Which ideas can help an energy company make the transition from fossil fuels to more sustainable sources of energy? And what smart technology can successfully mimic the personality of a human teacher? These massive challenges need innovative ideas, which is exactly what the Blue Tulip Awards is looking for. Jury leads Matthijs Slee and Daniël Roos are experts within their field of work. So we asked them about the current state of innovation around climate and education.
Climate crisis innovation opportunities
With everything going on in the world our climate is, literally, a hot topic. The demand for reliable and affordable energy is growing, but we need to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions that contribute to climate change and air pollution. So for Mattijs Slee, innovation around climate is all about the transition of our energy usage. As an investment principal at Shell Ventures, Shell’s corporate venture capital team, he’s constantly on the lookout for breakthrough technologies and business models that will keep us warm and moving well into the future. He’ll also be using that expertise and experience to judge innovative ideas on the theme of Climate during the upcoming Blue Tulip Awards. “There is not one single silver bullet, but I hope to find innovative ideas that have the potential to make an impact at scale”, he says.
Shell Ventures brings open innovation to the various businesses of the energy company. “We are one of the largest corporate venture investors in the energy sector. When we invest in startups, we also support them to find deployment opportunities within Shell to put their technology to good use. This way we help companies scale and accelerate innovation in areas relevant to Shell.” As such, Shell Ventures is always on the lookout for fast-growing companies in the world of energy and mobility.
Investments in infrastructure required
Examples of current innovations are plenty. Slee: “Today 80 percent of our global energy consumption still comes from the same fossil fuels we’ve been using for the past 100 years. We’re developing a patchwork of sustainable energy solutions to transform the legacy systems in developed countries and develop low carbon solutions to meet the increasing demand in developing countries. Increasingly, there are more economic sustainable alternatives, mainly as the cost of wind and solar is reducing. Hydro energy, although very cheap, remains hard to scale. Nuclear power is controversial and expensive. But we can’t run everything on electricity alone, we need dense energy carriers, often molecules, for transportation and heavy process industries. This requires massive investments in new infrastructure, for which companies, governments and society need to work together.”
Solutions are plenty, but as Slee says, none of them will solve the climate issue on their own. “We need to make industries as circular and energy efficient as possible. So we can limit the drain on our natural resources and reduce greenhouse gas emissions. For example, at Shell, we are looking to convert waste plastics into chemical feedstock to make new plastics again. A separate challenge is to balance the intermittency of renewable energy sources, like wind and solar, with actual demand. We need new infrastructure to store surplus renewable energy, so that we can use the energy generated during strong winds in summer nights in the cold and dark winter months. Hydrogen is anticipated to play a major role here but is currently still too expensive. We need to bring that cost down through further innovations and scale. Positive climate impact at scale only comes if customers have access to better products at competitive prices. We all want a low carbon emission car that can drive 700 kilometers. And we all want safe recycled plastic food packaging. But we want it for the same price as we are used to, preferably even for less.”
Education going digital
While Slee is looking to go green, in the theme of education, they are looking to go digital and make clever use of data. However, like Slee, Daniël Roos also hasn’t seen a silver bullet to solve some of the main challenges. According to him, the current state of AI is not cutting it yet. “We’re still waiting for personalised applications that help individual students learn.” Roos is founder and CEO of Amsterdam based JINC. Since the beginning of this century, this organisation is giving less fortunate children the skills to make it in the professional world. As such, Roos is also jury lead for the Blue Tulip Awards in the theme of Education.
According to Roos, the main thing that is lacking from digital courses or educational solutions is personalisation. “I want a program that not only knows which part of the course a student is struggling with. I want it also to understand why it is hard for that particular student. That is usually where the personality of the teacher comes in. To translate something like that to a digital solution, you almost have to be able to program human emotions.” And emotions and human interaction are essential in the way Roos tries to get its students ready for professional working life.
Affordable and scalable tech for organisations
Because at JINC it is not just about letting students learn phrases or solve maths problems. They mostly focus on non-cognitive skills. Behavioural skills, networking with people, succeeding in a job interview. “A lot of digital solutions turn learning into a game. But I haven’t seen much evidence that gamified learning works better than non-gamified learning. Gamification of training for a job interview? I think it’d be hard to simulate the tension you’d feel during the actual interview. This tension is an important part of the training.” But Roos acknowledges that innovation in education does not only come in the form of digital teachers. There are many opportunities in rearranging the organisational structures in education. “For us at JINC the technological advances haven’t been the ones teaching our students. We are currently building a platform on which schools and companies can find each other, to connect students with opportunities in the corporate world. Through advancement, the technology to build these platforms is now affordable and their scale is increasing, making it more interesting for us.”
Unsurprisingly, as a judge for the Blue Tulip awards, Roos will not be easily swayed by just any educational game or digital version of an existing course: “If an idea offers a solution using any type of data, I’m personally interested in how they plan to use this. We’re working with vulnerable kids, I want their personal data to be theirs, not part of a business model.”
‘Slightly better is not enough’
Both Roos and Slee agree on one part. Whether an innovative idea aims to tackle challenges in education or climate, it is essential that it scales well. Roos: “If a solution only works for a couple of students, it’s not interesting enough.” Slee agrees: “Last year a young company pitched us a new fridge. Great idea, but how are you going to scale up? You need massive capital to produce it and get it to the customers. If something is slightly better than an existing solution, it’s not enough. I’m looking for breakthroughs. The quality of the team and the logic behind the pitch are important. In the early stages, we won’t be too tough on the product itself. For me, it’s important that I see the potential for growth.”