The best (green) ideas money can buy

I’ve got a story, headlined The Best Ideas Money Can Buy, in the summer issue of Conservation Magazine, an excellent little magazine published by the University of Washington. It’s about prizes, and they power to drive environmental innovation. As you’ve probably noticed, governments, nonprofits and companies have all experimented with the idea of using prizes to solve big and small environmental problems.

Kathryn Kohm, who edits the magazine, asked me to look into the effectiveness of crowd-sourcing sustainability solutions. I talked to Peter Diamandis of the X-Prize Foundation, Mark Vachon of GE, Beth Trask of the Environmental Defense Fund and others, including Karim Lakhani, a faculty member at Harvard Business School who studies open innovation.

Here’s how the story begins:

The ceremony had all the pomp of the Oscars, minus the gowns. Musical fanfares greeted each presenter. Politicians delivered windy speeches. A global audience watched live (and a prime-time special followed on The Discovery Channel) as the winners of the Progressive Automotive X Prize were announced on September 16, 2010, in Washington, D.C.

The $5 million grand prize went to a startup company called Edison2, whose founder, Oliver Kuttner, had assembled a team of professional motor-racing engineers to rethink the fundamentals of the automobile. Their winning entry, aptly named The Very Light Car, weighs just 830 pounds, travels 100.3 miles on a gallon of gas, and represents a radical departure from any other car on the road today. “That’s what this competition is all about: advancing the science behind automotive technology to create revolutionary change,” declared Glenn Renwick, chief executive of Progressive Insurance, which put up $10 million in total prize money. Peter Diamandis, founder and chief executive of the X Prize Foundation, was characteristically effusive. “We’re living in a day and time where literally anything is possible,” he declared, “where a man or woman who is passionate and driven can go out and build a spaceship or a 100-mile-per-gallon car. This is only the beginning.”

But the beginning of what? Don’t expect to see the Edison2 on the roads anytime soon, if ever; so far, no auto-maker has stepped forward to license the design. When it comes to prizes, though, we’re well past the beginning. Thanks in part to the influence of Diamandis and the X Prize, nonprofits, governments, and corporations are turning to prizes to spur innovation—particularly environmental innovation.

It’s not hard to see why. Unlike conventional research and development, prizes pay for performance, not just the effort. They call attention to important issues. And they open up problems to anyone with a good idea (or a bad one), getting beyond insiders or accredited professionals. “There are so many more ideas and possible solutions out there in the world than any given company or organization can tap into,” says Beth Trask, who oversees prizes for the nonprofit Environmental Defense Fund. Some people call this Joy’s Law—after Bill Joy, a founder of Sun Microsystems and a venture capitalist who once said: “No matter who you are, most of the smartest people work for someone else.”

Often, though, it takes insiders as well as outsiders to solve big problems, as Edison2’s travails suggest. Prizes can clearly drive technological innovation, but big environmental problems such as climate change and biodiversity loss are shaped by politics, economics, and culture as well as by science and engineering. And that raises a question: Once the buzz dies down, can prizes generate solutions that scale up to deliver lasting environmental change? Put another way, do they pay off for the world as well as for the winners?

You find the answers to those questions  here.

GreenBiz: Innovation is alive and well

Despite policy gridlock (or worse) in Washington, despite cheap abundant natural gas (which threatens the development of renewable energy), despite Solyndra (which highlights the risks of crony capitalism), there is good news in the world of business and sustainability.

Innovation is alive and well in companies big and small.

That’s my takeaway after spending the last 36 hours at the GreenBiz Innovation Forum in San Francisco. I’m a senior writer at GreenBiz and let me tell you, it’s been great to get outside the Beltway bubble this week (and not merely because the weather here in SF is spectacular). Here’s are four reasons why:

Nike goes for gold: While she was tantalizingly skimpy on details, the always dynamic Hannah Jones of Nike made clear that the company’s drive to become more sustainable is causing people inside the company to ask ever bolder questions–including how to generate sales without necessarily making and selling more shoes and apparel.

“How do you think about the world of sport and the athlete and human potential in terms of services?” Jones asked. “Could one create revenue streams that are decoupled from any material?”

“Our mission statement isn’t ‘make lots of stuff,” she said. “It’s ‘inspire and innovate on behalf of the athlete.” [click to continue…]

GE’s Mark Vachon: “Gas is massive”

Mark Vachon

How’s GE’s ecomagination  going?

I put that question today to Mark Vachon, who is vice president for ecomagination at GE. He replied by talking about natural gas.

“The large macro trend of gas is massive,” he said. “Our oil and gas business will be a huge beneficiary.”

An abundance of shale gas in the U.S., and methane gas reserves in Australia present a wealth of opportunities for GE, which plays all along the supply chain for natural gas.

“We’re a massive player in gas exploration,” Mark said. “We have a water business that can deal with issues in the fracking process.” And, of course, GE sells lots of gas-burning turbines, including a new combined cycle power plant, currently available in Europe, that enables gas to be burned more efficiently and in concert with renewable energy. (See my June blogpost, GE’s big bet on natural gas)

But can you put “ecomagination and shale gas in the same sentence? Yes,” Mark said. GE will focus on making shale gas cleaner, “with technologies like zero-leak valves” and water filtration products like a mobile evaporator that is basically a truck (see below) “designed to enable on-site frac water recycling, reducing the volume of wastewater and fresh water that needs to be hauled to and from the project site.” [click to continue…]