Humanising the energy transition: Diversity and creativity as sources of innovation

By Elena Bou, Innovation Director, InnoEnergy

‘The Education on Solar Energy’ – photographer: Sudip Maiti – Nominated photo of the TBB.2018 photo contest
‘The Education on Solar Energy’ – photographer: Sudip Maiti – Nominated photo of the TBB.2018 photo contest

Back in the 1970s, numerous international aid organisations decided to tackle a huge sustainable energy issue. They wanted to find a new solution to the inefficient, hazardous and polluting cooking methods which were the only option for millions of people in the developing world.

This issue affected women the most, as they performed around 90% of the cooking. And it wasn’t until the planning process involved those very same women that sustainable innovations and solutions began to be found. A campaign to redesign the Jika cookstove, widely used across East Africa, took a huge leap forward when women’s groups in Kenya suggested changing its shape from a bucket to an hourglass. This made it far more stable, and far safer.

People-led innovation
Of course, the story of the cookstoves doesn’t end there – and it’s brilliantly charted by Daniel Kammen, distinguished Professor of Energy in the Energy and Resources Group at the University of California, in his piece for Scientific American. Kammen, keynote speaker at our flagship event The Business Booster (TBB), a two-day international networking event that showcases 150+ sustainable energy technologies under one roof, has long championed how sustainable innovation and solutions spring from involving a diverse range of voices.

Innovation – in the green technology sector and everywhere else – doesn’t happen in a vacuum: it’s not about sitting alone in a lab. It is all about people: their wants, needs and challenges. And it happens when we bring people together who have different experiences, backgrounds, problems and questions – and listen to them.

Gender imbalance
But how is the green energy and sustainable technology workforce responding to this need for diversity? Research still shows a shocking lack of women in key decision-making positions around energy. A recent study commissioned by the European Parliament’s Policy Department for Citizens’ Rights and Constitutional Affairs at the request of the FEMM Committee found a ‘significant gender gap in the number of women in positions in both public and private sectors (including civil society initiatives) to influence the energy transition.’

Historically, the energy industry has often neglected women’s needs, point out Rebecca Pearl-Martinez and Jennie C Stephens in their community essay, Towards a gender diverse workforce in the renewable energy transition. Inefficient systems then put a greater burden on women’s lives, and the cycle of poverty continues.

Taking the lead
It’s now vital that the sustainable energy sector takes the lead in ensuring that women have an equal voice driving the sustainable power ideas and innovations that will affect their futures: diversity doesn’t happen by accident. There are many different ways we can do this: encouraging participation in STEM subjects at an early age, for example, introducing quotas at board level, and ensuring that female role models are front and centre. At InnoEnergy, for example, 25 of the start-ups we support are headed by female entrepreneurs.

True diversity
But diversity, of course, is not just about gender parity. True diversity means encouraging people from different cultures, age groups and educational backgrounds, and people who have physical and mental disabilities, into the energy sector. And it means looking beyond traditional science-based backgrounds, too: the European Association of Social Anthropologists, for example, brings together anthropologists involved in energy research.

Innovation booster
Research consistently demonstrates that a diverse mix of employees boosts innovation across sectors. A recent study of by the Boston Consulting Group, which looked at 1,700 different companies in eight countries, found that those with a more diverse management team had innovation revenue 19 percentage points higher than the companies which had below-average leadership diversity. Perhaps that’s because their diverse workforce is more familiar with the many challenges that consumers face when using a new solution: they are more aware of the Consumer Readiness Level (CRL), rather than just Technology Readiness Level (TRL).

As the report points out: “Nearly half the revenue of companies with more diverse leadership comes from products and services launched in the past three years. In an increasingly dynamic business environment, that kind of turbocharged innovation means that these companies are better able to quickly adapt to changes in customer demand.”

New thinking
The new challenges of the transition to green energy demand new ways of thinking. And if we want to find those new ideas, thoughts and sources of sustainable power we have to look beyond traditional decision-making and encourage new talent and voices to join the green energy transition. Our Business Booster event aims to do just that: come join us, and bring your unique take with you.

In the meantime, stay up to date with The Business Booster updates by following our #TBB2019 on our social media channels, and don’t forget to register for the event here!

Elena Bou, Innovation Director, InnoEnergy
Elena Bou, Innovation Director, InnoEnergy