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An Entrepreneurial Solution To Climate Problems

In the new book, Cold Cash, Cool Climate: Science-Based Advice for Ecological Entrepreneurs, Jon Koomey discusses how we can turn the smarts of business to the major problems of our time.

An Entrepreneurial Solution To Climate Problems
Cristy Thompson/Shutterstock

Jon Koomey says he’s inspired by a quote: “The problem of our time is how to preserve the familiar without destroying the future.” That’s part of the message in Koomey’s new book, Cold Cash, Cool Climate: Science-Based Advice for Ecological Entrepreneurs. In it, Koomey, a Stanford consulting professor and environmental analyst, tells the story of ecological entrepreneurs out to save the planet with innovation and enterprise. We caught up with Koomey in his California home, and asked him some questions about how entrepreneurs can make money and improve the environment.

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Co.Exist: Why is entrepreneurship the right way to approach solving the climate problems?

Jon Koomey: It can offer a few things. One is the idea that anything is possible if we put our mind to it. That’s the ethos of entrepreneurship. Entrepreneurs just won’t take “you can’t do that” for an answer.

Entrepreneurs also believe strongly that we can create the future. The academic analysis of the climate has taken a different approach, saying that the right (“optimal”) path can be found by modeling and analysis before we take action.. Entrepreneurs work the opposite way: Figure out our ultimate goal (say, stabilizing global temperatures at no more than 2 Celsius degrees above preindustrial levels), and we’ll experiment to find out what works and what doesn’t to achieve that goal. As Alan Kay famously said, “The best way to predict the future is to invent it”.

So why isn’t ecological entrepreneurship happening now?

It is happening, to some degree, but we’re in the very early stages.
One of the things I discuss in the book is limitations on humans’ ability to foresee the future. In general, we have a hard time envisioning future circumstances that are very different than the ones we have today, and we often overestimate the difficulties in large-scale change.

But during WWII, the U.S. auto industry changed in six months from producing cars to making the planes, tanks, and other vehicles, that helped win the war. This idea that we can make a change from our current situation is something that people in the entrepreneurial community embrace.

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The other reason this isn’t happening more is that we haven’t seen a broad societal commitment to the issue of climate change. There are a lot of other problems in the world. Entrepreneurs will go to the place where the profits are, and until society commits itself to really changing, it’s hard for entrepreneurs to see the value in addressing the problem. The commitment will come eventually, because it’s a real problem that’s not going away. When our society does make the choice to commit to doing something about the problem, on the level of Sputnik or WWII, then change will come very rapidly.

What are some examples of this working?

One great example is the idea of cleantech hackathons. There is great potential for innovation in software that improves the way we generate and use energy. The hackathons show one way to harness the power of information technology to solve big problems.