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6 June 2018

The prevailing winds are blowing towards Sustainability...

The steady stream of Sustainability good news stories continues to flow – 50 nations taking action on plastic consumption, consumer spending on fashion is on a falling trend, and a growing 'carbon bubble' means that $1-4 trillion could be wiped off the value of global fossil fuel assets by 2035. As with the recent digital revolution, real change is starting to snowball in the economy. At a time of change there will be winners and losers: huge opportunities and huge risks for those who cling to what they know.

The knack of thriving in such a period of flux is knowing when to let go of the old and when to invest in the new. I always preach that the rules of business still apply. In particular product or service that no-one wants (or can afford) will flop, no matter how Sustainable. The 3 Ps – performance, price & planet – is a good starting point.

But probably the biggest challenge is 'creative destruction'. Persuading colleagues to ditch unsustainable products/services is never easy. Having serious Sustainability targets is essential – when Interface defined one of the seven targets of their Mission Zero sustainability programme as 'eliminate problem emissions: eliminate toxic substances from products, vehicles and facilities', then the days of their products with brominated flame retardants were numbered. Leaving Sustainability to case-by-case decisions will get you nowhere.



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23 April 2018

A Neat Sustainability Innovation Story

About a decade ago, I bumped into Simon Daniel on a station platform. Simon and I been in the same year at Uni in the early 1990s, but hadn't seen each other in the meantime. We'd both been at the same event, the sadly defunct Low Carbon Best Practice Exchange, and he showed me what he had been promoting there on behalf of his company Moixa – a rechargeable AA battery which you plugged into a USB port. "Oh, that's a clever idea!" I said, being polite, as my mind was going "Who'd ever want to recharge stuff via a USB port?"

How wrong I was, of course. Just this weekend I've been recharging my Garmin watch, my iPhone, my front bike light and my new bluetooth speaker via a USB port. What's great from a Sustainability point of view is a. all of these gadgets are rechargeable, cutting the use of single-use batteries, and b. only the iPhone came with its own charger (which I used to charge all the other items) so a whole bunch of other eWaste has been avoided. The drawer of random battery chargers has not had a new addition in many years. The lightweighting of life continues.

While I have dedicated the last 20 years of my life promoting change for Sustainability, it takes the real innovators like Simon to see the logical progression of technology and behaviour and how they can combine to create new ideas which quickly become standard practice. More power to their collective elbows!


Photo ©

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28 December 2017

Book Review: Frugal Innovation - Doing More With Less

Mrs K picked up this 2015 book by Cambridge Judge Business School academics Navi Radjou and Jaideep Prabhu for me on the way home from a recent business trip. I've been looking for some inspiration in Sustainability thinking, so I got stuck in.

Frugal Innovation as a concept emerged from the Appropriate Technology movement and, more recently, the Bottom of the Pyramid idea championed by CK Prahalad. Fundamentally, it refers to designing consumer goods for people on very low incomes (e.g. stripped-to-the-bone functionality, smaller quantities, higher durability, better repairability).

However, Radju and Prabhu broaden the definition to include any 'doing more with less' concept and the book is as much about sustainable products and services in the 'developed world' as it is about Bottom of the Pyramid thinking. In fact, in their relentlessly upbeat and somewhat breathless prose, they quote many examples which appear only tangentially related to the idea of frugality at all – I had a constant nagging feeling I was reading a compendium of latest business thinking that the authors think is cool.

There are other problems as well – statements and statistics are often presented without evidence, source or context, and the authors fall into what I call the 'Evergreen trap', quoting Interface's eponymous carpet leasing initiative as a success, when in reality the company had to withdraw it when they found customers couldn't get their head around carpet as a revenue item. They're not the only big names to fall into this trap, but it immediately makes me question how much we can trust the multitude of other case studies quoted.

The bits I did like were the two chapters on customer engagement as this is an area of real challenge for my clients, and they include some case studies and stats I was unaware of (of course I'll have to check them out before quoting them), but overall I found the book frustrating, sprawling and sloppy. My hunt for inspiration goes on...


