Wednesday, January 30, 2008

Disruptive Education

I encourage entrepreneurs to look at industries that haven't changed much in decades to find ripe opportunities for new, more sustainable approaches. Our education system certainly qualifies. What are the skills and experiences that our citizens will need to survive and prosper in this world? Innovation, Languages, Creativity, Cultural awareness... Was our public education system designed to deliver these skills? No. It was designed to make sure farmers could read. Then modified after WWII to teach math, science and engineering. Now, I am not really sure what it is designed to do (but will observe we need to import students to actually do upper level math, science and engineering).

So, I'd encourage students to take responsibility for the content of their education. In the immortal words of Mark Twain, "never let your schooling interfere with your education." Pay attention to the advice of mentors and professors whom you trust, but understand that the curricula which shape your education didn't come engraved in stone. You probably have a better sense of what you need to know than the professional educational establishment does.

In other posts, I have discussed the book Medici Effect, which does an excellent job of discussing how innovation is fostered by intersections of cultures and disciplines. These can be random or intentional. This is what at least part of your education should be about. Sure, you need to build some expertise in a discipline, but don't confine yourself. Seek out the random intersections. Go to those seminars that don't have much to do with your field. Put your mind on "open" and see what occurs to you. This is what is going to lead to the disruptive innovations that will change the world. Innovation comes from inspiration and perspiration, but also combination.

What got me going on this? Well, I saw a few students skipping class today to attend the Focus the Nation events at Colorado State. And last week I encouraged a student to attend a session with Susanne Jalbert about entrepreneurs in Iraq, in lieu of her regularly scheduled classroom activity. I'd encourage students not to feel guilty when they do this- don't think of such activity as "skipping" a class, but rather as "leapfrogging' a class. Right DC and Chex?

Focus People!

By now, I am sure you have heard about the Focus the Nation "Teach In" on January 31. The purpose is to focus attention on climate change, and engage and educate the community on the topic.

The organizers at Colorado State University (CSU) have done an amazing job, so much so that they turned it into a 2 day event, starting today. Here is the schedule. Too lazy to click? Here are my suggestions:

9 AM "Show me the Money"
11AM Ethics of Climate Change with Univ. Distinguished Prof Holmes Rolston.
2 PM Green Beer, Green Business. New Belgiumites tell of their journey.
3PM Engines for Change. Envirofit's story and current activities.
6 PM Webcast (go to FTN website): 2% Solution with Hunter Lovins, Van Jones and Edward Norton.

9:30 Green Clean Living. Brian Dunbar of our Institute for the Built Environment
11:00 Independence Day: Alternative Energies
12:30 Talking with the Unconvinced

Hope to see you there!

Friday, January 25, 2008

Did You Feel Your World Shake?

The announcement yesterday in Science, that Dr. Craig Venter's team has built an entire genome for a bacterium from scratch, shakes my world. While they have not gotten their creation to function, this is a step in that direction.

Their hope is that they can eventually program this simple critter to make stuff: drugs, fuels, food. If they pursue a drug, there will be many levels of public review. But biofuels aren't subject to FDA. It will be interesting to see the debates on this one. I suppose we will get to see which journalists and politicians understand biology (most of our presidential candidates, if they took biology, took it long before the biotech revolution).

They use stealthy terms like "synthetic biology," but break it down: synthetic is "man made" and biology is "the study of living organisms." What is going on here is one of the boldest acts in history: to create a living organism from scratch. This is stunning... in every sense of the word.

I am excited about the possibilities, yet uneasy that our science is proceeding faster than our ethics. Should there ever be limits to the pursuit of knowledge? Those tricky "unintended consequences" tend to show up after these bold breakthroughs. On one level, it is easy to understand what these scientists are attempting to do; on other levels, it is incomprehensible. We will not know for years what changes this will unleash.

Tuesday, January 22, 2008

Cleaner Cook Stoves

There is a nice article in today's New York Times about Envirofit's work on figuring out the cookstove opportunity. As with our earlier work, the challenge is to figure out how to build a business from reducing pollution. Pollution is waste, whether it comes from unburned fuel in a 2 stroke motorcycle, or from inefficient combustion of biofuels with traditional cooking methods. So, as with the motorcycles, we are trying to take the savings from using less wood, producing less smoke (and CO2), and improving health to make an affordable stove.

There have been a number of cleaner cookstove designs in the past, but few have acheived any scale or longer term impact. Envirofit, Shell Foundation, and our local partners are working to change that. We are trying to learn from the past, and bring new approaches to the problem.
Envirofit is working on a line of cookstoves, for a variety of cooking styles and needs, that will be affordable, durable and attractive, as well as cleaner burning. It is challenging work, and the numbers are mind boggling. Shell estimates that 500 million households cook with traditional fires or charcoal. To put this in perspective, Apple just sold it's 100 millionth iPod, and they seem to be getting more than one per household. So to make a dent in this problem, we have to start small, but think big.
If you are interested in more, please check out the Envirofit website and the upcoming ETHOS conference in Seattle.

