Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Not Enough? Doerr on Green Tech

KPCB is a remarkable organization. They have been incredibly effective at identifying, investing in, and cultivating truly revolutionary ideas over the past 30 years. I have worked within the KPCB family, at a low enough level not to be noticed conspicuously, but at a high enough level to have some visibility into how Kleiner does things. Fundamentally, the ability of KPCB to marshal talent to create markets and solve problems through innovation in technologies and services has been impressive. And in the past few years, Kleiner's increasing attention on "green tech" and questions of long term environmental sustainability has been a positive development - even if a $200M net investment is, to steal John Doerr's reprise, "not enough." Not that I'm really knocking the investment and, heck yes, I'd love to be involved in another Kleiner company tackling green tech problems..

So I was very curious to hear what Mr. Doerr, the talisman of Kleiner's success in the last fifteen years, had to say about green technology and our looming environmental problems. Mostly, I'd suggest that you watch the video, as I think it speaks for itself - and the message is clear: while many actors, from Wal-mart in reducing its energy footprint to Brazil shifting to biofuels, have been able to successfully innovate to mitigate their environmental impact, the scale of change is simply not big enough yet. And I whole-heartedly agree with that basic analysis.

Beyond that, I do have some comments:

- Doerr identifies four agents of change ("four lessons") that can be influenced by entrepreneurs: Companies, Individuals (i.e., Consumers), Policies, and Radical Innovation. While I agree with his implicit commentary, that the efforts of any given influential individual (i.e., TED audience member) might be best targeted at a company, a government policy, or invested in innovation, and not targeted at changing consumer behavior, I think that Doerr, and most of the policy makers, innovators, technocrats, and academics give short shrift for the need to change the behaviors of individuals, and the need to address individuals directly through politics and cultural dialogue. I'll come back to this;

- Doerr frames the market opportunity of addressing the world's energy crisis as a $6 trillion dollar market. I agree. This market is huge. I also firmly believe that market forces, and disruptive innovation to meet market needs can radically change both the supply side economics of meeting a market need and the demand side behaviors in creating that need. What I do find curious, however, is framing the energy market as the market that needs to be satisfied to address the world's sustainability crisis (or put another way, isn't sustainability a much bigger question than a looming energy crisis)? Isn't energy always an input to other goods and services? Like transportation, primary industrial processes, commercial and residential electricity, etc. Don't we need to start thinking about how to fundamentally change the dynamics of those markets, not just focus on how to more efficiently solve the energy supply question?

- Selling a vision is a key part of what any entrepreneur must do, particularly entrepreneurs trying to market disruptive technologies. Do we have a coherent vision of what a sustainable future might look like? What kind of house will I live in? What kind of car will I drive? What will the place that I live in look like? I think some of the symbolic examples that are drawn forth in the current conversation on green tech are useful in selling this vision: electric vehicles, biofuels, carbon markets. But do we have a coherent vision of what a sustainable future might look like? And are we effectively communicating that vision?

- At the end of his speech, Doerr urges his audience with a few calls to actions, exhorting them to "really think outside the box." His suggestions are all good: make going green "your gig," get carbon neutral (and buy carbon credits), join other leaders in lobbying for cap-and-trade systems for greenhouse gases, use your personal power or rolodex to "go green."

But what about the potentially most seismic change: consume less?

Why is this meme never engaged by the business, political, and academic leaders who claim to be serious thinkers about the environment?

Personally, I don't think it is either a naive conversation to engage, nor one that necessarily a compromise in quality of life or achievement. There are abundant reasons to believe that a less materially-driven life and culture will not only improve our ability to change market dynamics and address the salvo of "not enough," but will actually improve our quality of life, as well. But if our business and political leaders refuse to engage in this conversation, then the core dynamic driving the demand side of our market equations, and the A in our good old IPAT formulation, that dynamic will never change.


karsten said...

I'm not an economist, but I've heard some rumours to the effect that if people consume less, the entire world market will crash, since capitalism depends on continual growth and expansion. This is why a Marxist will explain to you that we cannot save the environment within a capitalist framework. At least, my Marxist sources here have told me this. This is also why we will attack Iran in one form or another. The private security market and the military supplies market are too important to stagnate, they simply must continue to grow.

Again, this is all hearsay.

karsten said...

And I don't a meme is going to solve any of our problems, even the meme "consume less". Unless, of course, it metamorphoses from a meme into what we used to call an "idea" before some asshole wrote a book about "memes".

Ritik Dholakia said...

I'm glad someone has a communications channel open to the Marxists. I'll see what I can do about excising the word meme from the language moving forward. Always glad to be of service...

karsten said...

Thank you for addressing my concerns.