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1 September 2017

Sustainability is becoming 'The New Normal'

rusty car

Last week I chuckled at a typical silly season column in the i newspaper about Ford offering a scrappage scheme for older models of their cars. The author, Esther Walker, was justifying holding on to her old Fiesta on the (evidence-free) grounds that keeping it is greener than replacing it with a new model. She also quoted her other environmental efforts in her 'defence':

And – worse – I consider myself to be on the vanguard of modern environmental responsibility! You can hardly move in our kitchen for different recycling bins, colour-coded and stacked neatly. We break down our boxes tidily and use compost bags in our food waste caddy so’s not to traumatise the bin men with our grotesque food leftovers.

Sorry, to break it to Ms Walker, but this is not 'the vanguard of environmental responsibility'. With 43% of the UK's household waste recycled or composted (bearing in mind at least a third of household waste cannot easily be recycled at present), this is simply normal behaviour, replicated in kitchens across the country and across all demographics. My Dad recycles and he's no eco-warrior, it's just what people do now.

I remembered this week when I visited the factory of a potential client. What really impressed me was the way this pretty normal, well established engineering company had identified an important link in the low carbon economy to which they could apply their technology. They had built working demonstration models and were seeking investment to develop a fully commercialised version. They didn't see themselves as Elon Musk-style green evangelists, they were just identifying future market developments and working out how to exploit them. Normal entrepreneurial business behaviour, in other words.

Sustainability won't come from mindfulness, hugging trees or green evangelists. It will come when normal people, normal organisations and normal Governments see a sustainable economy as our normal way of life. And it appears to be happening.


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16 June 2017

SDGs & Business: snog, marry, avoid?


Yesterday I spent an enjoyable afternoon at Newcastle Business School at an event on the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) run by the Global Compact. I was on the panel for the discussion session, the lone person looking at the environmental sustainability side of things – the others were experts in business ethics.

This event was part of a roadshow launched because awareness of the SDGs in the UK has been found to be the lowest in Europe. The presumption then is that everybody needs to be aware of them, but as usual, I'm less concerned with how many people are aware of the goals; I'm more bothered that the right people are aware of the goals.

In the recent UK general election, all three major UK-wide parties made commitments to the SDGs in their manifestos. This is important as the goals are highly appropriate for all levels of Government. But beyond that, is it really realistic to expect someone running a coffee cart to be able to list all 17 goals (never mind the 169 targets) and explain how they are addressing each one? Clearly not.

At the event, I made the argument that every enterprise needs to pick the 5-7 issues which are most material to their business and prioritise those. After all, if you prioritise everything, you prioritise nothing. For this priority setting process, the SDGs and targets provide a useful checklist.

The SDGs can also be useful for a trans-national corporation to use the goals as a reality check, flag up risks and for sustainability reporting (at least one of my clients is using them for this purpose). For entrepreneurs, the SDGs are a useful guide to how the global economy may shift and where new business opportunities may arise.

So, in terms of my supercilious blog post title, my advice would be that business should not avoid the goals, nor try to marry their sustainability strategy to all 17. Pick the priorities and work on those - happy snogging!*


* 'snog' is British slang for a passionate kiss


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9 January 2017

Why clean technology disappoints then defies expectations

300px-google-cardboardAbout 17 years ago, I took a job establishing and running the Clean Environment Management Centre (CLEMANCE) at the University of Teesside. At the time, the Uni was known for one thing above all else – Virtual Reality. Our building was called the Virtual Reality and Technology Centre – every other engineering and science discipline was crammed in under the afterthought. And then, suddenly, it was decided that VR had no future and the VR Centre was unceremoniously shut.

I mused on this when my sister presented the boys with a Google Cardboard for Christmas. Just a decade after the VR Centre closed and a piece of cardboard with a couple of lenses in it, costing less than a fiver, is giving us VR in our living room. Of course you have to add in the critical element yourself – a (my!) smartphone. And that's probably where the VR centre went wrong – it closed a few years before the smartphone revolution changed the way we interacted with technology for ever. You could accuse those decision makers of being short-sighted, but the extent of that supposedly-unrelated revolution was extremely hard to anticipate.