Saturday, January 19, 2008

Dear Larry(s) and Sergey (Part 2):

Wanted to write you again, and catch up. Happy to see the news about where you are going with Seem to have lost your email addresses, so figured I'd just use my blog.

I first heard about the new directions in the New York Times this week, and have now had a chance to poke around your updated website and blog. Good stuff and glad to see progress. The mission of the organization looks good: "to use the power of information and technology to address the global challenges of our age: climate change, poverty and emerging disease." Seems like a start at "moving to a new space" as we sort of discussed in my last post.

I am also pleased to see you have picked five initiatives to further this mission:

1) Renewable energy cheaper than coal
2) Plug in vehicles
3)Predict and prevent catastrophes (climate and disease)
4) Inform and empower to improve public services
5) Fuel the Growth of SME's

I also enjoyed looking over the "Initiative Briefs" for each, which provide more insight on your approach.

While I have been critical (but constructively so, I hope) in the past, it is good to see that you considered several of my suggestions. I always wonder who reads my blog, and it is reassuring to know you guys are checking in. I guess I should expect that, since, I mean, you did invent google and all.

It seems that you are taking a "First who, then what" approach. That's fine. And the press seems to be picking up on the idea that this is not philanthropy as usual.

I do have a few suggestions:

1) You have the opportunity to do something big. The philanthropic arena is filled with funders that don't want to fail. You guys have built google. You can do whatever you want to. Failure should be an option. Place real bets on real ventures that will have a significant impact. To me, the biggest failure would be if you took an incremental, long term approach. As the X-1 test pilot, Chuck Yeager said, if you are going to crash, "make a big hole."

2) You have posted what you have funded. Larry B said in the NY Times that has received a lot of requests. How about using some of that cool software and sorting out the reasons for refusals. Don't need names, but what are you guys turning down? Why?

3) Consider some type of grant pool that is decided by the internet voting. Doesn't have to be a big dollar amount, but a hybrid of Ashoka's Changemaker challenges and Global Giving. It doesn't seem like you have enough fundable ideas in your initiative areas... so see what this produces for each of your initiatives.

4) I am still hung up on the networking thing. You guys know more about network effects than anyone. I can't imagine the kind of info you guys have on this at the G-plex. How can you use this to "match-make"? Many entrepreneurs don't need your money (though they may still ask for it), but could use some special resource (usually a person). How about an eHarmony for social entrepreneurs, or some type of online speed dating to provide advice to those who want to help and those who need it? Pandora is doing the musical genome... what is the entrepreneurial genome?

Keep working on raising the bar on "do no evil." Do good and be great at it.

Yours truly,

Wednesday, January 09, 2008

Change of Fools

Dave Barry had a funny column yesterday on presidential candidates all being for "change." Of course, he left out that all of them (well almost all of them) are against one kind of change- Climate Change. By their nature as politicians (poll probing, wind sniffing seekers of the center), they are also against another kind of change- Radical Change. And Radical Change is probably the only way that governments are going to have an impact on Climate Change.

While I claim to be an unrepentant optimist, sometimes politicians give me a few twinges of pessimism. Unfortunately, the energy policies of these candidates (to the extent you can find any details in them) suggest pretty minor changes. A political paradox- they are for change, but don't want to change anything enough to actually address the change that they are against.

If you want to look for yourself:

Hillary Clinton "Powering America's Future" (ambitious targets, not much on what she'd do in short term)
Barack Obama "Energy and Environment" (best of the bunch in terms of detail, but his actual record of involvment in these issues seems sparse)
John McCain "Stewards of Our Nation's Rich Natural Heritage" (straight talk? how about generic talk?)
Mike Huckabee "Energy Independence" (no mention of the environment in this one)
Mitt Romney "Ending Energy Dependence" (Ditto, this is version flipflop.14)

Compare these with the suggestions of IPCC or, if you are of a more conservative persuasion, The Economist's report. Perhaps the candidates should say "I am against climate change because I want your vote, but am unwilling to do much about it if elected." Oh wait, that would apply to most of the issues.

Huckabee and Romney would get points for integrity, in terms of saying the issue isn't climate change, but energy independence (a reasonable position, if more complicated than their websites would suggest). But their programs fall short on specifics for how they would accomplish this.

To paraphrase Aretha: "Change change change... change of fools." Anyone hear fiddles?