Impact Spotlights

Inventing for One Planet

April 22, 2019

April 22, 2019
By Cindy Cooper, Program Officer, The Lemelson Foundation

As we commemorate Earth Day each year, we become more cognizant that the Earth itself is a constrained resource. Sustainability is one of the key issues of our time, but when it comes to inventing new products, we often don’t act that way.

While invention has been harnessed to help solve some of our great environmental challenges, too often the tenets of environmental responsibility are absent from the invention process itself. Because inventors and engineers are often the ones who create the technologies and products of tomorrow, they are the linchpin to ensure that the things we build are ultimately compatible with the health of the planet. This means trying to minimize products’ environmental footprint from prototype to production, and from how materials are sourced to how they break apart at the end of their life-cycle.

Often the conversation has been too focused on trade-offs between profitability and sustainability. The private sector is increasingly recognizing that sustainable innovation is not only the right thing for life on Earth, it can itself be a winning business model. Companies increasingly want engineers and inventors who have already been trained with this mindset.

What if every engineering student were given the knowledge and tools to assess environmental responsibility as a matter of course? We believe it would have a transformative effect by cultivating the very people and systems that can make the greatest difference for environmental impact.

The Lemelson Foundation is working with a wide variety of partners to help make this a reality. One example is a pilot program with Berkeley’s Blum Center and its Big Ideas initiative, which challenges students to devise real-world solutions to pressing global problems. It’s one of the pioneering student ideas competition in the country, and we’ve been working together to integrate resources and mentors that will assist students in understanding, considering and integrating environmental responsibility in its Hardware for Good program. As a vital source of fresh, innovative ideas coming from the next generation of engineers and inventors, why shouldn’t every pitch program in higher education use environmental impact as part of their key design criteria?

We take inspiration from partners such as John Warner, one of the founders of Green Chemistry. His efforts show how to introduce a set of principles – in this case the 12 Principles of Green Chemistry that chemists should learn in order to reduce both the environmental impact and potential negative health effects of chemicals – and to popularize them both in education and business settings. His organization Beyond Benign is working to teach Green Chemistry in K-12 and Higher Education, and his company the Warner-Babcock Institute is proving that inventions made with Green Chemistry in mind can also be highly profitable.

Along a similar vein, the Ellen MacArthur Foundation is championing the notion of Circular Design. This abandons the linear approach to products - make, use, discard - in favor of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use and regenerating natural systems. A good example is the company Ecovative, which was started by students at Rensselaer Polytechnic Institute and received early support from our grantee VentureWell. They use mushroom-based materials to replace traditional plastics and Styrofoam as packing material that is biodegradable and can be turned into compost after use. VentureWell provides an Inventing Green Toolkit and a suite of free sustainability design resources for educators and early-stage innovators to easily adapt and use.

What does it look like when these principals become a part of our larger maker culture? Kickstarter now prompts creators to first think about the environmental impact of their new products. Through an Environmental Resource Center compiled with the Environmental Defense Fund, it offers suggestions on how to consider factors like reusability and sustainable fulfilment, and even provides examples of innovative products that meet these standards.

Stakeholders across sectors are driving this demand for environmental responsibility, from climate conscious students and education leaders who are passionate about preparing our engineers and inventors for a resource-constrained future, to business leaders who incorporate sustainability into the world’s most competitive companies. 

After all, sustainable design requires an innovative mindset, identifying new and better ways to create products that solve problems and are more planet friendly. Despite all of our advances, we only have one Earth. And there's no better way to commemorate Earth Day than to consider environmental impact as a routine part of the inventing process on every day of the year.