7 ways to unleash game-changing greentech innovation

Written on:February 14, 2012
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This essay is the second of a series of four appearing this week on GigaOm.  It draws from material in Jonathan Koomey’s latest book, Cold Cash, Cool Climate:  Science-based Advice for Ecological Entrepreneurs, which is being released by Analytics Press on February 15, 2012.  

Written for entrepreneurs and investors, this book describes how to profit from tackling climate change, one of this century’s greatest challenges.   The author acts as your company’s scientific advisor, summarizing the business implications of the climate problem for both new and existing ventures.  Koomey helps you effectively allocate scarce time and resources to the most promising opportunities, drawing upon his more than 25 years of experience in analyzing and implementing climate solutions.

7 ways to unleash game-changing greentech innovation

The key to unleashing the power of innovation in new ventures is whole systems integrated design, the modern champion of which is Amory Lovins of Rocky Mountain Institute (RMI).  Most engineering students are taught to focus on optimizing parts of systems, but rarely encouraged to look at the system as a whole.  Unfortunately, the focus on components leads designers to (as Lovins says) “pessimize the system”.

RMI has created a set of 17 principles for doing whole systems integrated design, from which I’ve abstracted some key points below, writing specifically for those trying to start ventures to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and make a profit at the same time. I’ve also drawn upon the excellent book by Stasinopoulos et al. titled Whole System Design, where you can find detailed examples combined with a nicely organized set of steps for organizing the design process.

1). Create an interdisciplinary team

Your team needs a diversity of skills to truly explore almost any design space. That’s because few people have the breadth and depth of knowledge across all relevant disciplines to assess what’s possible. In addition, the process of brainstorming, if properly fostered, generates new ideas and acceptance by the team of the resulting design path (by virtue of their shared experience of brainstorming).

2). Reward the team for substantially improved designs

The goal is radical improvement, not incremental changes, and the best way to achieve this result is to pay for what you want. This sounds like a commonsense notion, but that’s often not how things are done. For example, engineers designing the heating and cooling systems in commercial buildings are usually paid as a percentage of the capital cost of the system they install, so it’s no wonder they don’t undertake whole system redesigns that would reduce capital costs.  So reward the team for game-changing innovation in whatever ways your pocketbook allows.

3). Start with a clean sheet

While learning from past efforts is helpful, radically improved designs always start with a clean sheet. That’s partly because rapid technology change has opened up previously unknown opportunities, but also because old designs embody old assumptions, and those often no longer hold. I show in the book how even talented people create artificial obstacles to accomplishing big goals, and starting fresh can allow you to sidestep that tendency.

4). Rely on measured data

Baseline values for current products as well as for accomplishing the defined task need to be based on measured data, not on assumptions or rules of thumb. That’s because only measured data conveys the current reality, while rules of thumb are based on history, and because of the rapid pace of change discussed earlier in this chapter, history is becoming less and less relevant to what is possible today.

5). Go for multiple benefits

When designing a product, each component should (to the extent possible) serve multiple benefits, to minimize costs and maximize reliability. This lesson is also true for the product itself. Efficiency or low emissions by themselves won’t sell products to the vast majority of consumers, but pairing those improvements with other benefits is the best way to ensure that low-carbon innovations are widely adopted. That means that products need to reduce emissions, save money, and make people’s lives better all at the same time. That often means saving time, which turns out to be one of the most valuable scarce resources we have in our busy modern lives (see my third essay for more details).

6). Incorporate feedback into the design

That means use of smart controls to make equipment operation more effective and data collection to improve both current operations and future products. With the advent of ever more efficient computing technologies, we’ll be better able to incorporate such innovations into most future products, with corresponding increases in efficiency, reductions in emissions, and improvements in meeting human needs.

7). Accept and foster a non-linear design process

Another important feature of true integrated design is that it is anything but linear, and that’s all to the good. It’s almost impossible to anticipate everything in advance, and the process of design creates new insights that would never arise without the inevitable false starts. For example, until you actually see a working prototype you can’t really know whether it’s what you want, as the team creating the first iPhone discovered as they neared the product launch.


The most important lesson from the whole systems design literature is that conventional incremental design practices are both pervasive and pernicious.   They leave real money on the table and slow the adoption of current technologies that could substantially reduce emissions.  Don’t let this happen to you!  Go for game changing innovation, and the climate (and your pocketbook) will be the better for it.

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