If Steve Jobs Had Applied His Talents To Energy And Climate Change

Steve Jobs created innovative products that change the world of technology. Imagine the other industries he could have disrupted.

The anecdotes and stories of Steve Jobs’ career continue to pour in, with the sad news of a life cut too short by cancer. Like many Fast Company readers, I have been a fan of what Steve Jobs and Apple have managed to do over the past decade or so. I also own an iPad 2, an iPhone 4, and a MacBook Air. As has been written many times, Jobs's genius helped Apple to reinvent at least three different industries (computing, mobile phones, and music).

I began to reflect today on what Steve Jobs meant to those industries he reinvented. Even competitors like Bill Gates have praised Steve for how he has innovated and changed the face of so many industries. He set a high bar inside Apple and forced his competitors to "innovate or die." Given that my focus is on profitable innovations for the low-carbon economy, I thought it would be interesting to consider what the U.S. would look like if Steve Jobs had applied his passions to reinventing the energy industry and related systems.

Passion and Commitment to Change the World

The first thing we know is that Jobs would have been relentless in his pursuit to reinvent the ways that we interact with, consume and produce energy. Steve Jobs only spent mental energy on big ideas that could change the world that he was truly passionate about: "The only way to do great work is to love what you do. If you haven’t found it yet, keep looking," he said. And: "Try to make a difference in this world and contribute to the higher good. You’ll find it gives more meaning to your life and it's a great antidote to boredom."

Telling the Right Story--It's Not About Climate Change, Stupid

One of the biggest failures of the environmental and climate change movement has been its lack of proper storytelling. One of the best attempts to tell the story about climate change was Al Gore's Inconvenient Truth book and movie project. I have to give him props for raising awareness of climate change by trying to explain, sometimes with some technological wizadry, why the climate is changing and why humans are partially to blame.

However, if Steve Jobs were Al Gore, he would have done this completely differently. He would not try to scare people with the doom and gloom of climate change. If Steve Jobs wanted to change the dialogue and collective consciousness about this challenge, he would have done it in a way that inspires optimism and excitement about the convenient solutions that will make our lives better. My friend Peter Byck has tried to do this through his documentary, Carbon Nation, and my co-author Hunter Lovins and I tried to do the same with Climate Capitalism. But imagine if Steve Jobs were telling the story about how much better his new GPS and smart grid-linked EV mass transit system would allow us to get anywhere we wanted to go, faster and smarter than we ever have before.

He Would Make Public Transit Exciting

North Americans generally think that public transit sucks. And to be honest, most of our public transit systems are pretty bad--we often see long waits for buses that are frequently late at stops that are exposed to the elements, and are usually still stuck using the same roads that all the other vehicles use (meaning they aren't very fast, either). I am convinced that if Steve Jobs had been in the role of, say , Mayor of Los Angeles, he would have introduced some radical innovation to the public transit system, making it cooler than using your own car.

Trying to channel Steve Jobs is impossible, but whatever his solution, I bet it would be faster than single occupancy vehicles, make more use of smart technology, be powered by renewables, generate more energy than it consumed, and send excess energy back to a brilliant grid.

And what would a discussion about Steve Jobs' talents be without considering how he might bring his design aesthetic to any innovation? Transit would be cool because he would design it to be so. It would be sleek and sophisticated, yet simple. Touch screens would allow passengers to know exactly when their transit vehicle was arriving and when they would arrive at their destination, thanks to GPS and other tools we haven't thought of yet.

A Brilliant (Not Just Smart) Grid

I recently wrote about the challenges of smart grid adoption in the U.S.--something that poses the potential to revolutionize how we produce, distribute and consume energy. If Steve Jobs were the CEO of an energy company, even a mainstream oil and gas company like Shell, I think he would have seen the writing on the wall a long time ago and made a major shift into renewables as well as the convergence of IT and energy. He would convert a company focused on outdated paradigms into the next big thing, turning the potential smart grid into a brilliant grid.

In his words: "Innovation has no limits. The only limit is your imagination. It's time for you to begin thinking out of the box. If you are involved in a growing industry, think of ways to become more efficient; customer friendly; and easier to do business with. If you are involved in a shrinking industry-get out of it quick and change before you become obsolete; out of work or out of business. And remember that procrastination is not an option here. Start innovating now."

And of course there would be large scale adoption of the brilliant grid technology because again, it would be easy and maybe even fun to use. The design of the systems used by consumers (i.e. smart meters and appliances) would be so intuitive and elegant that no one would even think about complaining about low-level radiation from smart meters technology. Smart meters would become the thing everyone needs to have in their home.

I know that Steve Jobs had his critics. But more often then not he proved them wrong. He was a once-in-a-generation genius at reinventing industries. Through his storytelling and innovation skills, he easily could have reinvented the dialogue about climate change, changed public perception and use of public transit, and accelerated the adoption of a super smart grid. Maybe there is someone else on the horizon who will be the next generation's Steve Jobs, prepared to tackle some of the world's most pressing problems-- water and food shortage, climate change and energy. If there is, they probably wouldn't use focus groups either.

Boyd Cohen, Ph.D., LEED AP, is a climate strategist helping to lead communities, cities and companies on the journey towards the low carbon economy. Dr. Cohen is the co-author of Climate Capitalism: Capitalism in the Age of Climate Change.

[Image: Wikipedia]

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4 Comments

  • Kent Smith

    Steve Jobs real contribution was his enthusiasm for excellence.  Thru is tenacity he didn't give up even when fired from the company he founded in a Political fist fight. Ultimately he created a company  in which scientific facts were demanded and quick results are  incontrovertible.  He didn't need to debate with the Flat Earth Society or Al Gore. In his world,  lobbyist, big business or political rhetoric  had little bearing on results. Bad science is failing on both sides of the environmental argument because it is all about the Politics not the RESULTS.

  • Jeff

    C'mon.  These electronic gadgets produced by Jobs and others account for 9% of the world's electrical usage.  The vast majority of them are not needed to sustain life and the amount of toxic compounds that go into them is enormous.  I believe the author is overstepping Jobs contribution to society and if this author thinks that Gore's movie was incontrovertibly correct then we are all in trouble.   

  • John Mogge

    Great article and clearly we country continue to lack the needed visionaries in this area - Lovins et al opened the door - but far too few have walked through it.  There is however an advanced transit system (PRT) you allude to operating at the MASDAR Institute of Science and Technology in Abu Dhabi.  Be glad to send some pics of it if you have not seen it. 

  • David Kaiser, PhD

    I love the thought. It would be great to know what he woulda coulda done if climate change had been what he cared passionately about. A game-changer for sure. Too bad we won't know. It would be fun to speculate what we could do, though...

    David Kaiser, PhD
    Executive Coach
    www.DarkMatterConsulting.com