Rob Katz

Cornell Global Forum: No Green Without BoP

The audience at the 92nd Street Y sat and listened politely as a series of wingtip-shod introductory speakers took turns at the lectern. But when the cowboy boots hit the stage, the audience went nuts. Why? Those boots belong to Al Gore, former Vice President of the United States and now Chairman of Generation Investment Management. He entered the Cornell Global Forum’s closing session last night to thunderous applause, striding across the stage in a pair of gleaming black cowboy boots.

Gore had good company. Joining him on the panel last night were Ratan Tata, H. Fisk Johnson, Stuart Hart and moderator Charlie Rose. (For the record, Tata, Hart and Rose wore wingtips with their suits; Johnson was wearing dressy-looking sneakers of some kind.) The event was the culmination of two days’ of working sessions, in which approximately 100 top-level delegates spent hours tackling issues around the “great convergence”. This new term signifies the intersection between clean technology and low-income, base of the pyramid markets. (We’ve previously talked about the Green/BoP nexus; same basic idea.)

During the conference, attendees were charged with finding ways to match the environmental benefits of clean technology with the business opportunities at the BoP. The event organizers went so far as to force each of 11 working groups to come up with an “initiative” that could either be piloted or funded once the conference had ended. Rather than leaving it open to “future collaboration” as most conferences do, the Global Forum team kept its eyes on the prize this week – and for that, they are to be commended.

As for last night’s closing panel, I must say I was glad to hear more about the environmental aspects of the convergence from Gore, Hart, Tata and Johnson. Stu Hart suggested that “it’s easier for companies to enter markets where people get the worst stuff for the highest cost.” Building on that idea, Gore suggested that new technologies (distributed solar, small scale wind) might scale more quickly at the BoP than they would in developed markets, where incumbents often stand in the way of innovation.

Johnson – and his eponymous company, S.C. Johnson – are already taking this lesson to heart. They’ve developed R&D initiatives to downscale their “developed market” products, stripping out the excess stuff – making them cheaper and environmentally friendly at the same time. The company then turns around and blows that innovation back into the developed markets.

This kind of innovation blowback is exactly what Ratan Tata is hoping to do with his radically low-cost car and a number of other products. For about $2500 (100,000 INR), the Tata Nano is a 4-wheel transportation option that gets 65 miles per gallon – more than a Prius. Once it passes regulatory and safety checks in the United States, we should expect to see the Nano stateside – talk about disruptive innovation blowback at the center of the great convergence!

Hyperbole aside, it was important to see these thought leaders together, in public, talking about the important role for BoP markets to play in incubating clean tech. For an excellent recap of last night’s panel, be sure to check out Chris Dannen’s post on Fast Company’s blog.