How to find breakthrough environmental solutions

From my earliest childhood, I have been passionate about protecting the environment.  I’ve dedicated my career and academic training to pursuing this passion.  After spending more than a decade working with non-profits, corporations, and governments trying to solve planetary issues, I realize that incremental change is not enough.  I believe we’ve reached a stage where we need a transformational new approach.  I call it being an “environmental entrepreneur” and it requires breakthrough solutions.

As Frans Johansson, author of The Medici Effect, has suggested, the best opportunities for innovation are created at “intersections” – the “mixing of disciplines, cultures, and domains in which one can specialize through education, work, hobbies, traditions, or other life experiences.”  This viewpoint is further reinforced by innovation experts such as Charles Lee, Founder & CEO of Ideation, who says, “I live off the premise that innovation often happens when two or more seemingly unrelated concepts intersect.”

These “intersectional” innovations are at the heart of what being an “environmental entrepreneur” means to me.  Now more than ever, I believe this kind of interdisciplinary approach is essential for discovering new ways to radically enhance environmental quality and protect and restore the natural world.  We need breakthrough solutions.  So what counts as a breakthrough?  I use three key criteria.

1.  Issues are solved at the “root cause”

Those who know me well often hear me refer to the “Starfish Story” originally written by Loren Eiseley.  While the story pulls at the heartstrings as individual starfish are rescued, my viewpoint aligns with Stanford Social Innovation Review in “Social Entrepreneurs Must Stop Throwing Starfish”

To make breakthroughs, we must get to the root cause that is causing a problem.  In the starfish example, this means addressing what has caused them to wash up on the beach in the first place.

Through an environmental lens, solving at the root cause requires looking at ecosystem-level issues instead of one specific species.  There is no point in expending time, money, or effort on a solution unless it addresses the ultimate source of the problem.

2.  The solution is market-driven

The non-profit model historically has been based on the “tin cup” model, where donations and grants allow the organization to exist.  This is inherently inefficient because financial resources and execution are not housed in the same entity (i.e. a non-profit runs a project with funding coming from an outside foundation or other source).  The model makes it incredibly hard to learn by doing and pivot when experimentation leads to a different path.

I believe that for a solution to be “breakthrough,” it must be self-sufficient, generating meaningful revenue to achieve scale and maximize impact.

Many types of business models these days are blurring the lines (e.g. non-profits that sell services, for-profits in the social enterprise space, etc.).  The point is that no matter the legal structure, an idea must be able to generate self-sufficient revenue if it is going to be breakthrough.

3. The solution is a “Hell, yes!”

My final criterion is personal.  For me, a solution must feel like a “Hell, yes!” to count as a breakthrough; otherwise, it is a “no.”  As leaders at Plywood People, a non-profit in Atlanta that leads a community of start-ups doing good, like to say, “What we say ‘yes’ to and what we say ‘no’ to will determine who we will become and what we will be known for.”  

This is all about applying our individual energy in the best way possible to maximize impact.  If I choose to work on projects I’m not genuinely excited about, they won’t get my full attention, and therefore face lower odds of success.

I’m looking for collaborators

If you’re a visionary leader interested in finding entrepreneurial solutions to global environmental issues, please get in touch!  I’m looking for opportunities to partner and collaborate.