It is time to stop apologising, green firms need to realise they are cool
Back before I started BusinessGreen, I used to write about the IT industry, and as a result spent more time than I care to admit jetting around the world covering conferences dedicated to the latest hardware point release or "innovative" customer relationship management software platform.
What was remarkable was the way in which some of the most boring technologies known to man were dressed up with such enthusiasm and Hollywood razzmatazz that everyone quickly became convinced they were attending the most important and exciting meeting in corporate history.
My personal favourite was the chief executive of a company that developed integration software who rode onto the stage of a conference hall in Florida on a Harley-Davidson, accompanied by pumping dance music (Basement Jaxx, if memory serves) and a light show that would make Kraftwerk envious.
But if the IT industry has perfected the art of making boring technologies seem exciting, the clean tech industry at times risks achieving the precise opposite.
That was the implicit criticism contained in Dr Saul Griffiths' inspiring call to arms for green firms attending this year's Cleantech Forum in San Francisco, which saw him argue that the onus was on clean tech firms to "make the future awesome again".
The extravagantly bearded and extravagantly gifted Griffiths (he has won a MacArthur Genius Grant) argued that the clean tech sector had "lost the dialogue" to critics of green action and was at serious risk of underselling the exciting developments that are taking place, be it his plans for sci-fi style high altitude wind turbines or existing commercial-scale renewable energy projects.
As he put it, "we have to make the world think we are awesome again – if your 10-year-old child does not think what you do is awesome then you are telling the wrong narrative."
Griffiths is right. The clean tech sector consistently fails to generate the level of excitement its technologies justify – it is failing to celebrate its own awesomeness.
This is not to be interpreted as a criticism of the UK start-ups that are in San Francisco this week as part of the Clean and Cool Mission or the Cleantech Group's Forum, which boasts an excellent agenda and plenty of engaging speakers.
But this week has provided further proof that there is undoubtedly something of a cultural cringe afflicting the sector, a strange reluctance to shout from the rooftops about staggeringly cool technologies that promise to revolutionise the way we live and work, nor celebrate the impressive growth the green economy is already delivering. Too many people are too shy and retiring about their hugely impressive achievements.
The reasons for this lack of confidence are manifest.
First, many clean tech companies are still relatively immature start-ups, often managed by the genius inventors, innovators, and technologists behind their technologies. As such they lack both the communications and marketing nous necessary to create a buzz around themselves, and the budgets necessary to acquire it.
More broadly, while the sector is expanding fast and now commands multi-billion dollar revenues there is not the money floating around that you see in the IT sector, and as such there are not the budgets for the kind of slick production values and eye-catching marketing campaigns necessary to create hype. You are not about to see a Las Vegas clean tech conference featuring dancing girls and a closing night performance from IT industry band-for-hire Maroon Five.
Second, as Griffiths hinted, the sector is lined up against powerful vested interests that are doing everything in their power to belittle and undermine it. It is hard to position yourself as cool when high profile political and business figures are telling the world that you are at best irrelevant and at worst part of a global Commie plot. Similarly, constant policy uncertainty means that valuable management time is spent reacting to political and legislative issues, rather than addressing the equally important issue of marketing and market positioning.
Third, and most importantly, the culture of the clean tech sector simply does not lend itself to the borderline arrogant cheerleading adopted by many other industries. You often hear it said that the executives working in the green economy tend to be "nice" people. There is a thoughtfulness and a seriousness to them that is an understandable result of their work wrestling with the big existential issues related to climate change and environmental degradation. This trait is one of the aspects I like most about covering the green economy, but at its worst it can come across as a little po-faced, even joyless. If you are going to create something cool it also needs to be fun, but at the same time it is difficult to make a planetary crisis fun.
This is the tension that makes resolving clean tech's cultural cringe so difficult.
As one delegate put it to me, there is a sense across the sector that the environmental challenges it is trying to resolve are so daunting that even when progress is made there is a tendency to say "sorry we are not doing enough".
Moreover, for entirely legitimate reasons green business leaders have generally decided not to stress the environmental threats they are seeking to address, instead focusing on the economic and financial benefits the green economy can deliver. The Cleantech Group's chief executive, Sheeraz Haji, was almost apologetic this morning when he started his opening address by reminding everyone that the planet was "not in a good place", moving quickly to shift his focus to the solid commercial returns the sector can deliver.
This strategy is essential to drive business interest in clean technologies and insulate the sector against the outdated accusation that it is just for tree-huggers. But if companies can't talk about the existential environmental challenges they are trying to resolve they risk diluting the passion that drives them and downplaying the very issues that make their technologies important in the first place. It might make more business sense, but it is harder to get enthused about a product that will save you money off your energy bills than it is to get enthused about a product that can help save the world.
There is no silver bullet to solve what is a deeply engrained cultural problem.
But it can do the clean tech sector no harm to take Griffiths advice and resolve to try to "make the future awesome again". No one wants to see the clean tech sector succumb to the ridiculous levels of hype that afflict the IT industry. But it is time for clean tech firms to stop apologising, stop underplaying environmental threats, and start investing in the marketing and communications skills that will help the sector grab people's attention. Most of all it is time to start properly celebrating your awesomeness.
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