When you look at clean technology trends they follow a similar trend – individual ideas will appear, get hyped and then disappear. And then, suddenly, we get something like the current renewable energy boom, far exceeding all predictions. The traditional way of explaining this is the hype cycle (see below), but to me this is over-simplistic.



I believe such breakthroughs occur as much by the convergence of technologies as by the maturity of individual technologies. If we go back to the smartphone, all the component technologies: mobile telecommunication, data transmission, the internet (in the form of bulletin boards etc), GUIs and even touch screens were all bimbling along in the 1980s but it took until 2007 for a certain Mr Jobs to conceive the smartphone as we know it. But I doubt that even Jobs would have foreseen, say, the addition of a piece of cardboard bringing VR to the masses. Predicting the future is a mugs game.

We're starting to get to the stage where the Energy 2.0 revolution could go really huge. At the minute we still have a centralised energy system (1.0) slowly morphing into a distributed one. You can see the other elements starting to fall into place – smart(er) grids, electric cars (with their batteries for storage), the Internet of Things, variable energy pricing and the ubiquity of smartphones as a potential interface/control system. That vision of sitting in front of the TV getting an alert on your phone that you could sell some of your solar-generated, EV-stored energy at a premium price if you tap OK right now could soon be with us. Or it could be something completely different, who knows?


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28 November 2016

Lowering Mental Barriers to Sustainability

I've spent the first part of this morning giving some advice to an entrepreneur who has an exciting green business idea but wanted some help with the direction to take it. As we talked, a theme emerged from my rambling – to get a novel idea up and running you have to:

1. solve a really pressing problem that your customer has, and/or

2. lower the mental leap required to adopt the new system.

These apply to all aspects of encouraging people to use more sustainable technology. For example, if you want people to use teleconferencing rather than business travel you should play on the convenience (more time with the family rather than in a dull hotel), make sure that booking/using the system is at least as easy than booking the travel, and get key people to insist on using teleconferencing for their meetings so others are forced to get familiar with it.

One of my clients, a chemist by trade, refers to barriers to change being like the 'activation energy' required to make a chemical reaction happen. Catalysts are used to reduce the activation energy and that's how we, as sustainability practitioners, should see ourselves - catalysts.


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25 May 2016

Think Different, Think Sustainability


Back in 1999,a group called the Energy Technology Support Unit (ETSU) calculated for the Government that the 'practicable' amount of solar power which could be generated in the UK by 2025 was 0.5 terawatt hours. Fast forward to 2015 and solar power generated over 7.5 terawatt hours – 15 times as much as predicted, a decade earlier than predicted.

I can't find the ETSU report online (wonder why?), but reading the huge amount of material that quotes it, it appears to be based on the amount of south facing roof area (whether this includes industrial sites, I don't know) and doesn't appear to take into consideration, say, solar farms or solar facades. I would guess that the plummeting cost of solar with rising demand wasn't factored in either. The point is not to rub the authors'  noses in it, but rather that this report was often quoted in early 21st Century diatribes about the 'madness' of trying to rely on renewable energy in general – and solar in particular. And they were dead wrong.

And now we have companies like Solaroad producing significant amount of solar energy from somewhere most of us wouldn't have looked for it – a cycle path (see photo). Just 70m of path generated enough energy for 3 houses. Multiply that up by potential cycle path coverage (plus pavements and roads?) and you're starting to see another potentially chunky, but unexpected, contributor.

How many other SolaRoad-type ideas are there out there? Nobody knows. But we shouldn't fall into the trap of putting artificial constraints on our sustainability ambitions on the basis of what we know now. Because the one thing we do know for sure is that we don't know very much!


Photo: SolaRoad

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11 May 2016

Reasons to be cheerful (pt 396)

old oil pump

Here's a selection of headlines from the last few days:

We're getting to the stage where headlines like these hardly make a ripple. The revelation last month that the UK produced a full 25% of its electricity from renewable sources last year, with an additional 20% or so coming from low carbon nuclear, hardly raised an eyebrow. When I got started in Sustainability in 1998, the former figure was at a mere 2% with 90% of that being Scottish hydropower.

