Future Climate Solutions, Unevenly Distributed

June 30, 2020

“The future is already here – it’s just not evenly distributed” - this William Gibson quote has been used in the world of startups and tech enough to become cliché. Often, it’s used to illustrate technological potential and opportunity that, with the right idea and people, can become more than something tinkered with by early adopters and enthusiasts. I’ve also heard it used when describing new tech aiming to mitigate climate change.

But there’s another way to look at this quote, a framing used less often: new innovations and solutions are not evenly distributed. Technocratic world views tend to see this lack of even distribution as a consequence of product adoption curves - there are early adopters, characterized by their enthusiasm for innovation, understanding of new technology, and willingness to take risks, while the majority of the market is more willing to adopt the product or innovation when it is more polished, accessible, and normalized.

In reality, there is another dimension, often ignored: systemic inequality and lack of access influence where one sits on a product adoption curve, as well as what part of the population such a curve covers in the first place. In many cases, it’s a privilege to be an early adopter, and consequently, it takes privilege to be an early adopter.

Much has been said on Silicon Valley’s historical bias towards solving their own problems that sit higher on their hierarchy of needs than the majority of the global population will ever dream about (see robot pizza). Yet increasingly, founders and executives around the world are asking (or being asked) an incredibly important question: “What good is our product if it only benefits the privileged few?”

Protests regarding systemic racism and police brutality in the United States should remind us all that systemic inequality is an issue we cannot avoid, and in fact that ignoring the issue is effectively being complicit in its continuity, in both our personal and professional lives.

Meanwhile, there is another important trend going on. There’s an explosion of interest, funding, and companies in the climate tech startup space over the past year. Those of us in this ecosystem must ask ourselves: “What good is our solution to climate change if it only benefits the privileged few”?

At this point, it’s well established that the effects of climate change will disproportionately affect historically marginalized groups. Climate activist movements, ranging from Fridays for Future to Extinction Rebellion to Sunrise Movement, cite the concept of “Climate Justice”, a framing of climate change as a socioeconomic and civil rights issue, as a core aspect of their demands and platforms. Climate Justice has also been ever-present and increasingly relevant in global climate change negotiations via the UNFCCC. With an acknowledgement of the uneven distribution of the impacts of climate change comes an assertion that climate change mitigation and adaptation actions must fit this uneven distribution, matching the pattern of disproportionate impacts on marginalized communities.

Conversely, within the startup community of founders, investors, and accelerators that is starting to put more ideas, money, and people to work on the issue of climate change, the principles of climate justice are less well-known and discussed than in geopolitical and activist circles, though there are of course exceptions.

These trends are concerning to me for two reasons. Firstly, the startup community and the world of “climate tech” could fall into the same trap as their predecessors of building solutions for the privileged few when climate change is an issue where marginalized groups are at a significantly higher risk. Secondly, a lack of widespread acknowledgement of climate justice by the startup community could lead to increasingly divergent world views on the climate issue between that community and climate activist movements. Conversely, building greater dialogue and synergies between these two worlds will unlock new ideas, opportunities, and solutions..

Events during the first half of 2020 have forced a lot of us to ask ourselves “What can I do?” with a conviction that we may not have felt before. On this particular issue of connecting inequality and injustice to climate solutions in the startup world, I see three actions to take, all equally important:

  1. Educate yourself: Learn more about how systemic inequalities around the world connect to the issue of climate change. While there are countless resources out there, I’d recommend the Mary Robinson Foundation if you’re not sure where to start. The NAACP also has a good resource list.
  2. Start a company-wide conversation: If your company has a mission related to climate change mitigation or adaptation, begin a dialogue in your company about who benefits from your solution and who would not. While it may not be realistic for most companies to build products that are universally accessible, an open and challenging conversation about how to incorporate climate justice into the company mission could ensure a path to greater accessibility in the future.
  3. Speak out: Publicly share the results of your company’s dialogue on climate justice and encourage your peers to do the same! Leading by example has proved to be incredibly powerful when it comes to companies creating climate change policies and initiatives.

Ultimately, I’m coming from a position of privilege - I’m not the one who will face these systemic inequalities. But I want to learn, listen, and do my part to make a difference, and I invite you to do the same.

If you want to discuss this further or have ideas on this subject, you can reach me @trevorhinkle3 on Twitter.

Thanks to Inky, Oli, and Martin for reading drafts of this piece.