essence of ecosystem development work or radical cross-sector collaboration that creates ripe conditions for innovation and progress. The concept, long popular in the world of startup support, has gained more mainstream traction over the years as everyone from business leaders to governments begin to recognize that the world’s increasingly complex problems demand urgent collaborative solutions. In fact, the trickier the problem, the more collaboration and support is needed, which is why I believe there’s no stronger case for ecosystem development than around the topic of climate change solutions.
The magnitude of the challenge and consequences of inaction are too dire for anyone to ignore. Every human, government and business on the planet — from the severely drought-stricken western U.S. to the 22,430 miles of beaches projected to vanish in the coming decades — has a stake in the climate battle. For our way of life to go on, the future must be fundamentally different from the past and include smarter energy infrastructure, more energy-efficient buildings, more sustainable agricultural practices and better transportation solutions that cut down on greenhouse gas emissions.
To get there, foundations, investors, governments and corporations should recognize the outsized potential they hold in nurturing climate innovation, particularly if they work together. So what can these pillars of the climate innovation economy do right now to build an ecosystem that could fundamentally change the world?
1. Coordinate: The first, most essential step, is for these various groups to coordinate around the topic of climate innovation. There are too many angles to climate action for any of us to understand in a silo, so the more that multifaceted engagement takes place, the faster innovation will come. Each stakeholder group should have people within their organizations dedicated to deeply understanding on-the-ground barriers to climate innovation and coordinating to form partnerships, joint-initiatives and to use their expertise and resources to fill gaps, from funding and startup support to legislation.
2. Look beyond proven technologies: Investors can consider designating a pot of funding for new technologies that haven’t been proven. This doesn’t mean that they should go for wacky ideas. There are plenty of solid ideas that simply lack the institutional support needed to advance to the next stage of development. Seek them out in proven business accelerators and incubators, and offer them the chance to pilot their products in the real world. The cost of waiting for proven technologies to be deployed can delay the pace of innovation and miss opportunities to advance progress.
3. Look beyond traditional sources of innovation: Don’t get stuck in the habit of sourcing innovation exclusively through universities. This approach perpetuates inequalities by ignoring innovators who didn’t have the privilege of completing college and who took alternative pathways to entrepreneurship — a career trajectory we tend to celebrate for the Mark Zuckerbergs of the world but condemn for founders from historically marginalized groups. Cast a wider net by partnering with community groups and organizations that support founders from diverse backgrounds. This isn’t only about doing what’s fundamentally fair and right, but it’s also about sourcing better solutions. Diversity is the Garden of Eden for new ideas. Diverse teams can produce more creative solutions than homogenous teams. And lived experience is a powerful catalyst for innovation; those most likely to have already experienced the impacts of climate change are likely not from high-end universities but from neighborhoods forgotten before, during and after Hurricane Katrina.
The world needs everyone’s perspectives and experiences as much as it needs the perspectives and efforts of governments, investors and corporations who, together, will light our pathway to a more sustainable future.