Going Beyond The 'End of the Road'

Last week, I attended the New York Times-hosted Energy for Tomorrow conference. Held in New York City, it was a day of discussions and debate about the future of energy – weighing the pros and cons of wind, natural gas, ethanol, solar cells, nuclear or some heretofore undiscovered source of power. A recurrent theme was that restricted resources – or in some cases, restricted access to resources – is a key catalyst for innovative solutions. 

Leading energy specialist Daniel Yergin addresses this concept in his recent book, The Quest. It’s a lengthy tome on the search for sustainable sources of energy that is a must-read, whether you’re in business, marketing or sustainability. One quote in particular stands out: 

 “So often, over the history of the oil industry, it is said that technology has gone about as far as it can and that the ‘end of the road’ for the oil industry is in sight. And then, new innovations dramatically expand capabilities.”

How many other industries and companies have thought that they reached the “end of the road” from a sustainability perspective? As one energy executive at the conference bemoaned, his company will have to change its core business in order to meet sustainability goals. He likened it to asking a candy company to make healthier products. 

Not only does it require innovation to get past the end of the road, but it also may require a shift in corporate priorities, or even a shift in your core product. 

This kind of thinking is by no means limited only to the energy industry. In 2003, McDonald’s began selling salads, and in that time claims to have sold more than 1 billion salads in the U.S. Burger King, which is making a move to be more casual dining and less “fast food,” is reinventing itself by selling salads and smoothies. Will Burger King be able to convince consumers to look past its name and trust them to prepare healthier options?

In lieu of a reinvention, companies whose products may be considered a threat to environmentalism are trying to develop innovative alternatives that do not require a complete overhaul. For example, this week, 3M – the company behind Scotch tape and Post-it notes – announced the launch of a “greener” masking tape that provides the same level of effectiveness while using fewer resources, in particular, paper products. Perhaps we’ll eventually live in a world where we don’t need masking tape, but, until then, 3M has the right strategy – make its products as green as possible.

As one executive described it to me, innovation is like getting to a brick wall and realizing while you can’t go through it, you can find a way to climb over it. 

How have you gone beyond the end of the road? Let me know, here or at @Measure4What.

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