At first glance, you’d think that Innovation and Ecology are worlds apart: one is an industry while the other relates to nature. However, pitting them against each other makes little sense because they mutually support each other. It is high time we embrace a much broader vision of innovation. An appreciation of innovation that encompasses the Human and the Living alongside Technology. An ecological concept of innovation.
By Alain Conrard, President of the Commission on Digital Strategies and Innovation of the METI (Professional Guild of French mid-market companies) (*).

The difficulty lies, not in the new ideas, but in escaping the old ones,” said Keynes. We should all bear this sentence in mind in order to understand that our tendency to stick with the status quo, whatever the nature, is in fact the biggest barrier to innovation. It is easier to come up with new ideas than to let go of old ones and to be more specific: it is easier to find new ideas when you manage to let go of the old ones.

If we have to get rid of our old ideas, it is because they have a way of locking us into a way of seeing things that leaves no room for change. Old ideas have a way of representing a solid and consistent whole that is resistant to change. What Keynes refers to as “old ideas” are those ideas “that have spread into every corner of people’s minds, with most of these people having had or experienced the same education and training as most of us.”

The expression “old ideas” alludes to what most people agree on: in other words a true consensus specific to a given period in history. Old ideas therefore are those ideas that have become mainstream and accepted by all in today’s era. To that point then – the old is still the present – inevitably doomed to lag behind any form of evolution whether it is progress or regression. For a long time, the belief that the Earth was at the centre of the universe fit the mainstream narrative and was part of the principles and teachings of an era. Those who called into question those set of cultural beliefs (Copernic, Bruno, Kepler or Galileo) in order to introduce the cosmological model known as Heliocentrism, did it at risk of being banned, censored, and sometimes even of being sentenced to death.

Innovation upsets ideas, schools of thought or a conception of the world that we have a hard time imagining living without. This is why it is often counterintuitive.

We can witness that kind of resistance when trying to bring together “ecology” and “innovation” where very deep-rooted beliefs that form a “thought consensus” – or opinions devoid of any kind of scientific basis – could stifle the development of new ideas, in other words change. These two terms seem to be, more or less, compatible in context. Indeed, ecology refers to a natural order where an ecosystem materializes with living things relating and interacting with each other and with their habitat. The notion of innovation is obviously more Science and Techno Science related, reflecting the technological aspect of progress. Whether on the subject of ecology or technology, a change of perspective could be met with strong resistance, just like in any other domain, especially when there is a firm belief that one is right or possesses the truth.

However, the current environmental crisis connected with global warming/climate change calls for a drastic change. An overall change, a change of mindset, a change of methodology, a change in the nature of inter-species interactions, a change in the way we relate to ecosystems, and so on. And change means coming up with new ideas and therefore letting go of the old ones. This is when we can ask ourselves how innovation relates to the balance of nature and how innovation can maybe save the environment…

Two Dead Ends: rolling back or “kicking the can down the road”

What automatically springs to mind when the words “ecology” and “innovation” appear side by side is environmental crisis, global warming, and the consequences of human behavior on the planetary balances. Innovation and the industries it has spawned, wave after wave, would partly be the cause of these imbalances.

And, in such a situation, a situation that is hard to ignore, there appears to be only two ways to address it: rolling back to the past or “kicking the can down the road” as the saying goes. For those who are looking to the past, rolling back and giving up our modern lifestyle is the only way to stave off a possible environmental disaster and the many climate related catastrophes. Like adopting some form of “disinnovation” process. The “kicking the can down the road” advocates, the firm believers in full-fledged technology to solve the environmental crisis, support the idea that whatever caused the damage could be reversed to be leveraged as part of the solution and avert any dire consequences. Geoengineering, the deliberate large-scale intervention in the Earth’s natural systems to counteract climate change, seems to be the way to go. It could help address, with the development of wide scale technologies, all the problems related to global warming and climate change.  Geoengineering has many promising projects in stock and is supported by laboratories, companies or even billionaires. Such projects are: chemical shields (particles of sulfur) that are vaporized into the atmosphere to protect against sunrays; ocean farming to produce seaweed that can absorb CO2; sending off gigantic sun screens into space; painting all urban surfaces white to increase the “albedo” effect; maybe even altering the axis of the Earth. Nobody, including the proponents of these global-scale projects engineered to affect the core of the Earth’s fundamental structure, is capable of really measuring the ecological impact of these solutions. So, this begs the following question: “what if the cure turns out to be worse than the disease?” 

These radically opposed positions actually share the same challenge, that of trying to address the whole slew of problems. Indeed, their partial approach fails to measure and appreciate what is at stake here, even if they are to be commended for coming up with solutions, because there is definitely an urgent need to do something. We cannot afford to sit around and do nothing and leave the situation as is. Moreover, getting these two schools of thought to talk to each other seems next to impossible, given their conflicting standpoints. For the first group, nature should not be tampered with at all, (therefore considering any kind of technology-based solution is out of the question), and for the second group, it’s the exact opposite – because these incredibly innovative technologies can do wonders, they should therefore be leveraged to address the problems they may even have caused in the first place.

