How to blow your mind: Reflections from the first ten episodes of the Conversations on Climate Podcast

Wow – our first ten episodes finished already!

In the five months since we began this adventure, Conversations on Climate has been, without doubt, a wonderful experience. I have had the pleasure – and honour – to host discussions with some fantastic individuals, all at the top of their respective fields. Every one has been generous, warm, insightful and surprising. It has been just as much fun chatting and joking off-camera as it is recording the discussions themselves, which is always a good sign; and the whole experience has left me excited at the prospect of many more such conversations to come.

So, here at the half-way point of our first season, are my reflections on the journey so far.

Mind. Blown.

Ultimately, this work is about taking my passion – the problem of climate change – and finding fresh perspectives from the smartest minds around today. In that respect I already count the podcast a huge success. There are lots of ways to track this progress – and growing our audience 5x in as many months is only one of them. Personally, the measure that matters most to me is how many of these conversations have genuinely changed my mind. Ideas really do matter – and a new insight offers us the opportunity to update our mental software.

So it’s with a smile on my face that I can report that Professor Jean-Pierre Benoît actually blew my mind. The concepts of rational polarisation and rational accidents are just the kind of thing that comes along a few times in a life says: everything you thought you knew is wrong. But what is so revolutionary in Benoît’s work is the idea that getting things wrong can actually be a consequence of making the ‘right’ decision, because what is rational is not always what is optimal or effective. From nuclear reactor meltdowns to arguing with climate sceptics over dinner, these ideas touch every avenue of life – and should be a wake-up call for us all.

Since then, I’ve been questioning my own assumptions much more frequently. I am more alert for pre-existing patterns of thought, and more willing to submit them to reassessment. I am more interested in seeing things from other people’s points of view (particularly those who disagree with me). Even the way I run meetings has subtly shifted. So, if you haven’t head it yet, I can heartily recommend giving Professor Benoît a listen, and seeing what might change for you.

Rethinking relationships

Another area where the podcast has changed the way I do business day-to-day is in government relations. I always knew that government support matters – as anyone in the energy sector must. But I previously thought that if you build a good product-policy fit, then government support would naturally, rationally (uh-oh!) follow.

It was Paul Beijer who made me understand that winning over government is not that simple. Product is all well and good, but it is much more about the slow, steady work of cultivating relationships. GR as a business function is tremendously important, but – as Paul so astutely identified –a dedicated GR office is only feasible at a certain scale. And most clean energy firms are still too small. Instead, we as leaders must recognise it as another hat to wear.

So here at United Renewables, my top team is now much more explicit about dedicating time and resources to this relational work, with a greater degree of consciousness and coordination. Government relations has found its way into our job descriptions – and I have my discussion with Paul to thank for that.

Playing with scale

From Big Oil to microalgae, I have also been struck by the question scale in all my conversations so far. So much mainstream thinking about climate change focusses on the macro, be it the geopolitics of COP, national state policies, or the billion-dollar investments of Tesla, Saudi Aramco and the like. Understanding big sweep of the energy industry is critical, as my chats with Julio Dal Poz and Giannis Komitas reinforced. However, I have also been really heartened to discover how much wonderful work is going on at a much smaller scale. For instance, the aforementioned microalgae start-up developing brand new nature-based carbon sequestration methods on a little slice of the Moroccan desert coastline; the entrepreneurs working to bring big data to the climate fight, or the outfit focussing on retrofitting energy efficiency in an East Asian megacity.

This matters, because our guests have repeatedly argued that different functions work best at different scales – and we need them all. Capital investment that genuinely moves the needle requires bulk – whether that comes from legacy players or newer aggregative platforms. However, big organisations breed inertia, internal cross-currents, and the necessity for top-down management structures, all of which can stifle creativity, motivation and innovation. Being small brings the benefits of space to reflect, experiment, and follow your own north star – to pursue what really matters to you. Episode 9 with Professor Julian Birkinshaw – a titan in the field of Management theory – gave me some profound insights into the problem of managing scale, as he pitted dancing elephants against adhocracies to explore leadership strategies in an ‘age of disruption’.

Tending our solution ecosystems

When it comes to solving climate change, we need an ‘all of the above’ approach. We need the multinational giants to pour resources into proven renewable technologies, which will form the backbone of tomorrow’s infrastructure. But we also need the niche start-ups who have the imagination and flexibility to shoot for the moon – be it natural solutions, hydrogen or cold fusion. Most will fail, but those that thrive will change the world.

Which brings me right back to episode one – Professor Michael G Jacobides on ecosystem thinking. Looking back, I’m so glad we kicked off the series with this episode, because it acts as a mental framework for everything that follows. Healthy economies are like ecosystems – they need players at all scales, who work cooperatively (and antagonistically) to produce something greater than the sum of its parts. Each niche, big or small, has a contribution to make, from predators to nutrient cyclers, from the lone wolf to the herd. We have to tend the whole system to succeed.

Diversity, grace and future success

Put another way, ecosystems need diversity. And this is our main goal for the second half of this season of Conversations on Climate – to bring even more diversity to the discussion. Half of our new guests will be women; we have activists alongside business leaders and academics; and I am excited to include more global voices from places like sub-Saharan Africa. If you as a listener have any suggestions for guests or topics, we’d love to hear them.

The other thing I’d love to hear from you about, is which episode you would recommend to a new listener. Of course, it depends on the individual concerned; but as a general introduction I love Sir Andrew Likierman. He was such a charming, friendly individual, who wore his remarkable career lightly and with great grace. He took us through a fascinating subject – what makes good judgement – in a really accessible way, and I think it’s a perfect way to get to know the podcast. What would you recommend?

It’s wonderful to know that, as we head into the second half of the season, you’ll be along for the ride (and many others alongside, as we add thousands of new listeners each month). So, let’s raise a toast to the future: insight and opportunity!

So, here at the half-way point of our first season, is a newsletter with my reflections on the journey so far.

Spoiler alert -> Mind. Blown.

Shout out to all of our fantastic guests so far

Written by Chris Caldwell CEO of United Renewables, originally published on Linkedin on November 3rd 2022


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