"In the past two weeks, I had the opportunity to attend two very interesting conferences. The first one was Fortune's Brainstorm Green, followed by the Milken Institute's Global Conference. Both of these conferences attract the who's who in the financial and business world. What struck me at both events was the rallying cry that innovation is key in solving many of the world's problems. I continued to hear that change is needed for people to think and behave differently.
The Fortune conference featured the usual suspects who have championed the environment long before it became a cause c?l?bre. One surprise twist was the number of investors in attendance. I met more financiers who had funds to invest in sustainability-related areas than I thought possible. There were also a large number of CEOs in attendance. Their interest in sustainability largely stemmed from the pressures they felt from their employees and customers. Will there finally be new green products and services that will meet the increasing demand? Will they be adopted by a larger segment of the population? It's clear that there is enough money ready to be spent and corporations ready to commit to finally make a significant impact in green innovation.
From a personal perspective, the best part of the conference was a short speech delivered by a 16-year-old high school sophomore, Avery Hairston. Avery has started a foundation called ReLightNY that raises money from individuals and corporate sponsors. He uses the money to buy low wattage CFL light bulbs that he then distributes to those in need. Everyone is a winner. People use less power and it also saves them money. A double whammy winning strategy. The closing line of Avery's speech was poignant: "Most of you probably will not be here in 2060, but I will, and I need to do something now." Young people like Avery will not let complacency and comfort get in the way of solving problems.
At the Milken conference, the message calling for innovative ideas to solve problems was much the same. Panel topics were diverse and covered the fate of the newspaper and music industries, the environment, world hunger, poverty, mobility and healthcare to name a few. It seems that a conference such as this one, filled with so many powerful people in the financial and business world, would easily embrace and fund innovation as a means of helping to solve many of the issues that were so hotly debated. I talked with several "idea" people and heard consistently that although there was no lack of enthusiasm for great ideas, it had been difficult to move forward and secure commitments.
This lack of definite progress is likely due to one familiar symptom related to innovation: it usually makes people sick to their stomachs. It is unfamiliar, unknown and untested. It is a risk. This thought was echoed in what I felt was the most enjoyable panel of the conference which featured the 2006 winner of the Nobel Peace Prize, Muhammad Yunus, currently Managing Director of Grameen Bank based in Bangladesh. He is recognized worldwide for his successful application for the concept of microcredit, the extension of small loans to entrepreneurs too poor to qualify for traditional bank loans. His hard work has lifted millions of families out of poverty. He was awarded the Nobel Peace Prize "for efforts to create economic and social development from below." His idea was so simple and so humble, yet when people initially heard it, they told him that it would never work. Muhammad used $27 of his own money to fund the first loan. Clearly the naysayers were wrong and his success has changed an entire country. My take-away from his speech was that innovation takes courage.
I hope that a year from now, I can return to both of these conferences and see how the changes that were proposed have been implemented. We need to give innovation a chance to be nurtured and to flourish. To make this happen, we all need to get over our fears and follow our heart."