Mother Nature, the greatest innovator of all

However, pitting ecology against innovation does not make much sense. In fact, ecology is actually the absolute innovation model. Mother Nature is the Mother of all innovations. Of course, Mother Nature does not create startups but it is on an uninterruptible innovation spree. It keeps on creating many kinds of innovations nonstop: creating new species; having species adapt to change in order to survive; generating new mutations…life. For example, trees that grow back with fire-resistant bark after a forest fire to protect against intense heat, as if they had learnt from that previous experience and innovated to fight off a new threat. But because these are natural occurrences, they seem to us to be perfectly “natural”: nobody is awestruck by these trees and the complex nature of this phenomenon. Yet, is it “less innovative” to create billions of cells everyday than to come up with an innovation that turns a business into a unicorn company? And, even what we call an “innovation” is somehow related to nature’s ability to innovate. This in turn has given Homo Sapiens this unique quality of being able to invent and create more and more sophisticated tools – leading human beings to consider themselves as the “masters and owners of Mother Nature” just like Descartes had predicted back in the 17th century.

So we need to get our inspiration from Mother Nature herself and her holistic interaction-based qualities to begin moving forward on this question. A holistic appreciation that does not stop at our usual and conventional frontiers but that stretches way beyond to think in terms of interactions and interrelations.

Biomimetics for instance is an alternative that fits right into that idea, whereby emulating the models, systems and elements of nature allows for the industrial manufacturing of artefacts bearing very specific characteristics that cater to a specific need. This approach considers nature and evolution as a very efficient R&D service that guarantees, through quality material or perfect functionality of a given shape, the efficiency of a tested and improved “product” that could last for thousands of years. This approach also makes it possible to imagine having human production workforces fully in tune with the elements that regulate the equilibrium of the biosphere. The result could solve one of the main conundrums of the modern era: making industrial innovation and environmental protection a compatible combination. Hence, a symbiosis between nature and industry would give a positive and new dynamic to progress.

Ecological Innovation

It is therefore high time we rethink innovation not only as a technological feat, although technology is definitely a requisite but there is still more. We need innovation that brings in the human or living aspect alongside technology i.e. an ecological conception of innovation so to speak. This is consistent with the idea that innovation has to factor in progress that focuses on the greater good of all. And this last bit does not have to do only with the human species but has to include ecosystems and the other species: no greater good of all to speak of without the notion of one world common to all where all forms of the living live together. And understanding that for ecology means going beyond biotops. The meaning of ecology has to be broadened to include Human Ecology and/or Ecology of Work for example.

So now, more than ever, we need to start developing a humanistic approach to innovation: before diving into any kind of technological innovation, we need to think and behave very innovatively. Innovation means adopting a very different mindset that will open up our minds and willingness to change the way we consume for instance. Innovation and ecology is above all about innovating “in our minds.” It is about willing to accept new rules of the game where utopia can actually start converging towards some form of reality that is more necessary than ever. In fact, thinking outside the box i.e. innovating our thought process, all dogmatism set aside, is the only way to innovate: technological innovation or innovation as such are, at the end of the day, what materializes following an innovation of the mind. Once that innovation mindset sets in with a completely new mental framework, then we can start working on the technological aspect of the innovation, the actual tool, providing full capability in initiating the transformation dynamic. And this is where the proponents of an all-technological approach can step in. With technology comes quick and efficient action in order to meet the goals that everyone agrees on within that new mental framework.

Everyone of course wants to have a healthier planet Earth. But who actually does what it takes to do something about it? What is at stake here is raising awareness on climate change and the need for urgent action. But what can we do at our level and that could get everybody on board? What compact are we willing to sign so that the rights of Mother Nature are restored?

Choices (always tricky) have to be made in how we are going to tackle these issues knowing that they cannot all be tackled at once. Let’s try and come up with a new way of bringing the notions of “concept” and “action” to work together: instead of testing solutions left and right with no real impact, why not decide on two or three major issues to tackle. Then we would bring in technologies from different countries and industry players to cooperate in a joint effort to conduct various projects. Then convince and engage a whole city, region, country or even a continent. This approach that consists in choosing high priority issues to focus on could lead to use the Conference of the Parties conventions to set up massive programs for example. This combined effort, requiring massive wherewithal both for research and implementation, would therefore be mutualized and would contribute in creating international industrial entities, new economic alliances for a new value creation economy while fighting climate change. Technology in this instance is definitely a powerful accelerator in solving these issues. The financial aspect though is at the heart of the equation because without money nothing gets done even if you’ve got the best technologies.

Addressing issues and solving them is not any one group’s privilege. Neither Luddites nor technophiles can claim any kind of monopoly on finding the solutions to fighting climate change and generating a growth model that is consistent with planetary boundaries. And government and politics are far from being the only ones capable of finding ways to solve the problem. Whatever our political persuasion we should all be concerned about what needs to be done, as individuals and as a society, to responsibly embrace the many challenges posed by climate change. What are we willing to do and endure to save our planet? Climate change forces us (or will force us), one way or another, to rethink our economic growth and consumption models.

In any case, we have no choice but to innovate, and to finish off this article as we started it, let’s quote Keynes, “the inevitable generally does not happen, because the unpredictable prevails instead.”