7 Key Insights from Fortune Brainstorm E

I’ve spent the last two days holed up in a dark hotel ballroom with executives from a variety of traditional and start-up companies talking about energy, water, food, climate change, and what we’re all going to do about it. At the end of Fortune Brainstorm E, Allan Murray, the editor of Fortune, said something like, “I’ve never felt both so optimistic and so depressed at the end of one of these.” That’s how I felt as well.

On the one hand, people much smarter than I who deeply understand science and economics essentially said that even if we unleashed new technological innovations today, and got the world to a 100% renewable energy reality today, we probably still couldn’t stop the 2 degree Celsius temperature rise which has been acknowledged to be the disaster tipping point for our world. (And it’s a disaster in slow motion: according to Steven Chu, the former U.S. Energy Secretary, that temperature increase will mean a 6-9 meter rise in sea levels over about 200 years, which will wipe out land that about 10% of the world’s population lives on. And “slow motion” means it’s difficult to motivate companies and governments to do anything about it quickly vs. if we wiped out a swath of the world’s land overnight. THEN we’d all freak out and do something immediately.)

On the other hand, folks from the tech sector said things like, “Look, we couldn’t have imagined an iPhone in 1999 and the impact that would have on our lives.” So, essentially, it’s possible that there are technologies being developed right now that could dramatically change the game.

In either case, I walked away with seven insights into how to change things for the better (with a marketing and messaging slant, since that’s Shelton Group’s role at the table):

  1. We need a lot of “unleashing.” I used this word three paragraphs ago, because I must have heard it 20 times over the last two days. Folks on the main stage kept talking about how we need to “unleash innovation,” and they talked about it often in relation to the utility industry.
  2. Regulators are the whipping boy. Utility CEOs and others often used utility regulators as the reason that utilities aren’t innovating more or moving faster to upgrade the grid so we can get to 80% renewables by 2050 as NREL has predicted is possible. My firm works with several utilities, and I hear this in our work with them as well (usually languaged as “the regulators won’t let us.”) But in a one-on-one conversation I had with a gentleman whose firm works specifically with utilities on innovation, his feeling was that utilities don’t have a lot of employees who are wired for innovation … so if we want utilities to innovate, we’ll need to bring new talent inside their four walls. I think that’s likely true, and we’ll need to help move regulators along as well. Which gets us to Insight #3:
  3. Big companies and big cities have a big lever. We actually helped EDF tell this lever story quite well last year, and I saw it play out at the conference, too. Facebook and other large companies banded together via WWF/WRI’s Corporate Renewable Energy Buyers’ Principles initiative to influence regulators in one state to put a green tariff in place. Bill Ritter, former governor of Colorado, said Xcel Energy was able to get a progressive, sweeping renewable energy vision adopted by its regulators because the city of Denver – which accounts for 20% of Xcel’s load in CO – wanted it. So the takeaway here is that if big energy-consuming customers push for a cleaner energy future, and they come together to make that push, action will often follow.
  4. We need to follow AT&T’s lead. Glenn Lurie, the CEO of AT&T Mobility and Consumer Operations, said AT&T has made more infrastructure investments than anybody in any industry, not just telecommunications. His attitude was that it was a necessity to be prepared to give customers the service they want now and in the future. I heard no belly-aching about cost-recovery or hand-wringing over whether they’d make the money they invested back. It was very much a “we invest money to make money” attitude. Our nation’s electric and water utilities must adopt this attitude as well. A healthy grid is key to getting our nation to a greater dependence on renewables vs. fossil fuels (which reduces carbon output, which reduces the 2 degree threat). And we’re losing millions, if not billions, of gallons of clean water via infrastructure leaks – and in a new reality where the California drought is likely permanent (and similar conditions will follow in other states), we simply can’t afford it. We need to get on with the infrastructure improvements already.
  5. We need to look at electricity, water and food together. I had never thought about this before, but once it was pointed out it made perfect sense. They’re all inter-related, and they’re all the resources humans need, and the resources at the heart of our climate problems. So utility executives need to be partnering with farming and food company executives (and NGOs probably need to help facilitate) to create more sustainable systems that ensure we’ll have plenty of soil to farm on, plenty of food to eat and the water and electricity we need to make t happen, while also ensuring the world has access to clean energy and water.
  6. Creating a sustainable future means creating partnerships. I heard several executives, from Glenn at AT&T to Bill Ford, say, “No company can solve the climate/sustainability issues related to its industry alone … we’ll have to partner in ways we never have before to solve these problems.” That requires executives to adopt an open arms attitude vs. a close-the-ranks/hunker-down-and-compete attitude. I saw a lot of open arms at this conference, which was encouraging, but I know a lot of the close-the-ranks attitude exists as well. We’ll need to work to change this and help our nation’s CEOs see the real value in partnerships – which means helping them see the real threats of not partnering.
  7. Words matter. Will Sarni, the Director and Practice Leader of Water Strategy at Deloitte, said, “As long as we keep calling what’s happening in California a ‘drought,’ people will just keep hoping for a good rain and nothing will change from a policy perspective.” That’s exactly right. Words do matter – in marketing, policy making and leadership. And getting our words right is key to motivating companies, governments and consumers to action in order to turn the climate issue around.

If you attended the Fortune conference, let me know your takeaways. I’d love to compare notes.

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Posted on

May 18, 2016

About the Author

Suzanne Shelton

Where Suzanne sees opportunity, you can bet results will follow. Drawing on her extensive knowledge of both the advertising world and the energy and environment arena, Suzanne provides unparalleled strategic insights to our clients and to audiences around North America. Suzanne is a guest columnist in multiple publications and websites, such as GreenBiz, and she speaks at around 20 conferences a year, including Sustainable Brands, Fortune Brainstorm E and Green Build.

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