Interview: Joel Makower on Greenbiz Innovation Forum

Triple Pundit’s friend and partner, Greener World Media’s Innovation Forum kicks off in two weeks at Mission Bay Conference Center in San Francisco. It’s billed as a catalyst for “Next-Gen Models, Methods, and Mindsets for Transforming Business”. I tracked down GWM’s Joel Makower to ask him a few questions about the conference:

3p: Sustainability + Innovation = ? That seems like motherhood and apple pie. In being “innovative” just the latest buzzword, or does it mean something? For that matter, isn’t “sustainability” itself pretty innovative?

Joel Makower: It’s true. Nearly every company (and nearly every conference) is talking about “innovation” these days. And much like “sustainability,” there’s an underlying assumption that we all understand what the term means. Of course, everyone means something a little different when it comes to innovation, not to mention sustainability innovation. For some, it refers to incremental eco-efficiency improvements — that is, small changes that lead to companies doing a little less bad. That’s interesting and helpful, but that’s not what we have in mind. We’re talking about breakthrough, even radical innovation: reinventing products, processes, services, and business models in ways that make dramatic improvements in resource efficiency, not to mention in people’s lives.

Those of us who have been watching green business trends for some time are getting impatient with the pace of change. It’s time for bigger, bolder, more audacious changes in what companies do and how they operate. Incremental eco-efficiency improvements just won’t cut it any more. The good news is that there are several role models out there — big companies that are pushing the limits. Take Panasonic, for example. In May it announced a goal to become the world’s leading “Green Innovation Company” by 2018, its 100th anniversary. Barely a month before Panasonic’s announcement Hitachi said it would make environmental innovations at the core of the company’s operations for the next 100 years. Meanwhile, NEC and LG each made billion-dollar commitments to innovative green products. In the U.S., IBM, Google, GE, Procter & Gamble, and others are making big bets on breakthrough sustainability innovations. This isn’t just a cool trend, it’s nothing less than a transformation of how business operates going forward.

What’s different about this conference?

More and more business people are tired of talking. They want to start doing. But “doing” sustainability innovations isn’t easy. It’s not simply a matter of spreading an idea and assuming it will take off.

We’re going to bring sustainability and innovation professionals together to learn from one another. How does innovation happen inside big companies? It’s not simply a matter of a brainstorm, or “ideation” exercises, or pulling a rabbit out of a hat. Innovation is something that can be learned and managed. Some companies have deep experience in how to do this. The more sustainability executives understand this, the better they’ll be able to be effective in their own organizations.

So, during the two days, participants won’t just hear about sustainability and innovation. They’ll experience it. They’ll participate in hands-on exercises that will show the power of teams and partnerships, and how to break through barriers that make innovation hard. It’s going to be bother entertaining and enlightening.

The other big difference is that this event is invitation-only. We’re limiting participants primarily to practitioners in companies. With all due respect to our many friends in consulting, PR, marketing, and other services, we think the magic of the event will result from peer-to-peer learning among those on the front lines in their companies trying to make change happen.

We’ve heard people talking about a “Sustainable Innovation map”. What does that mean?

This is such a huge topic that we need to get on the same page. I’m finishing up a graphic of what the sustainability innovation space looks like, that we’ll use at the forum to put each part of the event into a larger context. It’s kind of a stake in the ground that I hope others will improve upon in order to create a shared vision of the overall sustainability innovation space.

Great conferences produce “aha moments”. What kinds of catalysts have you set in motion this year that will bring out the “aha” in attendees?

At least a third of the conference program will involve attendees engaging with others in the room — small-group exercises, an “innovators’ cafe,” a thinkubator, and other opportunities to experience and model the innovation process. We’re encouraging participants to bring their own innovation challenges with them. I can’t help but think that the combination of all these committed professionals, amazing speakers and facilitators, and the innovative program will engender a lot of “aha moments.” It’s going to be fun to watch.


Join Joel, the rest of Greener World Media as well as folks from Triple Pundit at this year’s Innovation Forum. Click here to request an invitation.

Nick Aster is a new media architect and the founder of has grown to become one of the web's leading sources of news and ideas on how business can be used to make the world a better place.

Prior to TriplePundit Nick worked for Mother Jones magazine, successfully re-launching the magazine's online presence. He worked for, managing the technical side of the publication for 3 years and has also been an active consultant for individuals and companies entering the world of micro-publishing. He earned his stripes working for Gawker Media and Moreover Technologies in the early days of blogging.

Nick holds an MBA in sustainable management from the Presidio School of Management and graduated with a BA in History from Washington University in St. Louis.

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