Reading tributes to the fallen tech hero, Steve Jobs, from around the globe, two things are clear to me — his successor is likely to be in the clean energy sector and working somewhere other than the U.S.
I’m not saying Americans have lost their inventive mojo, just that I have met 50 innovative, inspirational thinkers from other nations for every one working equally hard in Silicon Valley or MIT. And most are tackling the greatest challenge to our environment and economy — securing sustainable, clean energy for the 7 billion people now living on earth and the 10 billion we’ll have by 2050. So where will solutions come from that will fundamentally alter how we harness, deliver, and use energy, just as Jobs fundamentally changed his industry? Let’s look in Geneva, Beijing, and Abu Dhabi.
I’m speaking this week at the European Future Energy Forum in Geneva, Switzerland, and am astonished by the number of clean energy innovators from all around the world gathering here, but especially surprised by the domestic companies. Solar energy leadership from a country that is shadowed by the Alps and covered in clouds and snow for most of the year? Yes, because even in climates like this, these innovators are proving you can run homes, factories, and even yachts on nothing but energy from the sun.
Last month in China, I toured the Tianjin “eco-city” near Beijing that is taking sustainability innovations from hundreds of inventors and putting them to work in a real world setting. It will take this kind of scale to commercialize disruptive technologies to bring down cost and teach more users about the benefits — much like Steve Jobs taught us all to use a smartphone.
Finally, every year in Abu Dhabi at the World Future Energy Summit, I have seen brilliant innovations showcased and adopted for use on all parts of the globe. Many of these technologies are also being proven at scale by the Masdar initiative there. Masdar, which means “the source” in Arabic, is a new city that holistically integrates many different elements required for the rapid and agile R&D of renewable energies and sustainable living models.
The Summit has also been the catalyst for awarding the United Arab Emirates’ world-renowned Zayed Future Energy Prize and, as a finalist myself in 2011 and a nominee again in 2012, I have seen first hand the depth and breadth of my fellow entrants from all corners of the world and was reminded that good ideas will come from the most surprising people and places.
The great thing about this year’s award is that it highlights three categories fundamental to solving our future energy challenges — small and medium size enterprises (SMEs) and non-governmental organizations (NGOs); individuals; and large corporations.
Why does this matter? Working on sustainability initiatives for the state of California, I learned that it requires a confluence of ideas from various individuals, companies, and organizations — not just government — to make the transition from environment-friendly ideas to concrete, wide-reaching systemic change.
SMEs account for over 90 percent of business worldwide and drive both innovation and competition. NGOs are strong platforms for advocating renewable energy and sustainability ideas, while providing a reliable conduit between business, government, and communities. And, as our reflections on Steve Jobs remind us, never underestimate the power of the individual — especially one with a bright, innovative and truly disruptive idea.
As many have said, there’s no “silver bullet” to achieving 100 percent clean, sustainable energy to power our world before the end of this century. Rather, it’s going to take the “silver buckshot” from all elements of society to achieve this necessary goal. But if we find and encourage the Steve Jobs of cleantech, wherever he or she may be today, I’m convinced this dream will soon be a reality.