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Innovation for climate change

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ILab Notes
From America: Hacking 928 Ways Innovation Can Help Your Business Thrive Under Any Conditions

A couple of weeks ago Forbes reported that 928 Harvard Business School (HBS) students received a "climate change challenge" assignment on one of their classes. Their task: “Choose a company or non-profit organization whose operating model is likely to be significantly affected by climate change’s physical manifestations and/or related regulation, including threats and opportunities associated with mitigation and/or adaptation.” This initiative constituted an effort to not only determine how a warming planet adversely affects companies in all kinds of industries, but to focus students to come up with innovative ways to thrive despite it.

Innovate to thrive under any conditions
Innovate to thrive under any conditions.

This task was in essence a hackathon of ideas. It focused students on solving a challenge and it constrained their output to one blog post. The innovative genius behind this was Professor Mike Toffel, who teaches Environmental Management at Harvard Business School. He tells how he took his students straight to the point where they needed to begin their work: “We wasted no time debating whether climate change is real: in the scientific community, there really is no such debate anymore."

928 innovative ways to thrive despite climate change

At Innovation Lab San Francisco, we work with HBS and can attest that for them, climate change is serious business. The students posted more than 900 well-researched and documented innovative ideas for very specific companies and organizations for the Climate Change Challenge on a blog especially created for the assignment. HBS wanted to shed light on the specific links between climate change and business, so that the future leaders can plan for the new reality. After all, to ensure survival, businesses need to thrive under any conditions.

From big to small organizations, for these MBA students, the implications of a warming planet on the way companies do business are endless. One of the articles of this hackathon of ideas was about how climate change affects Coca-Cola "through three components that make up its signature product: sugar, water, and bottles." This student analyzed the implications of a warming planet in these 3 areas and gave innovative ideas on how to cope with each, ending with one regarding package, inspired on XPrize: "For the long term, Coca-Cola should create a prize challenge to design the next generation, 100% biodegradable water bottle. Its size warrants this investment. It would be excellent publicity, as well."

Another student, Spencer Bradley, approached the Climate Change Impact from a completely different perspective. In a post titled "Opportunity in the Drought: Aqua Capital Management and the Market for Tribal Water Rights," analyzes how a company named Aqua Capital Management is building a business on managing increasingly scarce water resources in the American West. Bradley explores the hurdles posed by regulation and how this company's "greatest opportunity lies in their “Tribes” business, which is based on “assisting tribes to evaluate and analyze their water rights and providing solutions to optimize their value."

If you think these students only explored the impact of climate change in obvious business areas, think again. From your shampoo to your mobile gaming host to your bowl of morning cereal, climate change poses risks and opportunities for the companies that deliver them to you. The titles of some of the 928 articles tell the story of this "diversity" when it comes to climate change impact: "Can Procter & Gamble really improve people’s lives?" "Power Struggles at Amazon Web Services," "Coca-Cola: Sugar, Water and Climate Change," "The environmental impact behind a cereal box: How General Mills is addressing climate change," and "Mother of All Risks’: Climate Change and the U.S. Armed Forces."

No judgments, just business

The description of the "hackathon" assignment produced one of the most interesting lessons from this HBS exercise. It instructed the students to "Describe how the organization is likely to be affected, the steps the organization is taking to address those effects, and describe and justify what additional steps you think the organization should consider implementing." As a result, all 928 articles focus on business, not on judging the good or bad, or on arguments leading to dead alleys such as wondering if climate change is a hoax or whether humans cause it or not. As professor Toffel indicated to his students, we're past that argument.

In addition to laser-focused papers on uncovering opportunities and threats on the subject, this challenge produced solid ideas on how not only to deal with climate change and thrive despite it, but how to mitigate it in the first place. Companies like ours, who work on technological innovations to help business and societies thrive in a sustainable manner, can take many lessons from these HBS students. For us, we took the following three lessons, which are the principles behind the hackathons we ourselves put together for our clients:

  • There is no problem that can't be hacked:The business opportunity and the action for climate change mitigation can go hand-in-hand to thrive under a warming planet and slow down human effects on it;
  • Laser-focus solves the problem: Breaking the huge problem of climate change into the small chunks that different companies can directly affect by their actions produces a trove of solid ideas that can be implemented in all industries; and,
  • Teamwork produces the solution: There is no problem we can't jointly solve when we decide to work together on practical solutions without pointing fingers.

When it comes to ingenuity without judgment, which is urgently needed regarding climate change, ask the students for ideas!

Photo courtesy of HBS graduate, Silicon Valley Entrepreneur, friend of Innovation Lab and photographer Christopher Michel.