Do you have a solution to the biggest challenge in human history?

The launch of The Liveability Challenge throws down the gauntlet for entrepreneurs all over the world to find solutions to the biggest challenge facing our planet—stopping runaway climate change.

It is the biggest challenge humanity has ever faced: how can we reduce the amount of carbon in the atmosphere to avoid the most catastrophic effects of global warming?

According to a report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), we have just over a decade to do so. Citing this report, Professor Michael Maniates, the head of environmental studies at Yale-NUS College told a 100-strong audience in Singapore on Thursday: “We are approaching the carbon cliff.”

“We need to radically reduce our emissions. We shouldn’t kid ourselves, it’s going to be difficult. We need to find solutions that are aggressive, targeted and can spread,” said Maniates at the launch of The Liveability Challenge, a global competition to find solutions to the world’s toughest problems.

Finding ways to almost half emissions by 2030, which the IPCC report says is required, is the objective of the initiative, a Temasek Foundation Ecosperity-supported programme that is offering up to S$1 million (US$734,000) in funding for ideas that change the way we produce and consume energy and resources.

Other finalists will also get the opportunity to win a fundraising campaign worth up to S$500,000, a place on an incubator programme, and a mentorship opportunity with Circular Economy Club, a network of professionals who work in the circular economy space.

The Liveability Challenge Grand Finale, where finalists will pitch to a panel of judges, will take place on 7 June during Ecosperity Week in Singapore.

A solution that sucks, in a good way

This is the second year of the Challenge, which was won in 2018 by Singapore firm RWDC Industries with a drinking straw made from waste cooking oil.

Winning the Challenge has generated the capital and interest from corporate investors and customers RWDC needed to move the straws from idea to reality. Speaking to Eco-Business on the sidelines of the event last week, Zhaotan Xiao, RWDC’s Asia Pacific president, said the timing of his company’s idea was key to its success.

“We picked the right product to make at the right time. The world suddenly moved to ban straws as a reaction against single-use plastic. Companies were scrambling for solutions, and we could give them one quickly and easily,” he said of the straw made from polyhydroxyalkanoates (PHA), a material that takes just three months to decompose in normal conditions. 

RWDC made a prototype of the biodegradable straw in November, and is working with corporates to put the straws into production in the United States. But first it needs approval from the Food and Drug Administration that the product is safe to use commercially at scale.

Xiao expects the straws to be in commercial-scale production by this time next year.

A dog’s lifetime to save the world

The time it takes to produce the solutions needed to meet the IPCC’s 12-year deadline is a concern for Martin Lim, co-founder of Electrify, Southeast Asia’s first e-commerce platform for electricity that launched last July, who spoke at the event.

Lim told Eco-Business: If you invest in technology today, it’s won’t come to market tomorrow. You’ve got to develop it, trial it, get it passed regulators. It maybe four years until it’s commercially viable.”

Even online retail giant Amazon took 10 years to establish itself, and sustainability solutions are usually physical inventions that take longer to produce and distribute than pure digital products, he said.

“We can change, we have to change. But we’re not going to reverse climate change. We’ve passed that point. We’re not going to make it. The timing is just wrong,” said Lim.

However, he added that business solutions “will save the world.”

“We don’t have superheroes to bail us out. Individuals galvanising a movement can only go so far. So what’s going to change the world? Business. Why? Because of incentives,” he said, pointing to how feed-in tariffs have kick-started solar energy markets in Asia.

“If I paid you to consume less power, you would do it. If I paid you to consume more solar energy, you would do it,” he said.

Tweak or transform?

To bring about a dramatic reduction in emissions, will systems such as agriculture, and manufacturing need to be completely re-engineered? “Should we be propping up an existing system or do we creatively destruct it,” asked Jiehui Kia, principal strategist at sustainability non-profit Forum for the Future.

The Liveability Challenge contenders need to show a clear vision for how their solutions have the potential to not just solve a problem, but transform an entire system, Kia said. Using RWDC’s biodegradable straw as an example, she said solutions were needed that “go beyond the straw, to transform how packaging works.”

She pointed at the palm oil sector as one industry that could be transformed by using waste biomass to generate electricity, although currently doing so is highly inefficient. “If we could find a solution to turning biomass into electricity that is as efficient as diesel, we could transform not only palm oil but other sectors such as manufacturing,” she said.

We need to find technologies that have attributes that nurture the qualities that allow us to rise to the challenges ahead.

Professor Michael Maniates, head of environmental studies, Yale-NUS College

From fortress to playground

While the focus of The Liveability Challenge is on technology, it should not be the only focus in a world of growing inequality and social tension, Maniates commented in his keynote speech. 

“A fortress world is looking increasingly likely, where the rich hide behind walls and the poor are left to fend for themselves,” said Maniates as he pondered a future ravaged by extreme weather. “With an increase in climate refugees, people are getting more grumpy with one another.”

“Will the future give us 1,000 Donald Trumps or 1,000 Desmond Tutus? Will we have a 1,000 Mother Theresas or 1,000 Adolf Hitlers?” he wondered.

With the growing prospect of conflict as climate tensions rise, he said it was critical to find solutions that “have attributes that nurture qualities that allow us to rise to the challenges ahead.”

In times of crisis, humans tend to turn inwards and become more susceptible to fear and hate, so solutions are needed that can nurture compassion, empathy and connection, said Maniates, citing the playground movement as an example of how fractured communities were brought together during the industrial revolution in the US in the late 19th century.

“We know that when people work together in community they are more willing to sacrifice more for the future. Technology helps us solve a physical problem, but it can also make us better human beings by working together.”

Referencing Maniates’s comments, Jessica Cheam, managing editor of Eco-Business added: “The Liveability Challenge is also a playground — for sustainability ideas and solutions to grow and scale, and to match investors and raise capital to make these solutions a reality.”

“Together with all our partners, we are very excited to be launching this year’s edition of the Challenge and look forward to receiving ideas from all over the world,” she said.

The Liveability Challenge was officially launched on 10th January and welcomes submissions until 5 April in the areas of energy and circular economy.

Ideas for The Liveability Challenge can be submitted here.

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