I believe there's only one way the world is moving now and it's towards a low carbon economy. We've got a long way to go, and some rocks to navigate, but we've almost certainly pointed the ship in the right direction. Full steam ahead!


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13 October 2014

On Sustainability: Go Big or Go Home

Athlete compete in paul vault

The first four of my rules of pragmatic environmentalism were mainly aimed at the old-school green activism mindset which in my opinion holds us back from the rapid progress we need to make. But this last, fifth rule is aimed at us all.

For too long we have been told that we face existential threats, but are given '10 Top Tips' such as reusing plastic bags and not leaving the TV on standby. While there's nothing wrong with doing these, they won't deliver sustainability on their own and the cognitive dissonance between the threat and the action can switch people off as its like firing a pea shooter at an aircraft carrier.

We need to go big, or go home.

Two weeks ago today I submitted the manuscript for my next DoShort book, provisionally titled Accelerating Sustainability using the 80:20 Rule. The 80:20 rule says that, in many cases, 20% of actions/effort/input give us 80% of results and 80% of actions give us just 20%. This is a phenomenally powerful tool as it allows us to cut away all the extraneous activity - all those networks of green champions, endless supplier questionnaires and jute bags of green goodies - and focus on those things which will make a real difference - such as ditching a low sustainability supplier in favour of one with good sustainability credentials, or substituting secondary materials for virgin materials, or purchasing an electric vehicle fleet.

Along with the 80:20 Rule, a restless mindset of "good, we've done that, but it's not enough, how can we do it better?" will keep you out of your comfort zone and continually reaching for the next level.

And one of the most powerful moves is the stretch target - if you set your sights on cutting your carbon emissions by, say, 50% in 10 years, you will come up with much better projects than you will if your target is 5% by next year.

So set the bar high, clear it, then push it higher. You may just surprise yourself!


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8 October 2014

The Littlest (Sustainability) Hobo

I've got a really random and retro ear worm. I can't get the theme from 'The Littlest Hobo' out of my mind. You know the one:

"Maybe tomorrow, I'll want to settle down,
Until tomorrow, I'll just keep moving on."

By coincidence I have been finishing off the manuscript of my latest (fifth) book where I identified this kind of restlessness as a key attribute of the best in sustainability - "OK, we've done good, but it's not enough, how can we do better?"

If you want to install such a restlessness, some or all of the following will help:

  • Learn by doing - keep trying new things and keep what works;
  • Allow people to fail - a blame culture stifles innovation;
  • Celebrate success - show everyone what people like them can achieve;
  • Ask for solutions from everyone involved - inside and outside the organisation;
  • Creative destruction - keep pushing the company forwards by calling time on unsustainable practice/products/systems.

And going back to everybody's favourite canine good Samaritan:

Down this road that never seems to end,
Where new adventure lies just around the bend.

Let's make it an epic adventure of discovery, not a dull march of green tape!


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13 June 2014

Elon Musk, disruptive innovation & sustainability

tesla pic by Gareth Kane of Terra Infirma Ltd

Regular readers will need no reminder of my high regard for Tesla Motors and its maverick owner Elon Musk. And the thing I like the most is the way he thinks differently from everybody else, to take three examples:

  • Launching an electric vehicle company on the back of a roadster with astonishing performance (above);
  • Seeing and exploiting the cross-over between EV and domestic battery systems;
  • Launching an all-electric sedan that you would want to buy whether or not you want an EV.

Well Mr Musk has done it again, throwing another innovative cat amongst the business as usual pigeons. He's announced that he will make a number of key patents open source so others can use them without paying royalties. This flies in the face of the usual secrecy in the motor industry.

But it is classic 'creating shared value' thinking. The more electric vehicles on the roads, the more prices will come down and the more infrastructure will get installed which means more electric vehicles will get sold, which means carbon emissions will fall and so on.

