LEADING CLEANTECH BEYOND THE NEXT BUBBLE

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It’s not about stepping into the future so much as creating the step changes that get us there

If Cleantech is on a bit of a tear lately, it’s because the time is ripe for that kind of change. Of course, this isn’t the first time we’ve seen this sort of bullishness around the sustainability tech and energy transition. In 2006, Cleantech was the rage. But a decade of negative returns did little to inspire any but the most far-looking investors. More than 90% of the Cleantech startups funded in this period failed to return the money invested in them. Even with the more recent resurgence of interest, the sector saw a decline from an average of $9 billion invested between 2016 and 2019 to $6 billion in 2020. So with the promise of a new boom, what steps can we take to avoid the pitfalls and bottlenecks of the past and steer the sector towards its great unrealized potential?

THERE’S A LOT RIDING ON CLEANTECH

With COP26 in the rear view — and having fallen short of many aspirations (underscored by conference president Alok Sharma’s emotional closing speech) — much of the next decade’s sustainability efforts will fall heavily on private citizens and still more on the private sector. Cleantech will be seen as the great spearpoint for those efforts. Praise and rewards will follow the sector’s successes. But spears are two-edged and, as with anything where the expectations are high and the stakes dire, slow results and fumbles are likely to be derided, damned and unforgiven. 

Of course, the potential for both financial and societal rewards is great. And that will go a long way to massaging away the doubts and reservations. This is a good thing and a potential hazard. Exuberance around capital investment, IPOs and SPACs suggests that Cleantech organizations are going to be well-positioned to go after their objectives in 2022. But, as we saw between 2006 and 2011, exuberance easily falls into overexuberance. Unrealistic expectations could see investors sour on climate tech before it’s had the time to develop and mature.

To keep this enthusiasm from turning into another bubble, organizational leaders need to manage expectations and provide the clear, incremental roadmaps that get us from where we are to where we need to be.

WHY THIS TIME WILL BE DIFFERENT 

Two major factors in play will help to keep climate tech from bursting a second time. 

The first is that, during the last bubble, electricity from solar and wind was four times more expensive than electricity from natural gas. Now, solar and wind energy are cheaper than any fossil fuel source, with renewable costs likely to continue their downward trend as operations scale up and the tech becomes more efficient. Lower costs mean more demand, mean more investment, mean more scale, mean more ubiquity in the marketplace, mean more demand, and so on and so on. And around it goes. There’s a lot of weight in becoming the new status quo and that’s where renewables are headed.

The second — and likely more affecting factor — is that people, corporations and governments are taking climate change more seriously. As evidenced by the COP26 results, nations still seem unwilling to go as far as many believe they need to but at least the conversation has progressed from outright denial to one around scheduling conflicts.

Moreover, organizational thought leadership is shifting its focus from shareholder to stakeholder capitalism. If this move is sincere, it will necessarily take the environment into account. The sector-spanning push on ESG stems from this commitment.

The issues with reducing the environment, society, and governance to an initialism like ESG have been explored elsewhere. Flaws notwithstanding, ESG is a step in the right direction and a boon for climate tech, providing an easy line of progress for those looking to put weight behind their newly stated missions. Simply, an investment in Cleantech today is an investment in all of our tomorrows.

The sector itself has come a long way in the past decade. While the first Cleantech era focused more narrowly on renewable energy generation and consumer electric vehicles, the climate tech ecosystem today encompasses both startups and incumbents building solutions across a wide range of industries and use cases.

This is rooted in the reality that nearly every major human activity contributes to our carbon footprint. Building, moving, powering, eating and computing — a veritable survey of action verbs — all have their impacts. Decarbonization is an all-of-society challenge. Climate solutions will need to be built into every nano-aspect of every sector of the economy and sphere of life.

It’s a daunting prospect but one that Cleantech is primed to address.

DON’T OFFER TOMORROW WITHOUT DELIVERING SOMETHING TODAY

There’s no denying that the greatest benefits of climate tech are waiting for us some distance down the road. Putting our efforts behind Cleantech is the quintessential exercise in delayed gratification. But that’s an acceptable sacrifice if the rewards are what they promise to be — and if the path to those rewards makes sense.

Climate tech offers a future free of wildfires and stranded polar bears, where a road trip from New York to LA can be done with three (or less) supercharged pit stops, and the entire supply chain runs on a perpetual motion machine fuelled by Net-Zero renewables.

To be clear, at least a few of these aspirations are attainable, some even in the near term. But most are decades away from full realization and society has shown little capacity for waiting — even when in its best interest. While we wait for the promised future, it falls to those of us working in climate tech to chart the course with a more tangible set of milestones that people can latch onto. 

The industry has failed to deliver a narrative that makes the steps to that future as compelling and coherent as the destination. Utopias are great but they are mostly the domain of science fiction for a reason — they skip over the inconvenient bits. 

Cleantech leaders need to get very good at communicating an improved version of the present day that we are already helping to realize. Progress doesn’t feel like progress when we can’t feel its effects.

Part of this could be evangelizing the climate tech and innovations that are already transforming the way we live. Another angle is to promote near-term implementations and draw a line under those things stopping them from becoming a reality (regulations, politics, institutional apathy, etc.). Yet another is to map out and generate enthusiasm around the step changes we’ll be making on our way to a better tomorrow. By blending aspects of futurism, activism and consumerism, the sector can begin to weave a story that excites both stakeholders and stockholders — not just for the future but for the here and now.

Amplifying a narrative that invests both the present and future of the sector with clear and tangible purpose will also have a powerful knock-on effect for talent acquisition. In a highly competitive staffing market, what career path is more compelling than the one changing lives in both the macro and the micro, and that leads to a healthier world?

IS THE TALENT PROBLEM A PROBLEM OF LEADERSHIP?

When Cleantech leaders fail to develop a strong narrative around their organization’s purpose, they leave their most powerful tool for attracting talent off the table. The times are primed for climate tech. The work that’s being done speaks to people’s desire to influence the world for the better. But competition for the brightest minds of today and tomorrow is at an all- time high. Other industries (Big Tech, Biotech, etc.) are weaving compelling narratives around their own transformative work in the present, and what it will do for the world of tomorrow. Climate technology has to be able to match that heightened balance of long-term vision and immediate results, or it will find itself lagging behind.

The ingredients of a strong narrative are all there — the purpose and the impact — but executive leaders still need to forge that into a powerful story. Then they need to commit to delivering that message when and where it counts, long before the next generation of climate tech innovators and leaders are even on a career path, and at every juncture along the way. That means plugging those narratives in at a core education level, certainly at the secondary and undergraduate tiers, but even earlier as well. The commitment to acquiring top talent — like the commitment to climate tech — has to be a long-term investment.

ASCENDING BEYOND THE BUBBLE

Fears around a second Cleantech bubble are overblown, likely the conjuration of a media machine always looking for a novel spin. But the precedent will cause concerns. We need to do better than simply assuaging reluctant investors. We need to inspire people — stakeholders and stockholders — in climate tech’s vision of today and tomorrow.

While the Metas of the world try to woo with promises of virtual escapism, we need to demonstrate that Cleantech will deliver a reality that people won’t want to escape from. That’s the promise we make as an industry and that’s what will fuel Cleantech’s ascendency in the decades and centuries to come.


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