To create a new green economy, industrial capitalism must destroy itself. Disruptive, radical, breakthrough innovation is needed, on a mass scale. Government isn’t delivering the change we need. Can business step up to the challenge?
Innovation is on my mind because I’m just back from the GreenBiz Innovation Forum, a two-day event devoted to “sustainable innovation.” The San Francisco confab brought together smart and dedicated business people who engaged in lots of stimulating conversation and did some fun stuff—like trying to build a tower out of uncooked spaghetti, tape and a marshmallow. There’s video, photo and print coverage here.
I came away wondering whether the emerging orthodoxy of green business – one that is willing to settle for incremental changes by big companies, and clever but insubstantial breakthroughs by small ones—is going to get us where we need to go.
Procter & Gamble sets “carbon intensity” targets, meaning that it will produce its products (Tide, Bounty, Cascade, Crest, etc) with less energy. But because of the company’s growth imperative, it will pollute more, not less, in absolutely terms. [See P&G: A bold green vision but...]
Stonyfield Farm devises a corn-based yogurt cup, which gets us closer to a zero-waste, cradle-to-cradle consumption model. But the bigger challenge is to get petroleum out of cars, trucks and planes, not yogurt cups.
These initiatives deserve applause, and their stories are worth sharing. But let’s not fool ourselves into thinking that they are the kinds of innovations that will deliver the environmental change we need.
The GreenBiz event was a reminder that big, multibillion dollar corporations aren’t good at disruptive innovation, even when they try. They don’t attract the right people; inventors and creative thinkers are repelled by cultures with lots of meetings, process, politics, budgets and bureaucracies. Big companies are slow to move. They aren’t about having fun—and as Internet mogul Tim O’Reilly noted in a lively and provocative talk at GreenBiz breakthroughs are often driven by people (the Wright brothers, the hackers who started the computer revolution, the Google guys) who want to have fun or make something cool.
Even when facing existential threats, big companies don’t cannibalize themselves, as Clayton Christensen has written. Newspapers didn’t invent Craiglist, which destroyed their classified business. The record industry tried to fright iTunes. My cool new “barefoot” running shoes (below), which challenge the business of conventional running shoes, come from Vibram, an upstart, not from Nike or Adidas. Ford and GM didn’t invent Zipcar, and BP ain’t going beyond petroleum. [click to continue...]