It is very easy for commentators like me to say we've got to think different for sustainability - I certainly don't claim to have all the answers. But Elon Musk is a shining beacon for those of us who believe the solutions are out there - if only we free our minds from business as usual.


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14 May 2014

Sustainability by Innovation vs Sustainability by Metric

gk pt camira

Yesterday, I had a fantastic visit to Camira, the UK's largest interior fabrics company. Even if you've never heard of them, you've almost certainly sat on one of their products if you've used London Underground or one of many rail franchises.

My host was Sustainability Manager Paul Taylor who I've known for about 14 years - his enthusiasm is infectious and there's a truly liberating 'let's try it' attitude at the company which he revels in. I recorded the conversation and will post it here in my interview series, but one of the big themes that emerged from our discussion was the two quite different mindsets:

  • In Sustainability by Innovation, where the thinking is "What's the problem? What's the best solution? Can we make that work?"
  • In Sustainability by Metric, where the thinking is "What target shall we set? What do we have to do to meet that target? How much will that cost?"

While Camira has its metrics and targets, it is Sustainability by Innovation which is not only delivering their fantastic sustainability achievements (that's a Queen's Award for Enterprise in Sustainable Development behind Paul's head above), but driving the growth of their business. Major brands are approaching the company on the back of their ability to make sustainability happen.

I find too many companies focussed too hard on the metrics. Companies like Camira show that raising your ambitions with the innovation mindset will not just deliver on targets, but smash them to smithereens.


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3 February 2014

Getting into a Sustainability Mindset


To act without knowing why; to do things as they have always been done, without asking why; to engage in an activity all one's life without really understanding what it is about and how it relates to other things - this is to be one of the crowd.

Meng Tzu aka Mencius 379-289 BC

What Mencius (the most famous interpreter of Confucius) was getting at is our innate tendency to do what we have always done and/or what everybody else does. This is the key barrier to sustainability and why 'business as usual' has such inertia.

The green movement has its own blinkers as well, and its inability/refusal to see the world through the eyes of the person in the street is a key barrier to it reaching its own objectives.

So how do we broaden our minds to overcome these forms of inertia? Here's some ideas that work for me:

  • Read everything and anything about change - many of the most influential books on my shelves eg Nudge, Switch, have little to do with sustainability and everything to do with psychology. I'm currently reading Thinking Fast & Slow by Daniel Kahneman;
  • Every book you read, seek out the counter argument, if any, and consider the arguments;
  • Do this with the news too - if you read the Guardian, then scan the Telegraph too, or vice versa;
  • If a statistic seems to good/bad to be true, seek out the raw data - journalists, campaigners and activists are no strangers to cherry-picking;
  • Learn to filter out dogmatic views, green or anti-green (reading James Delingpole is just a waste of vital seconds of your life, some green drivel is just the same);
  • Train yourself to always ask Why? Use the Toddler Test - ask Why? 5 times and you'll get to the true reason;
  • Challenge people to solve problems - if they get the kudos for the 'win', it seriously breaks down the mental barriers to success;
  • Interact with others - particularly those who challenge your assumptions. My Corporate Sustainability Mastermind Group is based on interaction, not one-to-many teaching;
  • Set stretch targets - incremental targets encourage incremental thinking, stretch targets make you raise your sights;
  • Be an intelligent contrarian - if someone blithely parrots received wisdom, gently challenge them;
  • Choose your words carefully - don't close down options before they've been explored;
  • Allow people to be creative - workshops are much more powerful than meetings.

That should be enough to be getting on with, but if you have any more, add them to the comments below:

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2 October 2013

Challenge, don't choke

diving inI've been asked again this week how certain sustainable supply chain ideas fit into a particular procurement framework. As I'm bureaucracy-intolerant, I always have to bite my lip at such times as my honest answer would be to scream "Who cares?! That's the wrong question! Sod the framework! How do we take sustainability to the next level? is the question!"

