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COP26 Day 2: Systems Problems Require Systems Solutions

On Day 2, as I continued my foray into searching for innovation, strains of the previous day’s theme of collaboration continued to seek me out.

And today, one of the collaborators on stage! I’ve worked in the past with Yale professor Paul Anastas, who won the 2021 Volvo Environment Prize for his work on green chemistry, That put him, me and three Yale students on the stage with Martin Lundstedt, CEO of Volvo Group during a panel on green chemistry solutions and innovation for a path forward.  “We cannot do anything alone anymore,” Mr. Lundstedt said during the panel, while laureate Prof. Anastas spoke of the importance of systems thinking and transformative innovation. 

A group of innovators at COP26

In Prof. Anastas’ words, “What we have done very well is investing in products that have revolutionized our lives. What we haven’t done very well is ensure that those products don’t cause harm. We as a society are excellent at solving problems and we are terrible at defining what problems to solve.” He offered green chemistry as a solution to that - to ensure that we look at the entire system and do systems design because without that we will have unintended consequences. Systems problems like climate change need systems solutions. 

For any planetary innovator considering an idea they’d like to bring to fruition, I thought this was an essential framing to think about when approaching the issue. And innovation also needs support to be scaled up. One way to provide that support - harnessing the power of business. For example, in the carbon removal space, companies like Stripe and Shopify are investing in new startups to bring down the cost of carbon removal and create a market for it. Of course, not all the solutions they fund might work, but as companies with seemingly little connection to carbon removal, it was an interesting case of large businesses supporting emerging ones. As a company that makes vehicles and which awards a respected environmental prize since 1990, I asked Mr. Lundstedt whether Volvo Group supported green chemistry startups and innovation.

In his response, he highlighted Volvo’s CampX. CampX is Volvo Group’s innovation hub, where they invite partners including customers, startups, suppliers, academia and authorities to collaborate with Volvo Group experts to develop future transport solutions. Their first innovation hub was started in Gothenburg, Sweden, where they converted an old factory building into a space for innovation for 400 of their technical and business experts within automation, electromobility and connectivity. I was also intrigued to see that Volvo group was one of the six partners behind the MobilityXLab, a collaboration hub founded in 2017 that offers new companies with pioneering ideas within mobility and connectivity the opportunity to access the network and accelerate their solution.

Of course, academia plays an important role as the cradle for innovation. Prof. Anastas highlighted that Yale alumni have gone on to start several green chemistry companies like P2 Science and Air Company. Brooklyn-based Air Company, for example, takes carbon dioxide from the air and produces from it all kinds of products including vodka, perfume and hand sanitiser, with the eventual goal of scaling up enough to produce jet fuel. These transformative innovations will displace some of the existing companies. “Some dinosaurs will evolve and some will go extinct.”

I attended a couple other events this day, including one on incorporating TCFD (Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures) recommendations into corporate reporting. However what stood out to me most that day represented some thoughts I was having about the interconnectedness of the world when it comes to tackling climate change.

In the hallway connecting the pavilions to the plenary rooms in the Blue Zone, there was a cartoon gallery featuring the work of artists from over the world. This was an innovative use of humour and art in a space where people are often known to be measured with what they say, choosing their words carefully to be anodyne. One cartoon in particular, hit the nail on the head for me. 

Innovation and accelerating its impact requires one to harness the power of business and finance, but without

Throwing money at a plant

critically assessing the current landscape, and working with communities and their knowledge and needs, perhaps we might just end up causing harm. In an increasingly complex world, innovation requires not just collaboration but also a systems approach. 

So where do you start? If you are looking for inspiration and want to talk to innovators who are taking action, I encourage you to come to our Green Innovators chats. This is where you get to have a conversation with an innovator in a small group setting, and really understand the realities of working on an innovative idea. And if you want to find others to work together with, consider joining the Planetary Solutions Generator next semester, an intensive in the spring where you will be able to generate your own ideas to solve planetary problems. Hopefully, these initial steps can set you on your own path of innovation, with the knowledge that it takes a lot of labouring over the idea to take to scale.

Going back to what Prof. Anastas said in his talk. “What is the opposite of ‘blah, blah, blah’? It is inventing, it is innovating, it is implementing at scale - the next generation of solutions.”