It’s been the story that has covered the financial press for weeks. BP’s involvement in the oil spill in the Gulf of Mexico has dominated the news, sent its share price plummeting, and erupted a row of diplomacy between the US and the UK over the treatment of the oil giant.
But in all the bad news perhaps there is one area of hope to come from all of this. And that’s in the area of green technology and innovation.
Vinod Khosla, of Khosla Ventures recently said that he believed the BP oil spill would spur innovation in the green technology market and provide a once in a lifetime window of opportunity to develop and build new and sustainable technologies as a result. Khosla, the co-founder of Sun Microsystems has a track record of investing in winners making his comments worth taking notice of. Could this be a turning point?
Evidence of new ideas spurred on by the disaster have been seen close to home. The BBC website asked readers to come up with novel ways to find a solution to plugging the gap. Ex-plumbers and would-be inventors all came up with a variety of solutions to deal with the problem from a giant umbrella to a larger version of the technology used to plug a leak in household plumbing. None would work, but what’s promising in all of this is that the oil spill has managed to capture the imagination of innovators and would be inventors.
So the question that this raises is what fosters such innovation in the light of such adversity? In a world where technology has generally been spurred on through wars and subsequent technologies spun off from military hardware, perhaps we are entering a new age where it’s not warfare but the environment that will drive innovation. And why is the BP oil spill different from the many others corporate accidents that occur?
Firstly, the locality of the accident to the US and to Silicon Valley will play a big part in the regions industries and venture capitalists focusing on green technologies. When the problem is on your doorstep, and the environmental impact of the gulf spill certainly is on America’s, it makes the problem local, personal and the need to solve it becomes greater. America has long been criticised for not doing enough in terms of the environment but this will all have to change following these recent events if they are to continue to enjoy the landscape and ecosystems that many have taken for granted for so long.
The second reason is that things can’t actually get much worse, which leaves innovators with a golden opportunity to make mistakes. Sir Harold Evans, the legendary journalist and commentator on innovation discussed this very concept in his talk here at the RSA a few weeks ago. He discussed that the myth of the “Eureka” moment has discouraged many would be innovators and inventors to consider themselves not good enough with their ideas. The process of innovation as described by Evans is one in which mistakes are allowed, if not essential, as part of the process of developing and bringing forward new inventive ideas. So in the Gulf of Mexico things can hardly get worse. This gives a golden opportunity to try out new solutions and develop and innovate them. Entrepreneurs and would be inventors can work and trial the unthinkable, knowing that failure is only one of the steps to finding success. This will allow for more bolder and creative solutions to be tried which Kholsla and many others argue will be the place in which we find some of the great technologies that will change the environment and our society.
Thirdly, view this crisis from the eyes of on entrepreneur and it’s an industry that has just received a cash injection of £20 billion dollars and unrivalled government support to help technology – not bad conditions for any would be industry. This opens up opportunities for the rate of change and rate of innovation in the green tech sector to develop far beyond what has been seen previously. If we look at the development and innovation of the internet, new entrepreneurs and new minds accelerated the use of technologies and changed the industry from dial-up to the super fast broadband we have today. This same pattern of development could be spurred on from the BP oil spill as a variety of new entrepreneurs who follow the mantra “that a crisis is a terrible thing to waste” enter the market supported by venture capitalists in Silicon Valley who have a personal interest in cleaning up the environment because it’s right on their doorstep.
So even in the face of one of the world’s most significant disasters, we can find hope for the future, and for our planet. Localised problems spur on localised innovation, and a space to make mistakes may well see the development of technologies that help combat climate change and ensure that we have the tools to deal with future environmental disasters. Let’s hope that one thing that comes from this is that we don’t waste this opportunity to change the face of the green technologies industry or even more importantly create a new wave of green entrepreneurs committed to developing technologies in this sector.