Lessons From COP 28: The Value Of Engineered Serendipity

“So aha! is an emotion – ‘a sudden feeling of pleasure and certainty that accompanies a new idea.’ The evolutionary purpose of emotions is to quickly give you information to help you make a good decision. The ‘aha’ feeling makes you feel more sure about an idea you've just heard.” --  Australian writer/editor McKinley Valentine

This week’s column comes to you from Dubai, where I’m currently attending the COP 28 conference. It’s the one where global heads of state come together to negotiate climate agreements.

Of course, I -- along with most of the 70,000 other attendees -- am not a head of state. I’m not even a tail of state. So I’ve been curious about what we can actually accomplish. Are we just here to listen to talks? Visit exhibits? Play in innovation labs? Seems like we’ve spent an awful lot of time, money and air miles, not to mention greenhouse gas emissions.

Don’t get me wrong: the talks are interesting. The exhibits are beautiful. The innovation labs are… innovative.



But they are not why we are here.

The subconference I’m attending is called the “Business & Philanthropy Climate Forum.” On the first break in proceedings, I meet a young man who is building a carbon registry. Then I meet another young man, who has developed AI technology to measure Scope 3 emissions for banks and large corporates. And a young woman who runs a platform to amplify climate-focused startups.

Those folks are mixing and mingling with the president of Microsoft, the head of sustainability at Amazon, the largest VC in India.

This is why we are here.

It’s called engineered serendipity, the idea that we can’t know who needs to be connected to whom, but we can create the conditions for those connections and collisions to occur.

And when they do occur, magic happens.

Cities are hotbeds of engineered serendipity. As Bloomberg reports, “a ten percent increase in street density or connectivity is associated with a 0.05 to 1 percent increase in innovation… a ten percent increase in employment density results in a two percent increase in per capita patenting over a ten-year period and… a ten percent increase in highway connectivity leads to a nearly two percent increase in patenting across metro areas over a five-year period.”

COP is a supermassive star with a ridonkulous gravitational pull, gathering tens of thousands of people with interests in climate into a swirling pool of opportunity, making it that much more likely that you’ll meet that partner, that collaborator, that investor. And when you meet that person, you’ll know it because your body will register the ‘aha’ feeling, a feeling which can not only make you surer about an idea you’ve heard, but which can also drive delight in making a human connection.

 Aha! You’re the person I was supposed to meet!

Aha! That was exactly what I needed to hear!

Aha! This one conversation has made the whole event worthwhile!

My friend Melissa, who is a futurist, shared research with me that people’s watercooler conversations are basically about their pets and about their sex lives. I have no reason to doubt her. There are lots of offices where having everyone in the same room wouldn’t necessarily product any patents.

But the right cross-section of people, given time and space to see what emerges…

There’s a lot of criticism of this event globally, much of it warranted. But it works with people as we are, not as we wish we were. We can accomplish unexpectedly extraordinary things if we remain open to possibility and put ourselves in the path of opportunity. COP 28 provides the opportunities and the possibilities. It’s up to all of us to bring them to life.

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