Envisioning a New Climate-Change Playbook: Darden Convenes Business and Policy Leaders for DC Innovation Summit

By Gosia Glinska and Liz Ivaniw Jones

Climate change is one of the most daunting challenges of the 21st century. While devastating hurricanes, rising sea levels, and unprecedented wildfires — and the clashing views about their causes — make headlines, the role of business innovation in addressing these global threats scarcely receives attention. To spur thoughtful dialogue and action, the University of Virginia Darden School of Business recently convened the Jefferson Innovation Summit 2018: Catalyzing Innovation and Entrepreneurship to Tackle Climate Change at the historic Carnegie Institution for Science in Washington, D.C.

“Climate change is both a generational challenge and an urgent one,” said Bill Antholis, director and CEO of the University of Virginia Miller Center. “We are the first generation to know that human activity is affecting the global environment and the last generation with a chance to stop it from happening. This meeting gave me hope that we can act.”

Hosted by Darden’s Batten Institute for Entrepreneurship and Innovation, this invitation-only event assembled a diverse cross-section of corporate executives, entrepreneurs, nonprofit leaders, government officials, policy experts, academics and federal regulators. Over 40 delegates met for a day of guided discussion and ideation, with a goal of developing an action-oriented “policy playbook” to help unleash climate-focused innovation on a massive scale.

Darden Professor Mike Lenox, an expert in innovation strategy and author of the forthcoming book, Will Business Save the Earth?: Innovating Our Way to Sustainability (Stanford University Press), led the day’s discussions, inviting delegates to examine the inhibitors and accelerators of innovation.

“The challenge is clear,” said Lenox. “How do we energize innovation? How do we motivate more entrepreneurs, more innovators to create the technologies, the businesses and the value propositions that will help us address climate change?”

Dispensing with keynotes or panel discussions, the Jefferson Innovation Summit began with a challenging, Socratic dialogue about the issues. Thereafter, delegates gathered in the Carnegie Institution’s main hall to develop actionable ideas using design-thinking ideation techniques. Armed with markers, Post-it notes, and flipcharts, they brainstormed achievable public policy and business strategy solutions to combat climate change.

Among the many issues discussed, delegates identified an uncertain policy environment as a major obstacle for climate-focused innovation. “It’s hard to make long-term investment decisions without having policy stability,” said George Ashton, president and co-founder of Sol Systems, a solar energy finance, investment and development firm.

Darden Professor Peter Debaere, head of the University of Virginia’s Global Water Initiative, agreed. “Despite a growing consensus about the consequences of climate change, there is no willingness in Washington to face this reality,” he said. “Corporate America, NGOs, academia and the U.S. states have to step up and consider what concrete action can be taken to mitigate climate change. The summit enabled just that.”

Other challenges included bringing forward the voices of those absent from the climate-change conversation. Darden Professor Greg Fairchild emphasized the importance of inclusivity in the national dialogue and urged that experts engage those members of the general public who “may not understand how climate change impacts them or may not understand the value proposition in the ideas and opportunities the experts are advancing,” but are essential to “pushing this effort forward.”

Overall, a sense of optimism permeated the summit’s conversations. “While we might not have all the answers to address all sustainability issues,” said Tom Madrecki, a 2010 UVA graduate and the director of Urban Innovation and Mobility at UPS, “we might have the start of new relationships, new agreements and new abilities to work together as corporations, non-profits and government stakeholders.”

“It’s daunting,” said Tommy Wells, the director of the D.C. Department of Energy and Environment, “but it’s good to see how many people are working on this. No matter what we do, we will decarbonize the atmosphere.”

Frank M. “Rusty” Conner III, the rector of the University of Virginia Board of Visitors, noted that the University, now celebrating its bicentennial, has “rededicated itself to its founding vision of improving the human condition by addressing the intractable problems of our time. Climate change is one of those issues.” Conner also emphasized that “universities are uniquely positioned to address these types of issues in a dispassionate and multi-disciplinary fashion.”

The delegates’ insights and recommendations will help shape a policy playbook, intended to advance business practice and public policy that foster clean tech innovation. The playbook will be released in May 2018 and will be available for download on the summit’s website.

About the University of Virginia Darden School of Business

The University of Virginia Darden School of Business prepares responsible global leaders through unparalleled transformational learning experiences. Darden’s graduate degree programs (MBA, MSBA and Ph.D.) and Executive Education & Lifelong Learning programs offered by the Darden School Foundation set the stage for a lifetime of career advancement and impact. Darden’s top-ranked faculty, renowned for teaching excellence, inspires and shapes modern business leadership worldwide through research, thought leadership and business publishing. Darden has Grounds in Charlottesville, Virginia, and the Washington, D.C., area and a global community that includes 18,000 alumni in 90 countries. Darden was established in 1955 at the University of Virginia, a top public university founded by Thomas Jefferson in 1819 in Charlottesville, Virginia.


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