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Innovation at the speed of Apple?

January 22 2008 | Jim's Blog,
by Jim

I was in tech for while before I came to Surfrider. Shifting industries is an invigorating experience. It's like learning a new sport and pursuing it immediately as a professional. You find yourself reaching for familiarity and instead being handed a blank canvas. I've loved it.

The transition has caused me to pause a few times. I've found myself comparing various characteristics of technology with the environmental movement; organizational processes, accepted norms, leading periodicals, cultural attributes, messaging styles and driving forces.

Both areas are fueled by big ideas but their approaches are miles apart.

One characteristic that is different is the pace of change and bent for innovation. Enviros have deeper altruistic guiding forces than techies but they don't seem to have the insatiable drive to innovate. The mindset in tech is innovate-to-survive; you never know if you will wake up to learn you've been taken out by an extension of Google's application creep or some startup that changed the game rules "overnight". That nervousness isn't there with enviros. Instead they are driven by a different kind of survival... planetary survival. But... if the stakes are so high with enviros why isn't there a relentless pursuit of innovation? Why isn't there a Moore's Law for enviros?

Watch the Steve Jobs keynote address. Sure, it's chock full o'slickness but he connects with culture. He's influencing daily habits. And his messaging isn't simply about bits and bytes; it's about enabling human ingenuity.

Now tell me, which environmental organization innovates and is as vibrant and culture-leading as Apple?

I can't think of one.

I know it's an apples-to-oranges comparison (sorry, lame pun). Some would argue I'm comparing silicone and code to policy and activism. From my seat I'm talking about big ideas, culture-changing forces... the comparison makes sense to me. Any organization has a certain value we "assign" them. That value is tied to something... their innovation, understandable utility, impact on the planet or overall cultural relevancy. Sure Apple is hucking products and Google is aggregating eyeballs but in the last two decades these crews' innovations have literally changed the world.

They aren't alone... look at almost any sector and you will find very strong innovation.
- Biotech lives on the bubble of newness... each discovery has a patent "fuse"
- Architecture? One look at the Beijing Olympic stadium and you'll see we're talking about something radically new.
- Even the crusty automotive industry is moving with the various hybrid flavors du jour

So what are the great innovations within the environmental movement?

Where is the environmental equivalent of the man on the moon? Where is the artificial heart? Where is the human genome project?

Sure, I know we have documented our aspirations. We know what we want. We have the dream... but what are we doing to get there... and how innovative are our approaches?

I'd claim we have some mini-innovations; Gore's Powerpoint-simple global warming pitch, the increasingly widespread use of e-activism, policy shifts and the work being done on behemoths like Wal-Mart to decrease their footprint.

Further, one could argue that innovators have simply moved their interest from other areas to the environment. Silicon Valley's increasing appetite for alternative energy and other green solutions illustrates this. Truly, I see Vinod Khosla as one of the shining stars in the environmental movement... and he's a venture capitalist. Of course there are mavens like Craig Vetner who have been moving the needle in some very interesting and promising energy directions.

My sense is that people like Craig and Vinod ARE part of this answer. They have embraced the risk/reward equation. In my opinion, we all need to embrace this mindset. We need to be willing to risk; we need to be willing to try net new approaches to compliment our existing programs, campaigns and knowledge.

We should all be looking for tools and processes that have the power to "add zeros" (touch 10,000 people instead of 10) and truly "touch" the person with enough power to make them understand what's at stake and then change their habits accordingly.

What is the most innovative approach/campaign you have seen in the environmental movement?

Images / Macbook Air: Apple, Beijing stadium: Herzog and De Meuron
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