Mitigation: The Wrong Way to Look at Green Innovation

I had the good fortune to sit down with Guy Dauncey this week. Dauncey is an author and speaker on climate change, and always has great insights into the sociological side of sustainability.

When I asked his thoughts on green innovation, he said most companies and governments have it wrong. They continue to frame the story of climate change as a problem that they want to make go away -- in short, they limit their thinking to mitigation.

Mitigation, Dauncey said, is by definition the act of minimizing loss or damage suffered. As he wrote in his recent essay 'Seven New Ideas,' the mitigation mindset:

...sends a very unfortunate message, encouraging people to think of the world's current energy, forestry and farming regimes as 'normal', and just in need of some adjustments and emissions reductions to make the climate threat go away.

This encourages a defensive, unimaginative approach to the climate problem.

Losing With the Kyoto Soccer Team

Dauncey had a very timely analogy. He asked what would happen if the framers of the Kyoto Protocol were a soccer team. Based on their mitigation mindset, they would likely always play in full defense, hoping they could stop global warming from scoring too many goals. Following this reasoning, a 0-0 draw would be seen as a victory.

Certainly, having a strong defensive game is vital. But without exception, winning requires a team to play offense. And that doesn't happen unless they have a vision of success.

Envision the World You Want. Then Start Innovating.

Whether it's soccer, war, the establishment of democracy, or the fight for a sustainable planet, a positive outcome always begins with a vision.

Martin Luther King Jr. didn't change American segregationist politics with a limiting "Let us mitigate the evils of our society." Instead, he framed his vision with the awe-inspiring "I Have A Dream" speech.

John F. Kennedy's vision was just as grand: "I believe that this nation should commit itself to achieving the goal, before this decade is out, of landing a man on the moon and returning him safely to earth." The clarity, inspiration, and awesome magnitude of Kennedy's goal successfully launched the Apollo project.

Indeed, sustainability leaders have annexed the term Apollo to catalyze a vision of a clean energy revolution. Today, we can see that vision framed in Obama's call for a rapidly accelerated clean energy policy. It remains to be seen whether his clarion call inspires Americans to the dramatic shift in thinking necessary to get this project into orbit.

Grand, Yes. Unreasonable, No.

The concept of a world sustained by clean energy and infinitely renewable resources may seem hopelessly optimistic. Until, as Dauncey says, one considers that our relationship with fossil fuels spans a mere 200 year slice of time. If we spent thousands of years prior harvesting energy from firewood, does it seem far-fetched that we might spend thousands of years in the future harvesting energy from clean sources that already exist?

Using this analogy, we see why corporations cling to the concept of mitigation. It allows them to hang onto the status quo, or perhaps change it by degrees, which limits discomfort and doesn't challenge thinking. Although this defensive stance has been proven time and again to lessen innovation, progress, and profit, it is inevitable when there's no grand vision for the future to take its place.

When business leaders dare to proclaim a grand vision, the results can be exhilarating. You only need to look as far as Dupont's remarkable green transformation, or GE's Ecomagination, to see proof. Fortunately, the current 'triple threat' of recession, health care insecurity, and climate crisis are creating a growing tide of dissatisfaction with the status quo -- precisely the motivator executives need to put their foot down and proclaim a new way forward.

A Vision That Works for Your Company.

To become reality, a bold vision needs to work on a number of levels:

  1. Does the vision reinforce your brand? A vision needs to be a projection of both what is possible, and what consumers expect from you. A computer company with a vision for creating zero waste electronics recycling makes sense. A computer company creating green apartment buildings does not.
  2. Does the vision engage your entire team? JFK mobilized an army of scientists to bring the Apollo vision to life. Martin Luther King Jr inspired millions to march. Involving your entire team in the creation and execution of your vision will fuel the excitement, and most likely lead to results that surpass your original dream.
  3. Does the vision come with a timeline, steps for execution, and progress measurement? A vision should be a reach -- but not a prayer. Your team needs to know they have the resources to get the job done. They also need to know their performance will be measured on hitting specific targets on time, and on budget. Without these practical considerations, your team will be quickly demoralized, and your leadership called into question.

With these guidelines in mind, corporations can frame their vision, boldly explore new green space and create new innovation. The results will be exciting, profitable, and anything but limiting.