On the Brink: Include, Integrate, Innovate – Three magic words in the climate struggle

It could be said that our time is marked by increased exposure to, and awareness of, an array of planetary existential risks. With COVID-19, we have added epidemiological disaster to our already bulging portfolio of looming catastrophe: environmental, technological and human-made.

Across the world, policymakers are preoccupied with relieving the profound economic distress caused by the pandemic. But this is only one challenge among many. At current rates of growth, an additional 2.5 billion people will soon live and work in urban areas. This demand can only be accommodated by building a new city the size of Paris every week between now and 2050. By that same point, nearly 1000 world cities will regularly experience temperatures in excess of 35 degrees Celsius. In 2015, polluted urban air was responsible for 6.4 million deaths worldwide. Climate change is responsible for the recent sharp rise in extreme weather events. Ecosystem degradation may yet lead to the emergence of zoonotic diseases and pathogens far more potent than the coronavirus. Any economic fix that doesn’t consider these external pressures will only cause further, potentially irreparable damage. It is little wonder, then, that the World Health Organization reports a global uptick in anxiety disorders and depression. Against this apparently gloomy backdrop, it is important to be reminded that we are not helpless in this fight.

No single country, business, or individual can mastermind the prevention of, response to and recovery from these shocks. Instead, this is a time for cross-societal, cross-cultural and international collaborative action. Multidimensional, integrated responses can boost preparedness and resilience at this critical time. Such is the goal of COP26, the forthcoming UN Climate Change Conference taking place this November in Glasgow. We are all stakeholders in these discussions; it is our opportunity to co-create a new normal.

UK Green Building Council research suggests the technologies that can reverse our slide towards climate emergency already exist. What is lacking is a cohesive and inclusive approach to solutions design. Technology, a catch all term at the best of times, is not a magic bullet but a double-edged sword. The digital revolution has expanded access to services and information, optimised many business practices and brought us into close contact with previously remote people and places. It has also increased our vulnerability to cyberattack, blurred the line between public and private spheres, exacerbated social fractures and widened the wealth gap. It is a driver of income growth, but only under certain conditions. Tech innovation can benefit the many or the few. This is where the concept of Inclusive Integrated Innovation (3I) comes in.

UK Green Building Council research suggests the technologies that can reverse our slide towards climate emergency already exist. What is lacking is a cohesive and inclusive approach to solutions design.

In 2014, Carnegie Mellon University brought its Engineering, Design and Business faculties together via a common knowledge sharing platform. The idea was to bind functional performance, human interface and economic value for a more rounded approach to growth. This would involve coordinated thinking on the most pressing scientific, technological and economic challenges. This marriage of the disciplines was not intended to lessen their individual value, but rather to highlight the powerful synergies that can be realised by alignment. They called it Integrated Innovation.

Inclusive Integrated Innovation takes this a step further by spotlighting the importance of social responsibility in these questions. I think of 3I as involving three considerations.

The first is empirical innovation: are we reinventing the wheel? Does the solution to our problem already exist – either in current or modified form? And, if not, how do we assess the potential of untried and untested concepts?

Next is business innovation: how can we deliver appropriate, high-quality solutions and services where and when they are needed at an accessible price point?

Finally, there is social innovation: contexts differ, and what works in one place is not guaranteed to work elsewhere. We must always ensure that our proposed solutions are sensitive to the unique character of the places in which we wish to see them implemented.

If you think of these three considerations as the circles of a Venn diagram, the point at which they all intersect is where you find true Inclusive Integrated Innovation.

When looking to tackle our changing climate, we must adopt a 3I mindset. This will be evidence based and process driven. It will require genuine stakeholder engagement, from policy makers to on-the-ground communities. We must be courageous, embracing out-of-the-box ideation and committing ambitious levels of resource – both financial and human – to the challenge. But we must also be cautious, by thoroughly testing and validating our concepts, tracking the results and analysing them without prejudice.

When looking to tackle our changing climate, we must be courageous and embrace out-of-the-box ideation. But we must also be cautious, by thoroughly testing and validating our concepts.

The growth of aquaponics in the UAE is a great example of 3I in action. It involves the use of existing, albeit modified, technologies to respond to an acute and localised need. While the commercial and operating model still requires some refinement, it is encouraging that government has empowered businesses to prove their concept by providing much needed upfront finance. The ultimate question that aquaponics pioneers seek to answer is that of how to achieve food security in a region prone to extremely heightened climate risk. The social value of such innovation surely requires no explanation.

Our response to the immediate and pervasive threat of environmental disaster has to be inclusive; we must make room on the lifeboat for everybody. It must be integrated; we cannot survive in silos. And it must be innovative: business as usual is what got us into this predicament, it cannot get us out of it.