I recently interviewed Ramon Arratia of InterfaceFLOR and he made similar points:

“We continue to be impressed by what can be achieved when suppliers are encouraged to innovate and are rewarded for solving our problems instead of us trying to solve theirs. We have witnessed how much more the ‘inspire, measure, innovate’ approach can deliver than ‘code, questionnaire, audit’.”

"Rather than ticking boxes and checking certificates and all that crap, if you stop doing business with a high impact supplier and start using low impact suppliers, things will start to change very quickly."

Whether we are talking with suppliers, employees or partners, the question should always be "how will you/we raise the bar?" That might mean ripping up existing systems if they only serve to choke off progress. Let's unleash people's latent creativity by challenging and inspiring them first - and sort out the dull bits second.


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1 July 2013

Is there a Hype Cycle for Clean Tech?


I was at an European Parliament event on low carbon vehicles last Friday at the new Gateshead College campus adjacent to the Nissan factory. It was a great panel of politicians, industry reps and an NGO, all wittily chaired by motoring journalist Quentin Wilson. Somebody raised the 'hype cycle' which is where new technologies get hyped way above reality then come crashing back into disappointment before hitting their natural level (see above).

For example, remember what we were once told about microwave ovens? That they cooked the food from inside out, so it'd always be cooked through and that it wouldn't heat the plate. All nonsense. That's not to say the technology is useless, far from it, microwaves are a very efficient way to cook.

But does clean tech/renewable energy technology ever get unrealistic hype? The media seems to be so down on green technology that it leaps straight from 'go' into the trough of disillusionment. I mean, one moment we're being told that renewables will never produce enough energy, next we're told they will produce too much.

Is this trudge through the marsh of negativity before a clean technology can prove itself  inevitable? Is the lack of positive hype a bad thing? Or one day will we get a glimmer of media hyperbole?


Image by Jeremykemp at en.wikipedia

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22 April 2013

8 Ways to Bring Creativity to Sustainability


Oh, look, it's Earth Day! And it was Earth Week just last week when I was bemoaning this rash of me-too, unoriginal thinking. Don't worry, I'm not going to rant about this again, but meeting the sustainability challenge is going to require more than the bog standard range of 'solutions' - awareness days, protests, posters, switch it off stickers, ISO14001 etc, etc.

To reduce the sheer bandwidth of information that floods our senses, we restrict our worldview to a certain frame and block out what doesn't fit in that frame. So us sustainability practitioners tend to see the world from a "Save the World!" point of view where "doing something, anything, for Earth Day" is more important than doing something effective.

The problem here is that the people whose attitudes and behaviour we need to change are looking at the world through a quite different frame. This is the whole point of my Green Jujitsu idea - that us practitioners need to take a look at the world through those other people's frame(s) and develop engagement techniques to suit.

Another problem with our mindset frames is that they restrict us creatively. We tend to focus on those things which are urgent, easy to understand, close to us physically and/or which we are familiar with. So how do we expand our frames to see breakthrough solutions?

Here are some guidelines I use:

1. Don't go down the mumbo-jumbo route. In my opinion much of the 'mindfulness' movement is inward looking whereas solutions are largely found outside our experience. And you'll put off cynics like me, so put away the crystals and the prayer wheels;

2. Don't be a doom-monger. If you want to get people creative, telling them the world is about to end will make many think "what's the point?" Get excited about sustainability and others will too!

3. Likewise, go easy on the green jargon. I try to introduce ideas such as the circular economy, product service systems and industrial symbiosis as work progresses rather than trying to get everyone up to speed before starting.

4. Read outside your discipline. If you look on my bookshelf, many of the books which have influenced me most are not 'green' books but those that tackle broader issues like change (Switch, Nudge), communications (Lend Me Your Ears, Visual Meetings) and management (Good to Great, In Search of Excellence, The Fifth Discipline). There are big themes in many of these books which apply to sustainability as much as any other aspect of life.

5. Draw. When I get people to plot out their business processes graphically, it always has some interesting results. It also gets the problem down on to one large sheet of paper which makes it more manageable.

6. Use the Toddler Test aka The 5 Whys to get to real reasons: We need this piece of kit. Why? To dry the materials. Why? Because we added water to make them flow. Why? To shift them from that side of the factory to this one. Why? Errr...

