Why Innovation is Crucial to Our Carbon Neutral Future
Innovation will be a critical element of the next business revolution, that’s not really up for debate as almost everyone agrees. What we may not all agree on is where that innovation will come from. Innovation many times comes from unexpected sources.
When you think of giant leaps forward, a few recognizable companies might come to mind – Apple, Amazon, Google, and 3M. So, it’s easy to connect innovative products with large, established companies. However, that might not always be the case (and might not always be the case with the companies above).
How so? Well, think about each of these titans of industry in their early days. At the beginning of Apple, Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak had the idea that home computers would become more than just a specialty technology item that limited itself to engineers, technicians, and general computer hobbyists. They saw a world where everyone could partake in the digital revolution. Looking back today, it seems quite obvious to us, but in 1976 nothing could be further from the truth.
Most computer companies were focusing on the established markets of mainframes. And really, who wouldn’t? Big companies were the only markets for giants like IBM and DEC. All computer manufacturers were looking to take part in this enormous B2B market share, while the average American was striving just to purchase a new car or television set. A computer was something the military used – they were intimidating, looked like a piece of military equipment, and came with a military-like price tag.
Apple made computers friendly, useful, and beautiful…they still do! However, the story doesn’t end there. By 1997, Apple was floundering and on the brink of collapse. A small team of Apple design engineers (15-20) developed the breakthrough iMac, and the company hasn’t looked back since. So in essence, Apple was a start-up twice! It’s tough to not rewrite history in our minds and think that Apple’s innovations have all been spawned from the behemoth we know today.
Google dominates the web, but that was not so in 1998, the year it launched. There were established search players like Yahoo, Dogpile, AltaVista, and Excite. But ask most today who invented web search and the answer is most likely, “Google”. Why? Because we rewrite history in our minds to suit the present-day reality.
Think we don’t rewrite history in our minds? How about this. In 1984, the best basketball player the world has ever seen, and quite possibly the best competitive athlete in history, Michael Jordan, was not drafted #1 or even #2. He was third. Meaning all the NBA analysts, scouts, coaches, and executives could not see what the future held. Michael saw it, his coach Dean Smith saw it, and so did Michael’s parents, but virtually no one else did. However, ask anyone today, and they’ll tell you that coming out of UNC, we ALL knew Michael Jordan was special and would dominate the NBA like no one before, or since. And most will tell you they are certain he was drafted #1.
So, back to the point of innovation – much of it comes from small, unheard-of companies, or even one lone entrepreneur who is way ahead of his or her time. Large companies do innovate, but many of those innovations are product extensions or enhancements (iPod, iPhone, iPad, etc.).
When starting out, these innovators have it rough – they don’t have the name or resources to get their ideas into the public realm. And virtually all of them go through tough times accompanied by a very bumpy path to success. We heard a story from an investor group the other day about an entrepreneur they passed on in the 1990s. One thing they remembered was thinking what an odd-sounding name he had. That name was “Elon”, yep Elon Musk. As brilliant as Mr. Musk was, many investors couldn’t recognize the true innovator that lay just beneath the surface.
In a favorite book of ours by Peter Thiel – Zero to One, he talks about the central element of real innovation. Going from Zero to One. (Thiel, Peter, and Blake Masters. Zero to One: Notes on Startups, or How to Build the Future. Crown Business, 2014).
What is the Zero to One concept? The central thesis is the idea that progress doesn’t happen on its own – someone has to make it happen. Someone has to think of a solution in a totally new way. This is where the “zero to one” phrase from the title comes in. It refers to the fact that most things are simply copying or iterating on something that’s already been done (One to n).
An example: The myriad of new, improved typewriter designs over 100 years was all horizontal progress (One to n), as they improved an existing technology. Going from the typewriter to the Word Processor was vertical progress (Zero to One). This “computerized” version of personal publishing virtually put all the traditional typewriter companies out of business.
Vertical progress is doing something no one has envisioned before. The famous saying from Henry Ford is that if you asked customers what they wanted before the automobile was invented, they’d tell you “I want a faster horse”.
This “vertical” progress is where the next industrial revolution will take hold, and many of those individuals, small companies, and large corporations that will be responsible for it may not even be on our radar yet in 2023!
What are some examples of the next wave of innovation? It’s a difficult task, as by nature innovation is many times unexpected, but here are some of the breakthroughs we will see, and need.
EVs are nothing new, they’ve been around since the 1970s, right? Ah no, here we rewrote history in our minds again! The world’s first electric car dates all the way back to the 19th century. In the late 1880s, Thomas Parker, a British inventor, and engineer, is credited with building the first practical production electric car. He converted a horse-drawn carriage to electric power in 1884. This early electric car featured a high-capacity rechargeable battery and a small electric motor.
So where’s the innovation? Well, let’s face it, EVs need to get better – a lot better! We might even be as bold as to not call them EVs, but alternative power vehicles that include hydrogen, fission, or fusion.
