Meet the innovators whose fresh energy turns us on

3 Dec 2012 @ 9.46 pm
| Business

Once we harness the power of the sun, we could all enjoy cheap energy. Photograph: YorkMix
Like the sun’s rays great teachers and innovators energise the rest of us, says York entrepreneur Peter Harrington

Imagine if energy suddenly got cheaper. Not a bit cheaper but a lot cheaper.

High household electricity and gas bills would be a thing of the past. Travel would be more affordable. As importantly, the price of food and goods would fall (in line with shrinking distribution costs) and public services would run far more efficiently. I could go on…

You might think this recession busting notion to be distorted fantasy but according to Peter Diamandis this thinking is very real. More significantly, he says change is likely to happen quicker than we expect. So how does it work?

As part of his TED presentation Peter argues convincingly that despite calamitous media headlines we have experienced tremendous progress over the last century; in fact progress is accelerating. Technology advances mean childhood mortality is down by a factor of 10; we now live twice as long; and the cost of food, electricity, transportation and communication has all fallen – some of this a thousand fold.


Accessing abundance

Energy quickly becomes the focus of Peter’s talk and the fact our earth is “bathed in 5,000 times more energy than we use in a year”. Electrolysis he reasons made aluminium abundantly accessible. Entrepreneurial technologists just need to understand how to make solar power abundantly available – when this happens, energy will become far cheaper.

Of course, sceptics will argue that accessing large-scale solar power won’t happen for a long time and/or is only part of the answer to global challenges (for more on this thinking I recommend Paul Gilding’s work and especially his talk The Earth Is Full). However, if you’ve read Nassim Nicolas Taleb’s powerful book The Black Swan you’ll know that what is perceived as highly improbable is much closer than we think.


People inspire

Whatever your view you can’t help but be inspired by the people like Peter Diamandis and Paul Gilding. Since they make best use of their own human resource, they use their talents highly efficiently and effectively. As a consequence, they have become a powerful source of energy themselves and there are others like them – often closer than we think.

Earlier this autumn I returned to the World Entrepreneurship Forum in Lyon where I met many impressive people who lead fulfilled and inspiring lives. Present was the billionaire entrepreneur Mo Ibrahim whose foundation annually rewards democratically elected African leaders (who excel at their job) with $5 million.

Also in attendance was Melissa Kushner. She believes that every child in the world should have the opportunity to achieve. Losing her father at a young age, Melissa committed herself to ensuring parental death does not determine a child’s fate.

Instead of just working in her native New York Melissa founded goods for good which is now empowering community centres to care for over 67,000 orphans and children in Malawi. In six years this social enterprise has become remarkably proficient at building businesses and distributing unsold and unwanted Western goods. Not bad for someone just turned 30.


The firelighters

Melissa is solar power made flesh. Great innovators like her are a source of boundless energy, animating and inspiring all who come into contact with them. The best teachers, too, serve as lightning rods. They crackle with ideas, galvanise their students and generate creativity from thin air.

And in 2010 in Edinburgh I had the good fortune to attend a talk by one such individual. Clearly his reputation went before him because it was standing room only for people like me squeezed shoulder to shoulder at the back.

The power of Professor Alistair Fee’s stories that morning about innovation and entrepreneurial learning are still vivid in my memory. His enthusiasm, imagination and ideas had me yearning to return to class; but how many people are running ‘James Bond’ themed courses so students can experience what it’s like not to fear failure? And who else is prepared to run classes from the city’s tallest building and equip students with binoculars so they can search for opportunities?

Intrigued and inspired by Alistair’s fresh energy I’ve deliberately stayed in touch with him and most recently learnt about his innovation think tank work; or rather the ‘Cornflower Club’ which he describes as follows:


Transformational energy

“I wanted to find an unusual café that closed at 5.30pm so I could hire it for the rest of the evening. It was a café with strange tables and chairs. Walls hung with art. Marlyn Monroe, Elvis, Van Gogh, Vallely, Vermeer, et al. Red abstract brilliance, heavy gold frames, industrial lighting. I am talking; the most unlikely café you will ever find.

“This group could have been called the Regional Development Innovation Group (RDIG). We chose the name Cornflower Club. A cornflower is blue, strong and tenacious. We deliberately accelerated the flow of thinking by challenging our assumptions of what such a group might look like, sound like or even taste like.

“Usual think tanks taste of coffee and biscuits, look like grey walls and sound like flip charts turning. Usual think thanks can murder creativity – ‘Consultant Smith, with the PowerPoint in the Function Room’!”

Even Alistair’s choice of food was consistent with the theme of getting people to make the most of the minds. From ‘Asparagus Tips’ (we all need to learn) and scones baked with shredded frogs legs (for leaping over competitors) “are always served to the Cornflower Club” through to ‘Rhubard Parfait’ (sharp, fresh and exhilarating) the menu like all the other ingredients had participants hungry for more of the same so they could continue to make best use of their new-found energy.

Like hitchhiking, Alistair believes we must be determined to explore in more directions, for longer, and accept that what we know is insufficient for tomorrow’s travails. But in daring to try new things, we discover unbelievable truths that bring about useful, sustainable change.

The world needs fresh energy because we can’t continue to rely on current thinking nor existing oil and gas resources. Mass solar energy may only be a possibility, but people like you and me can definitely make a real difference if we think how best to use our time and energy whilst we here on this planet.