The downsides of environmental innovation


In June 2014, a solar roadways project sparked debate: do we need a new solar innovation when most roofs still are not equipped with solar panels? This question can be widened: as we wait for the next awe-inspiring innovation, do we forget to use what is already available? Why not ride our bicycles to work rather than driving electric cars?


Solar Freakin’ Roadways” is an American project for electric roads, composed of solar panels that allow all-electric vehicles to charge while they drive. Because the road generates electricity, it pays for itself over the years. It can also display road lines that are “painted” from beneath thanks to LEDs, and a heating element included in the surface will de-ice the road and melt the snow in winter time. Rolled out on a massive scale, this circular, self-sufficient system would bring our dependency on fossil fuels to “an abrupt end,”write its inventors. The concept is attractive: it has collected $2,200,466 on crowdfunding platform Indiegogo – twice what was expected. But in spite of this success, several commentators (including Sami Grower from TreeHugger) were compelled to ask a pertinent question: should we concentrate on what we already have before embarking on costly technological innovations? In other words, they warned: innovation can be the best ally of progress, but anticipating the next invention should not prevent us from acting now, through small gestures, to preserve our planet.

The importance of environmental innovation

In a February 2007 report about “Measuring Ecological Innovation”, the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) defined environmental innovation, or “eco-innovation,” as

“the production, assimilation or exploitation of a product, production process, service or management or business method […] which results, throughout its life circle, in a reduction of environmental risk, pollution and other negative impacts of resources use (including energy use) compared to relevant alternatives.”

This definition highlights the specific difficulties of environmental innovation. It is torn between two necessities: protecting the environment, which makes it sustainable; and improving human comfort, which makes it appealing to consumers, and thus successful. To stick with the example of cars, in a society that has been shaped by decades celebrating the “all-automobile” and encouraging everyone to buy their own car, eco-innovation must take that reality into account to help promote more sustainable lifestyles. Of course, it is crucial to encourage carpooling, bike riding, and in general to develop a model where access takes precedent over ownership. But there must be solutions to meet the needs of those who, for a variety of reasons, cannot or will not give up their private car, while minimising environmental impact – such as solar roadways, for instance. Still, these “larger-than-life” innovations should not divert our post-industrial societies from what truly matters if we want to make positive change happen: changing our mindsets, and the way we live, starting now. Even if the technology that will make it all so easy hasn’t arrived yet.

Favouring “retro-innovations”?

Technology does remain a matter of choice: an innovation always hides another, or to be more accurate leads into another – before maybe, one day, it replaces it. For instance, electric cars do solve a number of environmental problems, but cars still take up too much space in the city, compared to bikes. And the electricity that powers them does not necessarily comes from “clean” sources. Choosing a green technology is not always as easy as it seems. In addition, environmental innovation can have a “rebound effect”: the energy savings generated by a technology can attract more people to that technology and subsequently increase global energy consumption. Whereas if consumers choose to first and foremost limit their consumption and their negative impacts on the environment, the appearance of a new technology  will only help them make their consumption greener. Sustainability needs to become a concern and a reflex before it can rely on new technologies. Innovation never happens out of the blue.

“The most important conclusion of ‘Measuring Ecological Innovation’ is that the concept of eco-innovation should not be limited to new or better environmental technologies: every environmentally improved product or service counts as an eco-innovation,”

the OECD insisted in its 2007 report. This means that all efforts count towards building a sustainable future, even the smallest actions, even those that do not involve groundbreaking technologies. Taras Grescoe, a Canadian non-fiction writer, once tweeted that the real future of the city is 21st century communications (smartphone apps, Twitter, texts) and 19th century transport (subway, trams, bikes, walking).’ Eco-innovation can and must also be supported by “retro-innovations” building on pre-existing structures and models to bring change: for instance, social innovations like carpooling, shared urban gardens or shared washing machines just needed Internet to blossom – now that the technology is here, let’s act!

Photo © Paolo Bona