7. Ramp up the challenge. Even in my short workshops, I try to get each team to rotate around the issues under discussion and instead of starting from scratch on each one, challenge them to build on the ideas of the teams that have gone before. The good ideas often come in the last iteration when all the obvious ones have been identified.

8. Ditch Powerpoint. Presentations kill creativity. I recently did a Powerpoint-free workshop but two thirds of the way through had to cede the floor to a guest speaker who fired up the projector. You could feel the enthusiasm drain out of the room like air escaping from a punctured lilo.

I hope these 8 points give you plenty of food for thought - as I've said the need for creativity is just as strong amongst practitioners and facilitators as it is amongst our clients and colleagues. Keep trying stuff and keep what works for you.


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23 July 2012

Innovation, Failure & Sustainability

It is one of the most repeated clichés in business:

The man who never made a mistake never made anything.

Sustainability requires innovation, innovation implies risk, risk inevitably means a degree of failure, right?

Yes. But...

The problem with sustainability, unlike, say, social networking or wireless payments, is the huge number of people waiting gleefully for those failures. Otherwise how would the plethora of idiot-reactionary newspaper columnists, bloggers and on-line comment trolls sustain their life's "work"?

I get particularly worried when sustainability projects with a large degree of public funding start getting hyped up. This conflates the two obsessions of those one-eyed smart-alecs and knuckle-draggers - the environmental movement and public expenditure. If the project goes down, it's like Christmas and their birthday rolled into one. And unfortunately the resulting sneer-fest permeates out into the general public.

I know of at least three publicly backed projects which have been heavily sold by charismatic figures, appearing weekly in the local press, whose progress has suddenly gone uncharacteristically quiet. And it worries me that if they fail the fallout will make those with hands on the levers of power fear more bad publicity and stick to the same old same old.

So, while we must try new things, must allow ourselves room to fail and learn from our mistakes, some prudent modesty is in order until the approach/technology/whatever is proven in practice. Then we'll show 'em...


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7 June 2012

Book Review: Mad Like Tesla by Tyler Hamilton

As soon as I walked into the meeting room, I knew I had made a mistake. The huge table was at least 6 inches deep in paper, rising up to a couple of feet of documents in the middle. Two of my then University colleagues were sat to one side, bemused looks on their faces. Around the table danced a rotund gentleman in a pin stripe suit, grabbing pieces of paper and shoving them under our noses, sometimes obscuring sections of text with another sheet, hardly taking a breath as he painted a picture of a bright new tomorrow.

Whatever this guy had invented, we never found out, but it was clearly going to change the world. If we questioned him too far (ie at all), he would turn aggressive, so, too polite/intimidated to walk out, we sat back and watched the show. After an hour and a half I grabbed an excuse to make my escape, promising to find out whether we had high security research labs available for the next stage of development. I did actually go through the motions of checking we didn't and faxed the gent to tell him (this cutting edge innovator had no e-mail account...) and wished him luck. He responded with vitriol and attempted to get some of my section's funding cut.

That was my first and closest encounter with a mad inventor and ever since I've kept them at arms length, usually politely asking how their revolutionary energy systems comply with the Second Law of Thermodynamics. Cleantech journalist and blogger Tyler Hamilton is much more tolerant and indeed fond of this particular breed of one-eyed energy enthusiasts ploughing lonely furrows with would-be technical revolutions. He reminds us in the introduction to his intriguing new book that energy pioneer Nikola Tesla - who gave us the AC motor, radio, robots, x-ray photographs and more - was clearly bonkers with bizarre aversions to hair and ladies' earrings and some really outlandish behavioural problems.

Hamilton takes us on a tour of some potentially quite amazing pieces of technology being developed outside the scientific mainstream - space-based solar, nuclear fusion, algae-derived biofuels and instant charge energy storage devices - all trying to make the leap over the "valley of death" from lab bench to commercial scale. My favourite is mentioned in passing - controlling electronic devices by mimicking the constant chatter of swarms of bees to even out peaks and troughs in consumption. Some of the more rational inventors here might be put out at being lumped in with the perpetual motion loons - the acid test between the two being how they respond to being challenged - the latter reacting like my pin-striped passive-aggressive friend above.

