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A Global Invention Lab With One Goal: Stop Climate Change

The Ocean Invention Network is trying to invent our way out of planetary catastrophe.

A Global Invention Lab With One Goal: Stop Climate Change
Abstract via Shutterstock

Climate change, as British economist Sir Nicholas Stern says, is perhaps the largest market failure in human history. “The benefits of strong, early action on climate change outweigh the costs,” says the Stern report (PDF), but progress on new international climate investments has stalled. Countries have failed to agree on a successor to the Kyoto Protocol climate agreement which expired in 2012 with few international options in sight.

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Yet a handful of maverick inventors are banding together under the banner of the Ocean Invention Network to help invent our way out of climate change. Leading the effort is Shawn Frayne, head of Hong-Kong based Haddock Invention, whose outfit has put together a tiny coalition of engineers and inventors with a simple philosophy: 1) simpler is better 2) frugal engineering that costs cents, not dollars and 3) solve big problems by connecting inventors, designers, and engineers anywhere in the world.

Climate change is about as big as it gets. But Fayne would rather roll the dice on a problem that matters. “Why not give it a shot?” says Fayne. “Some folks are going to succeed and some aren’t. There’s a chance that we will. And if not, then at least we were in the right game.”

His group, along with four others in the emerging Ocean Invention Network collaboration, is quietly defying the mythology of invention as a loner’s game, solitary tinkering in a dimly lit workshop, or the secretive efforts of massive research and development laboratories of Bell, Xerox or Google. As GigaOm reported, Ocean’s approach is rooted in small distributed teams sharing the ethos of distributed design and manufacturing, and loose collaboration to attack massive global problems. So far, the network includes Octo23, Philippines-based Mantis Shrimp Invention and Coho Solar, a spinoff from Haddock.

Fayne has kept the lights on by making things that make money: the last few successes to emerge from the lab–such as its inflatable packaging it licensed to Sealed Air–have paid the bills for the other eight to nine uncommercial attempts over the last few years. Haddock goes after three to four ideas simultaneously, juggling various projects to see if one can produce a winner: commercial projects that lead to a 1,000-fold reductions in GHG compared to the lab’s annual emission of 40 tons of GHG-equivalent per year. The profitable winners are crucial, distinguishing it from the grant and government funded-labs in academia. “The more ambitious the project, the greater the chance it will lose money for quite some time,” says Frayne. “[But] we need to sell products or we die.”

The group is now hoping to turns its Solar Pocket Factory, a way to manufacture micro solar arrays almost anywhere, into a profitable emissions killer. It’s a long shot. But even if that doesn’t work, says Fayne, there’s many more inventions to come.

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About the author

Michael is a science journalist and co-founder of Publet: a platform to build digital publications that work on every device with analytics that drive the bottom line. He writes for FastCompany, The Economist, Foreign Policy and others on science, economics, and the environment. His favorite topics are wicked problems -- and discoveries such as how dung beetles rely on the light of the Milky Way to navigate (and all that says about the human condition on Earth)

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