From lab to market: 3 ways to make green technology mainstream

Green technology plays a crucial role in fostering sustainable economy, but mainstreaming greentech to consumers is a challenge. How can greentechpreneurs overcome common market barriers?

farmer with GPS
A farmer uses a handheld GPS device in Colombia. The technology collects, processes and aggregates information on planting decisions of fruit farmers in the country. Image: Neil Palmer, CIAT, CC BY-NC-ND 2.0

From solar-powered lamps to clean cookstoves that reduce fuel burning and toxic emissions, green technologies help make lives better for many people, create more jobs and green the planet. The question is, how much of these green technologies would survive from research laboratories and thrive in mainstream markets?

Speakers at the recently-concluded first Asian Development Bank Green Business Forum for Asia and Pacific, held in Manila from November 22 to 24, said that the right set of green technology, backed by the right policy framework and investment, can create a green economy.

The panellists, a mix of sustainability leaders, greentech inventors and policymakers, discussed approaches that worked in real industrial and commercial settings, as well as policies and principles of circular economy that should guide the deployment of green technologies.

Overall, they present an encouraging picture: Opportunities for green technology to thrive are plenty amid the climate change challenges the planet faces.

Here are three ways the panellists said would help greentech make the transition from research lab to the market: 

1. Greentech must make commercial sense

To make greentech mainstream, it needs to make commercial sense.

Tata Sustainability Group demonstrated how this is done. 

The sustainability arm of Tata group made sure they operationalised their green practices not as a CSR initiative that costs the company CSR money, but instead as a real business driver that ultimately makes money for the company, either as a direct profit or as a cost-saving.

Alka Upadhyay, Tata Sustainability Group’s assistant vice president, said that for the Group to adopt green technology and create a sustainability culture, it required engaging the entire C-suite - the CEOs, CFOs, CIOs, etc.- of over 100 operating companies to adopt environmental, social and ethical responsibility in their operations because doing so saves them costs, utilises their resources better, and creates profit.

You have to show the business connection between [for instance] upcycling, reuse, recycling with resource efficiency and this will fly. Make a business case. CSR is good seed money, but it is not there for long.

Alka Upadhyay, AVP, Tata Sustainability Group

“If we have to make an impact, we have to create that culture. By design, we engaged our C-suite to go through a proper three-day sustainability programme with the help of Cambridge University,” Upadhyay said.

This was a crucial step aimed at creating a critical mass, or champions, for the sustainability agenda in all aspects of the group’s operations.

From it came Tata’s development of a climate change policy, which then positioned the group as the benchmark for lowering carbon intensity in their sector. A shift to energy efficiency in their operations was their first line of action and was considered a low-hanging fruit when it comes to achieving sustainability results fast. Tata is looking to use renewable energy next.

“You have to show the business connection between [for instance] upcycling, reuse, recycling with resource efficiency and this will fly. Make a business case. CSR is good seed money, but it is not there for long,” she said.

2. Find ways to lower risk, or shoot for the moon

As one of the pioneers in the renewable energy sector, the Asian Development Bank has played a key role in seeing this industry go from niche to mainstream. Priyantha Wijayathunga, energy specialist, energy sector group, Sustainability and Climate Change Department, said the ADB managed to lower the risk even as it invested inpiloting the project simply because there was already an existing demand for renewable energy.

“First and foremost is the demand. Whatever you do, if there is a demand, there is always a catalyst to get things moving.”

Wijayathunga said that in Sri Lanka, for example, people in rural communities needed electricity but there was no one to supply to them. So they resorted to a decentralised mode of electricity generation and distribution. People learned how to build their own micro turbines and solar panels and some have turned this into a business which grew as the demand grew.

“Bringing down the risks associated with the investment is important. This is an area where ADB has been doing a lot of work.”

On one hand, there is a recommendation to lower risks. On the other, Matthew Rajendra, founder and CEO for Green Data Centre, LLP, calls for “moonshot thinking”. 

In order for green technology to commercialise, Rajendra proposes “shooting for the moon”.

“It’s about bold ideas that will make global, disruptive impact,” he said.

“When presented with a huge problem, come up with exponential, not linear technology. It is easier to make something a thousand per cent better than something 10 per cent better.”

His company introduced data centre cooling technologies that submerges the entire IT equipment into a revolutionary coolant.

Traditionally, data centres are cooled using air conditioning units that blow cool air from 24 to 26 degrees celcius into the server structure. Because air conditioning units also generate heat, they need to be cooled, too, usually using water from turbo coolers. Because turbo coolers also generate heat, heat exchangers absorb the heat and release the hot air back to the environment.

Green Data Centre’s new coolant takes away the need for turbo coolers and heat exchangers and does not release hot air back to the environment. This way, the system cuts energy costs and carbon emissions by 50 per cent.

When presented with a huge problem, come up with exponential, not linear technology. It is easier to make something a thousand per cent better than something 10 per cent better.

Matthew Rajendra, founder and CEO, Green Data Centre, LLP

For his part, Anthony Halog, lecturer at the Industrial Environmental Management, School of Geography, Planning and Environmental Management, University of Queensland, said that whatever technological innovation is introduced to the market has to be done through studying the particular needs of the specific community. 

Take the innovations that try to solve the issue of food waste. Food waste in developing countries occurs after harvest, while food waste in developed countries occurs during or after consumption. No quick-fix one-size-fits-all technological solution solves both problems.

“We cannot solve a problem at the level we created the problem. If we really want to address the issue, we need to understand that we have to put forward a systemic approach rather than quick fix, band aid, silo approach. Technological innovation alone won’t solve the issue of sustainable development,” Halog said.

3. Connect green technology with people’s emotions

David Sundahl, senior research fellow, Emerging Research, at Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation, said most people won’t really care about green technology unless they have a personal stake in it.

“People don’t wake up and ask themselves: ‘How do I make the world greener?’ They worry about how to make a living for their family, how to take care of their kids.”

Unless a technological innovation resolves a practical need with a social and emotional dimension, it may not find its place in the market.

Social and emotional dimensions are more often than not the gating factor on whether a technology is successfully diffused.

David Sundahl, senior research fellow, Emerging Research, Clayton Christensen Institute for Disruptive Innovation

A 20-watt solar panel system, Sundahl said, may initially light LED lamps for four to five hours and charge mobile phones. But this isn’t all there is to it. There’s a need to be able to communicate the social and emotional impacts of the technology, in this case, that people are able to keep their businesses open even in the afternoon to the evening, or that their children are able to study for longer hours and get better results because of the solar panel system.

“When someone brings a product or service into their lives, whether it’s a solar panel in Bangladesh, or a small battery-powered rechargeable refrigeration unit in India, what you have to be able to do is help them solve a practical problem that has social and emotional dimensions to it.”

“Social and emotional dimensions are more often than not the gating factor on whether a technology is successfully diffused.”

Finally, to make greentech mainstream, Sundahl recommends taking the path less traveled.

“Many technology not built for mainstream application are actually well received by many people. Look for customers other people don’t want. These are either people who have never consumed the greentech, and those who have been over-served by current offerings,” he said.

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