Humanity is facing new, enormous pressures that threaten our ability to create a thriving global economy. Two mega challenges in particular -- extreme weather (driven by climate change) and intense pressure on resources -- are raising the cost of “business as usual” and forcing deep changes or what I’m calling a “big pivot” in how we operate. The stakes are high and multitrillion dollar markets in buildings, transportation, energy, water, consumer products and finance are all in play.
Issues of this scale might seem to apply only to the largest organizations and economies. But smaller, entrepreneurial companies have a critical role to play. The mega challenges pose constraints on a system, and constraints drive innovation. New thinking can -- and most often does -- come from the ranks of entrepreneurs.
Here are three quick ideas for how entrepreneurs can bring their innovation to bear and tap into growing markets for big solutions.
Ask new, heretical questions based on larger needs. The growing scarcity of water in many regions around the world is a pressing problem. A combination of record droughts, rising populations and economic growth is stressing both communities and commerce.
A number of water-intensive industries are realizing that their pace of use can’t continue. The apparel industry, for example, uses a great amount of water just to dye clothes; every two years the sector uses as much water as fills the Mediterranean Sea.
This reality drove Adidas to tap into the technology of a small Thailand-based company, Yeh Group, which developed a process for dying clothes that uses no water (and less energy and chemicals). Adidas is now piloting the so-called DryDye process. In essence, Yeh Group and Adidas asked a new question driven by new realities: Can we dye clothes with no water?
Other questions about our mega challenges can drive new thinking. Companies as diverse as Walmart, Apple, IKEA and Lego are asking: Can we operate with no carbon emissions or use all renewable energy? The growing list of companies and governments trying to slash energy consumption or use renewables like solar and wind power will need new technologies and services.
A few companies, such as Patagonia, are asking whether so much consumption is necessary and encouraging customers to buy less stuff. The company is producing longer-lasting goods (which displace competitor sales), connecting with customers that want to minimize their footprints and growing revenues because of it. Disruptive, heretical questions drive innovation.
Help other businesses track performance and enhance transparency. On top of the climate and resource challenges, a third mega pressure is changing business profoundly: radical transparency. Everything a company does, all along its value chain, including what happens at far-flung suppliers in Bangladesh or China, is open to public scrutiny. Organizations increasingly need better tracking of how suppliers operate and their environmental impacts. Labor Voices, a novel start-up, stepped up to fill the knowledge gap about developing world factories. The company interviews workers about everything from pay to safety and generates reports on each facility. The company now has a contract to provide data on all 300 of the Bangladeshi factories that serve Walmart in any way (often as a subcontractor).
Or consider the data amalgamator, GoodGuide, which provides data and ratings on the health, environmental and social impacts of more than 200,000 consumer products. Through the company’s website and app, the data is available to business buyers and consumers. In 2012, GoodGuide was acquired by Underwriters’ Laboratory.
Identify large companies looking for new ideas. A few years ago General Electric welcomed innovation by inviting anyone to submit ideas for “powering the grid” and “powering the home.” GE and its venture capital partners received 5,000 business plans and invested $140 million in a range of businesses. Many other companies like Heineken, Lufthansa and Unilever have used contests and open innovation initiatives to try to solve problems in energy, water, packaging and logistics. Find these opportunities, answer the call and you may have a partner that can help your business scale up quickly.
The world’s businesses -- as well as governments and consumers -- need solutions to new, thorny challenges. As they pivot, they’ll change how they innovate, operate and interact with governments, businesses and consumers. But they’ll need help doing it.
Entrepreneurs can pivot as well; they can save money, reduce risk and drive innovation in their own businesses. But more importantly, they can ride the tide of deep shifts in markets, help larger entities transition, and profit in the process and help bring about a more prosperous world.