Recently I attended the Cleantech Open Expo and Awards Gala at the Masonic Center. Thousands of people turned out including an all star cast of speakers: Bill Weihl, Green Energy Czar at Google, Steve Westly, former CFO of the State of California and Gil Friend, CEO of Natural Logic.
This event is considered the Academy Awards of Cleantech. There was no red carpet or paparazzi but the audience got to have their American Idol moment by voting for the winners for a $100K prize of start-up services. The grand prize, valued at $250,000, including $100,000 of seed capital, was to be awarded to the business plan competition winner who had been selected in secret by judges the previous day.
The finalists were in the audience, and the stakes were high.
To get to the event, I took BART to Civic Center to catch the shuttle bus. I was looking forward to my second ride ever on the famous Bauer shuttle bus that transports Google employees (and raises San Francisco real estate prices along its routes). I was the only person when I got to the pick-up spot but the driver assured me I was in the right pace. He said I was free to help myself to coffee or bottled water in the back. Huh? I’ve never been to a Green event that offered bottled water. On the bus, I took a seat and looked around. I was the only person on the bus.
A few minutes later, the bus took off and I was still the only passenger leaving me to wonder: how did everyone else get to the event?
I arrived at the Masonic Center and was impressed with the turn out. Lots of people where there, and it was a different crowd than most Green events. The men were wearing suites, even some ties, and women were wearing heels, gowns and jewels. Well, not quite, but it was a different crowd. No one was carrying a Clean Kanteen water bottle.
I checked-in and walked through the lobby. There I came face to face with a surprise, a Chevron booth. I’ve never been to an event where Chevron was the sponsor. I didn’t know what to say. I stood face to face with the booth for a few moments, then made my way into the dark theater to gather my thoughts.
Inside the theater, videos of finalists were screening. Based on the videos, the audience voted on companies, and in between, speakers made presentations. It was hard for me to determine the most deserving project. I tried to vote on the underlying ideas rather than on the quality of videos, which varied dramatically. There was no scientific review. I felt unqualified to vote, but I did.
For the rest of the afternoon, I sat in the dark and I watched the Cleantech pageant in all its glory. There was a lot of excitement and positive energy in the theater, especially when the finalists made their pitches. Others have reviewed these presentations. (For example, see Reuters and Sustainable Business.) I’d like to focus on the experience of being in the theater.
I felt a disconnect between the Cleantech world and the Green or sustainable world of permaculture, conservation, recycled materials and watershed management. The A-list speakers discussed social change, changing the arc of human history and a revolution in our lives. To me, however, most of the technologies presented didn’t map on to these big picture ideas. Many of the technologies presented seemed like band-aids to existing problems, others seem like they will enable us to maintain our current standard of living using less energy. Is this the revolution?
I believe that technology is an important part of the solution. I also believe that there needs to be a bridge between technological innovation and social innovation in order to realize some meaningful change. This is where I hope Green21 can play a role. At the end of the day, when I took the Bauer shuttle bus back to BART, I was encouraged to see that I wasn’t the only one on the bus – there were about seven or eight other people. And no one was drinking bottled water