WGES 2017: Why green entrepreneurship needs youth involvement

During a panel discussion on youth involvement in entrepreneurship. (Image via Vanessa Khalil)

This is the second of two articles about the future of global and regional green economies.

In green activism circles, environmentalist and explorer David de Rothschild needs no introduction. But it was The Plastiki Expedition, a four-month voyage across the Great Pacific Garbage Patch, that thrust him and his peers’ efforts into international spotlight in 2010. “We wanted to raise some awareness [around the patch], so we tried to build a boat made entirely out of plastic bottles,” recounted De Rothschild, in his keynote speech at this year’s World Green Economy Summit (WGES).

By 2010, De Rotshchild and company had spent four years building the boat, aptly naming it The Plastiki. Then, they spent four months in sea on The Plastiki, collecting plastic bottles across the Pacific, and tweeting their journey. The world took notice. But “deep down inside, I realized that we haven’t solved anything. More plastic had entered the ocean during our voyage than we could have saved,” said De Rotshchild. “We’ve got to stop rewarding green [packaging] if it’s not true green”, he added, citing examples of ‘eco’ razors, and Japan’s Seagaia Ocean Dome , which was built “within feet of the real thing”.

Naturally, De Rotschild is an advocate of biomimicry, an approach to tech research and development that mimics nature’s inherent innovation, and defies human hubris, and therefore, commands cooperation over cut-throat competition in the startup world. “I get it, it’s a race [among startups]. But when we are looking at things that can actually give us water, clean air, and energy, we should work together to help make that transition sooner,”  he said.

Power in numbers

Easing competitive young entrepreneurs into coopetition is one obstacle. Incentivizing them to take ownership of environmental problem-solving efforts is a more pressing priority. “[Youth] are the ones that have the most vested interest in the future, not only financially but also, [because] they are also going to live the longest,” said Richard King, senior Advisor at the US Department of Energy’s Solar Decathlon Middle East branch, in a WGES panel discussion on youth engagement in green entrepreneurship.

King addresses the urgency with numbers. “[Youth have] 60 more years of living on the earth. If you are going to live in a house and own a car, it’s about $ 5000/year in energy costs, $300k in your lifetime at current prices,” he calculated.

In the current global economic climate, King’s math should be a strong selling point for youth.

“And [for that to happen the youth] have to be allowed entry into the commercial [viability of their ideas], into actually doing things in the real economy,” stressed Jens Wandel, currently an independent advisor on public affairs and sustainable development, and previously a top-ranked UN member. Wandel cites the success of Denmark’s first edition of the Unleash Innovation Lab  this year; it brought together 1,000 attendees from 129 nationalities aged between 20 and 35 years, who were “carefully selected based on their own idea”.

King is of another school of thought. He believes youth’s inherent competitiveness and financial priorities are key to them actively taking part in green efforts.  “I made it a competition worth the notoriety, pride and money. A bigger carrot more valuable than money is the competition,” he said of Solar Decathlon, a competition he started under the US Department of Energy back in 2002. Since its launch, the two-year program rallied 2,000 architecture and engineering students from 20 different universities to build fully sustainable solar-powered houses.

Similar initiatives in the MENA region are following suit, such as Singularity University’s Global Impact Challenge, and on a community and knowledge exchange level, the Green Entrepreneurs Meetups in the UAE, which has rallied over 1,000 members. Others, such as the Acumen For Social Enteprise Business Plan Competition, launched in 2013, have been incentivizing social entrepreneurship at large.  

Trickling down

But far from mass endeavors, green tech simply needs to be sold more relevantly to young people. Ivan Pasichnyk, CEO and co-founder of home energy monitor EcoisMe, uses Fitbit as an example. “ Back in 2008, people didn’t care about health and training, [let alone] steps they took during the day. But then, Fitbit came along and brought gamification and challenges to them,” he said.

The need to engage young entrepreneurs into the green economy owes to it being highly dependent on the digital economy – where most young entrepreneurs are pouring their efforts today. “The digital economy has to be green. Technology is adopted to solve human problems. So if you digitize a city or make it smart but make it less power-efficient, then you haven’t done much,” said Ramez Dandan, chief technology officer at Microsoft Gulf in a panel on digital and green transformation.

From a tech standpoint, he breaks down digital economies into four foundations: “mobility, [that being] apps we use as individuals ; data and data science; advanced analytics, [essentially], the use of artificial intelligence to map out data patterns; and last but not least, cloud technology, which allows deployment [of other technologies] at scale”.

Examples of technology powering environmental sustainability are ample. One is “dynamic tolling models, where you actually manage to reduce the [dwell] time [for] cars on the road and, therefore,  [congestion and pollution],” said Bjoern Ewers, partner and managing director at Boston Consulting Group. Another is a project led by global enterprise software giant SAP in Rio De Janeiro, a city plagued with heavy floods and rain seasons. The project entailed plugging sensors across the city’s drainage systems to measure water levels, explained Navzat Simsek, SAP’s industry director for energy and natural resources for the UAE and Oman. These sensors have been informing preemptive decisions as to where and how emergency aid should be intensified and spread – not to mention identifying areas that need to be completely evacuated by residents.

Evidently, residents themselves need to be brought into the conversation alongside policymakers, corporates and younger entrepreneurs. One such endeavour, said Ewers, has been  Amsmartdam city in Amsterdam, where “30 bottom-up initiatives” launched by young people had engaged the population of three neighborhoods with sustainable and smart efforts.

“From a policymaking point of view, better information and transparency of how people live [and behave] is such a big chance for a policymaker,” said Dandan, granted governments are willing to open access to the deluge of data they hold.

As for people, young and old, as Rothschild puts it, “what we need to find is internal emotional intelligence rather than technological intelligence. We need to find more empathy.”

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