Bettina von Stamm: “Cleantech has to go hand-in-hand with an expansion and evolution of human awareness”

Continuing our Impact 100 series this week is our Editor-in-Chief’s insightful interview with Bettina von Stamm, industry leader in sustainable innovation. 

Having been involved in the field of innovation since 1992, Bettina exemplifies both passion and original vision. Since founding the Innovation Leadership Forum in 2004, a think tank which focusses on facilitating an organisation’s innovation performance, Bettina’s focus on innovation has only increased and developed.

Now the Director of Awards at Katerva, Bettina’s passion for sustainability has joined hands with innovation. Since 2009, the non-profit organisation has set out to identify, evaluate and accelerate sustainable disruptive innovations.

Making an impact on innovation is what Bettina does. CleanTech News is delighted to share the thoughts and reflections of Bettina, from the nature of innovation in the climate crisis, to the relationship between awareness and innovation, and her aspirations for a cleaner future. 

What is the importance of innovation in the cleantech revolution?

One thing is clear, we cannot continue on the trajectory that we are on, as much of what we currently have in place is not particularly ‘clean’. Indeed, much of the existing technology is exactly what is driving the environmental, and partially also social, problems we face. So, for me the answer is quite simple: without innovation, there will be no clean tech revolution!

It might be worth pointing out that innovation is not just about having great ideas – that’s creativity. Innovation is about having great ideas and making them come to life, making them happen, get them adopted. Ideas are aplenty, making them happen is difficult, but possible, and the greatest challenge is to get innovation adopted. 

I believe that so much of the ‘right’ technologies have already been invented, yet too few people know about them, hence their potential impact cannot be realised. 

Do you believe cleantech innovation is the solution to the climate crisis?

I believe that cleantech is certainly part of the solution, but not THE solution – assuming that the purpose of cleantech is to lead us onto the path of sustainability. For me, sustainability can only be achieved if there is a true balance between economic, social and environmental value. You could argue that digital technology is a great contributor to sustainability, as it means people do not have to travel so much – as we are seeing during the corona crisis – we also see the environmental benefits it has created. Mountains people have not seen for decades are emerging out of the fog and animals reclaim their territory. Yet increasingly we are hearing voices warning about the psychological consequences of lock-down, and the social consequences we might get to feel now and in future. 

I believe that cleantech has to go hand-in-hand with an expansion and evolution of human awareness, of changes in mindset, and adopting a systemic view that understands us, humans, as part of the system that is our planet. The view that humanity is the pinnacle of evolution, and should, therefore, control and rule nature, is not only ignoring the facts, more importantly, it is highly dangerous. By increasing human awareness, I mean that we should think more carefully about our choices and decisions.  

Too often technology triggers new behaviours, which we adopt without being consciously aware of this. For example, had I asked you back in 2007 whether you’d like to deal with work-related issues 24/7/365 you would probably have thought that I have gone mad. Yet ask yourself, do I answer work-related emails after hours, over the weekend, during my holidays? I think we are all doing it – I certainly do – yet I also think that not one of us has made a conscious choice that this is how we would like things to be.

We have slipped into this behaviour like the frog that’s being boiled to death as he does not notice the gradual increase in temperature. In terms of changes in mindset, starting to think in systems is certainly one of them. 

The Innovation Leadership Forum suggests that innovation doesn’t just happen, it must be understood in context, encouraged by connection and is a never-ending journey – how has the Innovation Leadership Forum facilitated these?

I have talked about awareness a little earlier, and awareness has so much to do with innovation and sustainability. It is about understanding connections, implications, and making conscious choices; it is not just doing something because that’s how we have always done it, or because everyone else is doing it. 

I believe that we do not become more aware by someone telling us. I believe that we need to make the connection ourselves. This means that I never describe myself as a traditional consultant, but as a catalyst. The difference for me is rather than telling people what they are supposed to do – the traditional consulting approach – I see my role as helping people to understand and figure out what they need to do. 

So, I tell stories, give examples, put people in situations where they experience the insight I would like them to gain. For example, at a senior leadership conference, I put people in teams for maximum diversity without being explicit about it. During the workshop, there will invariably be a time where the teams notice the benefits as well as the challenges of working in diversity – which is, of course, an essential ingredient for again, both innovation and sustainability. The benefits are hearing different approaches and perspectives. One of the challenges is potential for miscommunication and conflict.

There is also another connected reason why I call myself a catalyst. Very early on in my own journey of understanding innovation, which started almost 30 years ago, I realised that innovation is all about values and behaviours. Or rather, innovation happens in the presence of certain values and behaviours;  such as challenging the status quo, not taking no for an answer, collaboration, and so on. We do not change our values and behaviours because someone tells us to.  We only change them if we understand why the change is necessary, and, hopefully, also beneficial.

This is why I always emphasise that I am working with, not for people, and describe my approach, way of working, and impact, as Innovation Philosopher, Storyteller and Catalyst respectively.

What are your hopes and visions for the future of the climate crisis?

I hope that the ongoing coronavirus crisis is the wake-up call that we so urgently needed. We have become busier and busier, with more and more information bombarding us through an ever-increasing number of channels. We have become headless chicken that react to the loudest voice, the most burning problem. 

The lock-down has forced us to take some time to think and reflect, to slow down and have a chance to notice what is really important in life: friendships, time to be, a connection with nature. Of course there is also the worry about the economy, personal finances and job losses; but perhaps that has contributed even further to re-evaluate what is important.

Part of me wishes that the crisis might continue long enough for people to really internalise the insights. The reason I am saying that is that for a new habit or way of thinking to form requires repetition over a sustained period of time, embedding change tends to require deliberate, conscious choice and action. Just think about New Year’s resolutions. Even if we want to change a certain behaviour, most of us struggle, and fall back into accustomed behaviours before long. The image of a blob of jelly comes to mind: unless pressure is sustained for a considerable time any attempt to move it will just put it out of shape temporarily, then it will wobble back to its original state.  

Humans have an interesting ability to forget unpleasant things – as captured in a short story by German playwright and poet Berthold Brecht which goes, “Mr K. rose from the rubble that had been his home. ‘Never ever again’, he said, ‘… at least, not right away’.” There is actually also a physiological reason for this. When we do (or think) the same things repeatedly, certain pathways are created in our brain, literally a groove is created. If we want to change a way of behaving or thinking, we need to create a new groove – and that takes time. If the grove is not deep enough, we very easily slip back into the old one. This is why any attempt of change has to be made concisely – so we notice when we slip back – and we truly create a new groove and give the change a chance to take hold.

One thing the virus has made blatantly clear to us is that however much we think we are in control, we are not. We are entirely dependent on the system called planet, of which we are part.

By the way, I believe that technology is a great contributor to the illusion that we are in control: we regulate temperature through air-conditioning and heating; we can – or rather could – go to any place on the planet, at increasingly low costs; we can buy almost any food at any time in the year; we can replace body parts and manipulate genes. 

Perhaps it is no wonder humanity feels so almighty. Yet in the end, any system is only as strong as its weakest part. If we destroy nature, we ultimately destroy ourselves.


Maisie Law

Maisie Law is Editor-in-Chief here at CleanTech News. Maisie is keen to start making an impact on the developing CleanTech revolution by combining her interests in sustainable development and writing. Through her legal background, Maisie is acutely aware of the political and policy changes that need to be made to drive the earth towards carbon net zero. Equally as crucial to our mission, and the focus at CleanTech News is the sustainable achievements of those from start-ups to corporates, as she aims to champion and provide a platform to celebrate carbon reduction.