Innovation, Collaboration, Education, Re-evaluation: How clean tech ‘gets’ sustainability

0058-Ann Goodman copyIf we want a cleaner, greener, more socially inclusive and economically stable future both in the US and internationally, then we need to innovate, collaborate, educate and re-evaluate our values–as never before.

That was the short answer.

The longer, more complex question, at WNSF’s second annual West Coast Summit on November 12, was: Now that business ‘gets’ sustainability, what’s next–and can clean tech catalyze action?

In New York, just a few weeks earlier at WNSF’s seventh annual Businesswomen’s Sustainability Leadership Summit, speakers and participants alike debated whether sustainability (the balance of environmental, social and economic progress) could potentially solve the dual economic and environmental crisis. If so, they considered, is US business ready to step up to the sustainability plate, catch up with Europe and keep up with China?

(Tell us! What’s your take on clean tech as a potential fix for the twin economic and financial crises?)

Posing the question in California–the American “state of the future,” with its dazzling sunlight, dramatic coastline and daring vision for seemingly limitless techno and eco progress–WNSF speakers and participants easily gravitated to the subtext: The clean tech industry does get it and has some fresh suggestions for how to enact sustainability across business.

What it comes down to, the experts implied, is rethinking business according to what could be viewed as a simple four-point sustainability plan that stresses innovation, collaboration, education and re-evaluation.

Let’s take those one by one:

  1. Innovation: To create value, said opening Keynote speaker Dr. Sharon Nunes, IBM’s VP, Smart Cities Strategy & Solutions, it’s important to encourage systematic social innovation, reinventing relationships, and re-evaluating values. That’s partly what IBM seeks to do in its collaborative, nine-member ‘Green SigmaTM Coalition,’ bringing to bear collective business expertise to build smarter cities to help “create, manage and run intelligent…interconnected infrastructures and systems…in every major geography.”

    Bookending that insight, closing Keynote speaker Judy Estrin, author of Closing the Innovation Gap, reviewed her five core innovation guideposts–questioning, risk, openness, patience and trust.

  2. Collaboration: Echoing Dr. Nunes, panelists from Green Sigma companies Johnson ControlsSchneider Electric and Siemens, stressed that sustainability, by nature ‘multidisciplinary,’ requires a new cooperative way of doing business, more open collaboration within companies themselves–as well as outside, with customers, government, civil society and even competitors. It’s less about offering solutions and more about co-creating them with these new business ‘partners.’ A case in point: These three ‘competitors,’ are joining forces through the IBM Green Sigma Coalition and elsewhere to co-create solutions to complex problems like energy efficiency, building retrofits, infrastructure upgrades and smart grid advances.
  3. Education: If WNSF’s NYC Summit stressed formal education in the school and university systems for a sustainable future, the West Coast Summit put the focus on ‘continuing’ education of employees and clients. If we want ‘green jobs,’ let’s help our employees learn to make their traditional work (in, say, marketing, finance or engineering) ‘sustainable’ by giving them the training they need, panelists concurred– citing examples in their own companies, from the construction site to the corner office. And, panelists stressed, their suppliers and clients are requesting education–on everything from saving energy and reducing waste to identifying solutions to as-yet undefined problems.
  4. Re-Evaluation: What it comes down to is reinvention–of ways of doing business, ways of relating to people and institutions, ways of interacting in different parts of the world, ways of thinking about work and ways of actually working. Like building a sustainable building, building a sustainable future means starting from the ground up, re-evaluating everything–starting with values themselves.

Tell us: As you and your enterprise ‘get’ sustainability, how are you using: Innovation, Collaboration, Education and Re-evaluation?

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