I recently finished Thomas Friedman‘s latest book: Hot, Flat, Crowded and I loved it. He does a great job describing the major problems facing our increasingly hot, flat, and crowded world, which include booming population growth, more energy demand, a changing climate, and rapidly accelerating biodiversity loss. (Rapidly accelerating biodiversity loss is a topic covered in detail by A World Without US, a book I loved and recommend)
It’s hard to become aware of the some of the issues he discusses in this book (and even more so in A World Without US) and not feel overwhelmed by the size of the problems. We have very real issues to deal with, all of which more or less come back to a rapidly expanding human population (from loss of habitat, major energy problems, diminishing resources, and human driven climate change), and these generally are not things that can be fixed overnight. What’s also frustrating is that these issues require solutions that require the ability to think and act in the best interest of the long term, something that I think 95% of people on the planet struggle to do, especially in government. The US system, in my opinion, really suffers from horrible nearsightedness. The way we elect our governing body, we really don’t provide any incentive for elected officials to look beyond 2, 4, 6, or at best 8 years. It’s really hard to plan for and start to act on big things that take time, when people are judging you on your results today. I guess all of this isn’t particularly hopeful…but that’s actually the opposite of how I felt coming away from the book. I am very hopeful.
I’m hopeful because I see a shift. I see people moving away from recognizing these things as big problems, and starting to see them as Huge opportunities. I’m going to put aside the “Obama” effect for now, although I do think it is very real and just focus in on more of what I’m hearing from people directly (or reading). (By the way, when I say “Obama,” effect I’m talking about the hope for the future people seem to be experiencing as the result of him being in office. I think whether or not you think he will be a good president is irrelevant, because I think the hope people feel is incredibly powerful and has already seeded great things to come in the future. On a personal level, just think how much more effective you are in doing whatever you do when you feel optimistic about it. ) Anyway, I”m very hopeful because it seems like more and more people I talk to are not only aware of these many issues facing us described in the book, but many are doing their part to create solutions. And what’s even more exciting about those looking for solutions is that they are not doing things in a charitable way (doing good because it’s the right thing to do..which of course is far from a bad thing), but they are doing it because there are tremendous economic opportunities in these solutions. In my countless iterations of personal and professional missions, I’ve always held the phrase “Doing good is great for business,” high on my list. The problems we face today have come together to create the environment where that is absolutely true. By seeking solutions, you’re creating tremendous opportunities for yourself, and the world.
I look to my friend Ross and his very dynamic company Univenture as an example of this. Ross is what I think of when I hear the term “inventor / entrepreneur.” He’s built quite an amazing company in Univenture through his constant tinkering. A few years ago he saw the cost of plastics rising quickly. Plastics are a big cost for a company that creates plastic cases. He wanted to find a way to cut his expenses. He also was troubled by the long term effects of putting all these plastic products out in the world, so he sought to create a new solution, one that would be a win/win. He’d have lower and more stable material costs, while significantly reducing his long term environmental effects. Through his constant tinkering he discovered a way to create usable, plastic like material from algae. In his experimentation with Algae, he’s discovered all sorts of opportunities…everything from waste processing to bio-fuel. He’s pumping significant amounts of money, his money, into algae exploration. He’s got a readymade buyer for his algae based plastics (his company), and he’s got the entrepreneurial experience to create real business opportunities from his other discoveries. He’s creating another real business that will make the world a better place both economically and environmentally…a true win/win.
Another one of my favorite businesses that is making a big difference through a simple improvement is a company called BigBelly Solar. I don’t know anyone from the company personally, I’m just admirer, but I have read up on them quite a bit. Basically they are trying to cut down on litter, habitat destruction fuel use, carbon emissions all through an efficient trash can. Yes, a trash can. How? Simple (apparently). They have created solar powered trash compactors (there are a few here in NYC, including one by my apartment in Union Square). The compactors (powered by the sun) mean that the trash cans have to be emptied less often (let’s say 2 times a week instead of 6), which means you have less overflow litter and significantly lower fuel use by garbage trucks that have to drive around and collect. It’s truly a win/win, and one heck of a business I would bet with true international potential.
I could go on and on with stories like those above that make me excited and hopeful (by the way the opportunities extend far beyond doing “green,” things…there are great opportunities to empower people, such as a service I love called edufire) I think more than ever people are realizing the scope of the problems we face, and seeing those problems as huge opportunities to create, huge opportunities to be entrepreneurs. I think that’s really exciting…a new era where being a successful entrepreneur is about creating a win/win/win situation for yourself, employees and customers, and the planet as a whole. I want to be part of this new group.