What tech can’t afford to get wrong on climate innovation

Natasha Vidangos

“Break things and ask permission later won’t work.” That was the message Kristin Tracz, who works to implement the new climate and infrastructure laws, took to the heart of Silicon Valley last week. 

Innovation has an indispensable role to play in solving the climate crisis. Half of the technology we need to get to net-zero pollution by 2050 — the target scientists say we have to meet — either doesn’t exist or isn’t ready for commercial deployment. 

And many investors, entrepreneurs and inventors in the tech world, in California and beyond, are leaning into this challenge. The opportunity is extraordinary.

But Kristin’s message at the Techconomy conference added an ingredient that isn’t always included in a technology conference: that our ability to achieve our climate goals isn’t only set by how well the tech works, but also by how the tech is welcomed on the ground. 

For example, Kristin noted, the time-honored approach — from scooters to Uber — of disruption first and engagement later might actually slow us down. Rolling out products and forcing communities to adapt to the new reality will create roadblocks, not the speed we need.

In short: Innovation is indispensable, but we need to center the people who will be affected in their communities too. They need to know if the changes solve their real world problems and don’t create new issues, so that communities welcome — rather than fight — new solutions. 

Putting people first helps tech companies too

Kristin’s message is particularly important now, as we work to implement three new laws with major climate implications — the Inflation Reduction Act, the infrastructure law and the CHIPS and Science Act. 

Together these laws will dedicate more than half a trillion dollars to fighting climate change and supporting clean energy, and will supercharge innovation and technology development — catalyzing private investment that could reach $1.7 trillion over the next 10 years.

The urgency of action on climate change requires us to avoid creating unnecessary hurdles, and we still have some old hurdles we need to deal with. Many communities have a well-earned distrust of new solutions that solve other people’s problems at their own expense. 

Governments at the local, state and federal levels have an important role to play in setting policy — and working with them is faster, in the end, than treating them as an obstacle to ignore or bully. 

We don’t have time to go fast and break things. We have to learn from the past and do better than we have on engagement, inclusion and community input — at the very outset and throughout the process.

We’ve all had the experience of rushing and making mistakes rather than moving more deliberately and proceeding thoughtfully. 

Success story shows the value of engagement

Congress recently appropriated money for clean school buses, but school districts had to apply to get the funds. The environmental group Moms’ Clean Air Force called eligible school districts, encouraging them to apply, and got widespread adoption. 

That’s good for kids, for the climate and for the companies making buses and batteries. Companies whose products depend on building factories, clean energy installations or transmission lines will need to do the same community outreach. 

There is so much need, so much opportunity — and finally, historic levels of funding from Washington. We need to work collaboratively to ensure we’re rowing in the same direction towards the clean energy future we want for everyone.

The tech industry has always been about creating big, real world change. They’re not interested in theoretical advances. In the case of climate innovations, that means they need their products permitted, sited, approved and accepted.

Engaging with communities ahead of time means we can clear a path to changing the world faster together.

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