So, the next wave might be powered by batteries that are bio-based, or we might fire up our Mr. Fusion (yes, a nod to the movie, Back to the Future Part II!). Either way, we need to get to a point where the EV (alternative) is substantially better than today’s internal combustion technology. We need to go from across town on a single charge, to across the country. We’ll need battery charging from hours (or minutes) to seconds, or no need for recharge at all!
There are several areas of innovation that will greatly benefit the recycling processes. For the most part, we’ll look at recycling paper, metals, and plastics:
- Improved Sorting Technologies: By utilizing cutting-edge artificial intelligence, machine learning, and robotics technology, advanced sorting technologies are being developed to maximize the efficiency and accuracy of separating materials for recycling purposes. This will boost the sustainability efforts of many industries.
- Chemical Recycling: Pioneering developments in chemical recycling enable the decomposition of intricate materials into simpler elements, thus widening the scope for recyclability. This will be particularly beneficial for plastics that are traditionally difficult to recycle using known mechanical processes.
- Sustainable Packaging: Designing packaging materials that are more easily recyclable and utilizing renewable or biodegradable materials will reduce the environmental impact of today’s enormous amount of packaging waste. Innovations in this area will involve developing alternative materials or redesigning existing packaging to optimize recyclability.
- Closed-Loop Systems: Promoting the development of closed-loop recycling systems, where materials are recycled back into the same product, will reduce the demand for virgin, carbon-rich resources. This approach will be particularly impactful for metals and plastics, ensuring a more circular economic model.
- Consumer Education and Engagement: New, innovative approaches to educate and engage consumers about proper recycling practices will help improve our anemic recycling rates. Smart recycling bins, mobile apps, and gamification will all be part of the innovative technologies used to incentivize and reward recycling behaviors. This is a great way to make people more conscious of their environmental impact.
- Advanced Recycling Infrastructure: Upgrading processing equipment and implementing better collection systems in recycling facilities will enhance their capacity, efficiency, and effectiveness.
Continued research, development, and collaboration across industries and sectors will be paramount to drive sustainable advancements for the immediate future and beyond.
Maybe the single-most-important category of innovation as it relates to our lower-carbon future is new materials. Material science will see numerous innovations that promote sustainability, particularly in the realm of bio-based, low (or no) carbon materials.
Bioplastics are derived from renewable sources such as plants, vegetable oils, or agricultural waste. These materials offer an alternative to conventional plastics derived from fossil fuels. Bioplastics can be biodegradable or compostable, reducing their environmental impact and promoting a circular economy.
Bio-based composites will combine natural fibers, such as flax, hemp, or bamboo, with an all-bio-based resin matrix. These composites will be used in various applications, including construction, automotive parts, and consumer products. They will offer much-improved sustainability, reduced weight, and far lower (or no) carbon emissions compared to today’s traditional composites.
Innovations in material science led to the development of totally sustainable textiles made from bio-based fibers. Fibers like bamboo, hemp, and organic cotton are being used as alternatives to synthetic fibers, reducing the environmental impact of the textile industry.
Cellulosic materials are derived from plant-based sources, such as wood, hemp, agricultural waste, or recycled paper. They will have far-reaching applications in packaging, automotive, consumer, and construction materials. Cellulosic materials will offer far greater sustainability benefits due to their renewable and recyclable nature.
Bio-based coatings will use natural ingredients like plant oils (hemp, flax, soybeans, etc.) as alternatives to conventional petroleum-based coatings. These coatings will offer similar, or superior performance properties while reducing reliance on fossil fuels and minimizing environmental impact.
Biodegradable and Renewable Packaging
Advances in material science will lead to the development of biodegradable and renewable packaging materials such as PLA. These include bio-based films, molded pulp packaging, and compostable materials, which provide alternatives to single-use plastics and reduce waste.
Biomimicry involves studying nature’s designs and processes to create sustainable materials. Innovations inspired by nature can lead to materials with improved properties, reduced environmental impact, and enhanced functionality.
These are just a few of the materials innovations we see on the horizon. Industry 5.0 will lead us into a world with virtually no compromise on the use of bio-based and biodegradable products.
Where Will Innovation Take Us?
“Innovation is the ability to see change as an opportunity, not a threat.” a great quote from Steve Jobs. He also stated that, “Innovation distinguishes between a leader and a follower.”
The time to lead that change in our world is now. The decisions we make today will have a long-lasting impact on our future generations. We need to foster progress, nourish hope, and move toward a sustainable future.
We have the potential to turn imagination into reality, and many unheard-of companies are working on those dreams right now. Our actions should be guided by sustainability, and our legacy of innovation should be one of resilience and hope. This is the moment to shape our collective future, and we all play a role.
If we attack the issue of sustainability seriously, our grandchildren will not even know the meaning of the term “carbon footprint”, because it won’t exist!
Join us in creating a carbon negative future.