More in Morroco

By: Michael Mortimer

Being in Morocco this week for the United Nations COP22 climate conference is an opportunity to witness a coming together of people from all over the world, all concerned with climate change. Individuals, NGOs, governments, and the private sector. That last group is one of the most interesting. Companies and start-ups are here to demonstrate and develop the value propositions that exist in solvingclimate change. Let that sink in—there is money to be made in addressing the most daunting global challenge of our era.

Serving on a green technology panel, I was struck by the exciting prospects of these new innovations. A solar-powered device to purify industrially polluted water at commercial scale, completely independent of the need for fossil fuels. A means for using rice waste to create biodegradable packaging that would begin to tackle the wretched annual burning of Malaysia’s rice fields. These and other aspiring technologies all share three things in common. The first and most obvious is the need for investment. Green entrepreneurs struggle to develop business models and value propositions in the hope that an angel investor or some risk-tolerant deep pocket wanders buy. Not an easy game to play. The second is that government policies can make or break these efforts. Technologies disruptive of the status quo can either be impeded or advanced by government policies, no matter the country. And third, and the point of my contribution to the panel, is that leadership is needed to bring these technologies into the mainstream.

The need for leadership should seem obvious. Implementing new technologies is rarely just a matter of innovation and money. Consider Elon Musk and his Hyperloop. The Hyperloop will only come to fruition if governments can find the regulatory space and the public need to deploy it. Even his new solar roofing tiles will require the right political infrastructure to implement. And the public will only embrace any of these if they address the public’s problems, not just Mr. Musk’s boundless vision. But in many cases and many places government policies are not aligned with progress. Consider US president-elect Trump’s statements about eliminating subsidies for renewable energy so that fossil fuels will be able to compete with renewables on a level playing field. Disregarding the absurd omission that fossil fuels are already deeply and durably subsidized all over the world,[1] the fact remains that new technologies often need both private investment and government policy support to get their legs under them. Likewise, publics will need convincing that these technologies will indeed make their lives better. The problems new technologies seek to solve cannot be so abstract and be so far removed from street level that the public is agnostic as to their successes or failures.

And this is where leadership comes in. It is the need for cross-sectoral partnering, the need to jointly identify new value chains, the need for collaboration, and the need for public engagement that begs for leadership. There are boundaries aplenty that need spanning to bring the future into being. I worry though that the technophiles, caught up in the understandable excitement of what they’ve developed and with their heads down in the grueling search for funding, may not see this need. Universities are no less often the victims of this same one-two punch. But that’s how others can contribute. That’s why leadership is about finding paths forward, finding ways to work across boundaries of authority, power, and identity to reach a common goal. That was my message to the panel audience, that’s why our Center for Leadership in Global Sustainability does what it does, that’s why the work of our Moroccan partner Le Cluster Industriel pour Les Services Environnmentaux (CISE) is so critical, and that’s why after a few days in Morocco I’ll return to the US energized for the next round of challenges and opportunities.

[1] The International Energy Agency estimates that global fossil fuel subsidies amounted to $493 billion dollars in 2014.