Hamilton's central thesis is that it would only take one or two of these ideas to work at scale to revolutionise the way we generate, store and use energy in the future, so we shouldn't be too quick to dismiss idea just because it doesn't fit with what we know now. He also points out the challenges these guys face. Energy revolutions are hard come by - the sheer scale of investment committed in the current systems and the obsession for reliability above all else, make it much more difficult for new ideas to flourish in this field than in, say, social media.

I really liked this book - zippily written and bursting with enthusiasm without getting starry eyed. Hamilton clearly enjoys telling the inventors' stories and while he gives his 'madmen' the benefit of the doubt, but always gently asks the killer question of each technology and its technologist. Given the subject matter, it will inevitably date quickly and its target market may be limited, but it's an entertaining, informative and thought-provoking read.

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Posted by Gareth Kane one response

2 May 2012

Green Technology: It's the S-Curve, Stupid

When I were a lad in the late 1970s, I dreamed of having my own computer. In my room. I would lie awake at night making mental lists of all the things I would get it to do - like getting a map of the area and plot all my friends houses on it, all our dens and all our secret routes - you can tell I was never one of the cool kids. Then, sometime in 1982 I got my hands on a BBC Micro. Hands shaking, I typed "Hello" and hit Enter. "Syntax Error" was the stark monochrome response. What a load of rubbish, I thought (I did grow to love my Beeb, however.)

30 years later, I have beside me a little black rectangle of glass with an apple on the back that will do pretty much anything the 10 year old me could have dreamed of and much, much more. And guess what, it costs less than that BBC computer cost all that time ago, when a packet of crisps was less than 10 pence.

Technology evolves. Sometimes slowly, sometimes incredibly rapidly, but the first version of anything - computers, cameras, cars, aircraft, whatever - is always a bit rubbish. But you need to get it past the rubbish stage and into a reasonable functional form before market forces will start driving break-through innovations and costs start plummeting. This is well known, universally accepted and is usually represented as a series of S-curves of maturing versions of any technology. Every time one technology matures, someone will be working on the version that supersedes it - but the rubbish stage (pre yellow burst) is soon left far behind.

Given this understanding, it really annoys me when a report comes out of some 'free-market' think tank which claims that renewables will always be too expensive, will never deliver energy security and/or will require fossil fuel back-up (which they often bizarrely assume will have to run full time.) By the way, I put 'free market' in inverted commas as the authors inevitably ignore how markets work and assume technologies will not evolve, their costs will stay constant, and synergetic developments will not take place. They are the equivalent of the Cambridge professor who in 1951 declared no one would ever need a computer of their own, or be able to afford one.

Recent history shows us how short-sighted these analyses are - the whole furore over the cut to UK solar feed-in tariffs was triggered by increased demand leading to plummeting panel costs which in turn boosted demand - the natural market cycle. Now the first iteration of silicon based panels is maturing, the next generation of dye-based technology - which is twice as efficient - is starting to emerge. When that hits the maturity level, we'll see a lot, lot more and cheaper solar power which will in turn drive the next generation.

Synergy is another factor in those S-curves. To exist, my iPhone has required a huge number of innovations in processor size, power and cost, mobile communication technology and the modern internet to name but three things that weren't freely available back in the days of my BBC Micro. When you start to put together very efficient solar panels and innovations like BAE System's 'structural battery' where energy can be stored in the structure of a vehicle, which in turn cuts the need for heavy batteries, cutting energy requirements - you can start to see all sorts of potential for solar powered vehicles.

Thirty plus years on, the 10 year old me is still excited by technology and the potential for human ingenuity. So we've got to ignore the calls of those with a bizarre compulsion to cling to the past and put human ingenuity into the epic challenge that is living within the natural limits of our planet. Let's dream our dreams and ignore those who can only sit at the sidelines and sneer.

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