CHANGENOW2020, from global gathering to global impact?

[This article was originally published in the April 2020 issue of L’ECHO Magazine, following CHANGENOW Summit 2020, held at the Grand Palais in Paris. It is republished here as C14 Media will attend and report on CHANGENOW Summit 2022 in May in Paris. You will be able to follow us on our C14Podcast Channel on Spotify.]

From one Exposition Universelle to another

In 1900, over a period of six months, the Paris Exhibition gathered together 47 countries and attracted a staggering number of visitors (estimated at nearly 50 million) to celebrate innovations in agriculture, architecture, art, industry and sport (with the 1900 Summer Olympic Games). Paris’s landscape changed for the Exposition Universelle, with buildings and infrastructure being constructed for the displays and to show the path to a more enlightened future. Amongst the many structures erected at the time, was the Grand Palais on the right bank of the river Seine.

120 years later at the end of January, ChangeNow2020 took place under the incredible steel and glass dome of the nave of the Grand Palais, the last large event to be hosted by this venue before its complete refurbishment. (It is expected to reopen in spring 2023 to prepare to host the fencing and taekwondo events of the 2024 Olympic and Paralympic Games.)

ChangeNow was in its third year. One of its founders, Santiago Lefebvre defined the event as an international medium to accelerate the transition towards a more sustainable world, by giving a platform for exchange and collaboration to innovative talents, start-ups and investors (individual, financial and corporate), and all participants in fact.

The choice of venue was highly symbolic. Emmanuel Marcovitch, deputy Director of RMN-GrandPalais, opened the event with words of hope: “Let’s have faith in the changes we can make for a better future”.

CHANGENOW2020 under the Grand Palais’s dome – Photo Credit ©CecileFaure

ChangeNow2020 was not an Exposition Universelle, there was a price tag (from travelling and staying in Paris to paying for a stand) that may have discouraged some participants, who could not see the business potential or preferred other similar events. It still attracted 53 countries, 28,000 participants, 211 start-ups and scale-ups, and staged 263 speakers (from start ups to large corporates, from fund managers to banks, from disruptive public speakers to CEOs of Foundations, from city representatives to UN executives, etc.).

So what was in the magic hat ?

At first it felt like a magic kingdom, from the array of colours and arts displayed at the entrance to the venue, to the name and shape of the places where round-tables took place (Arena, Crystal or Garden stage, and Balcony of Honor, etc.), and to the wonders of numerous imaginative solutions on display, Incredibly dense information and a tight program schedule justified the Map and App. Conversations overheard suggested that the first day was exhausting, as participants tried to work out how to be everywhere at once.

The “happy few” who had been chosen to exhibit and/or speak were said to have been selected on four criteria: have a positive impact on environment and society; rethink standards and dare to change them; show a viable business model; and have real potential for growth and replication.

Eight areas of focus, reflecting the United Nations Sustainable Development goals, were given priority: clean air and water, security of supply of healthy food and water, sustainable and accessible energy, preservation of biodiversity, sustainable consumption, good health and well-being, quality education, peace and humanity.

CHANGENOW2020 – Photo Credit ©CecileFaure

And it was almost overwhelming! Because wherever one looked there were inventions and innovations (i.e. inventions that had made it into production). Some were questionable (the elastic band to keep a manually squeezed plastic bottle flattish for easy disposal; moss and lichens collected at the very top of the northern hemisphere, dipped in a solution to colour and avoid decay, and used to create green walls), some were simple in concept (e.g. a canvas bag tag that collected points to spend on further purchases or on planting a tree; portable sharing batteries), some seemed obvious, although technically complex (e.g. making fuel out of household waste or plastic; recycling waste building heat for farming; manufacturing a “paper bag” that would last for ever and could carry a whale, almost), some were on everybody’s lips (from solar to hydrogen and combined clean renewable energies), etc. So many ideas!

The support for innovation was also addressed, from micro finance and crowd funding solutions to identifying potential funding partners looking for a brilliant niche idea.

It actually felt like being at an organic farmers market, with a basket for “the positive change for the planet” to fill.

So many shades of blue and green

All that was very exiting, as were the round-tables between people who for the most part appeared to agree amongst themselves. Such true consensus was admirable!

In fact, it was not all green and blue, and easy saying. All were positive thinkers, and wanted to improve the world, and wanted to contribute. They all agreed that much had yet to happen. So what did they say?

• What makes us believe that the next ten years of innovation will be better and have more positive impact, and provide longer lasting solutions to the current crisis, than the achievements made since humans have been innovating?

• We need to have a proper enabling environment to make innovation happen and proper values that will support the innovation, answering questions such as: What is its purpose? What is its power? What is the paradigm behind it?

• Some believe that 80% of the solutions already exist but there are still too many obstacles. We need to identify what is feasible, acknowledging that changes cannot be made in one way only. We will need to adapt and sustain the efforts despite the challenges.

• The collective effort is not yet sufficient. There is a huge gap between intention and action when it comes to social and environment issues. A systemic change is on its way but the path is not clear. Implementation will require a range of measures: regulation, changes in economics and financing (circular economy, investment funds, valuation methods, etc.)

• We need to change the way we think and behave, and adapt our journey. We have become alienated from the way things are made. We need to improve fairness and sustainability by changing how products are made and used, using less energy and products such as water, implementing patented technologies supported by new investments.

• Part of the circular economy systemic approach and feasibility is the ability to create new renewable materials and to include the end of life of a product as part of the whole process from the start. The 3Rs are inevitable: reduce, reuse, recover.

• Recycling will become a valuable model if we attach value to the reuse of our garbage. Recycling is a way to improve a company’s image and drive positive interest towards a brand. Putting money into premium positive waste recycling can be as impactful as a marketing campaign.

• Inclusivity and sustainability go hand in hand with the circular economy and affordability – from new to reused, repaired, refurbished and recycled.

• In a trend towards environment and social engagement, enterprises will retain their employees, partners and consumers by showing (and only if they do) true commitment beyond “greenwashing” communication.

• All sectors must be part of the equation, including the banking and finance industry. Investment in combating climate change is not only key for the well being of our current and future world, it is also an investment opportunity. The reallocation of investor funds will, however, only happen if supported by the tools which recognize investment truly targeting the green economy, and the performance of such investments (indices).

• The concept of impact investing is growing fast, but certification schemes are needed to value it and to create the right incentives for all participants in the ecosystem to contribute towards it. Measures reflecting ESG and Carbon footprint performance will be created to value the impact. The financial performance of such funds will depend directly on the social impact, reassuring investors on their implication.

From getting together to making a difference

ChangeNow has evolved from event status to summit status, aiming to generate conversations and real engagement at all level of the ecosystem, horizontally and vertically, and between actors from around the world.

Attentive crowd listening to Nicolas Hulot at CHANGENOW2020 – Photo Credit ©CecileFaure

One month after the dead-end in negotiations reached by COP25, and one week after the World Economic Forum in Davos and the controversies around the ability and true willingness of its attendees to do something about the world climate crisis, the gathering in Paris actually had a positive feel.

Greta, her braids and anger were not there, and would have been out of place. Despite what some media seem to choose to portray – scare stories to drive audiences (and make money), solutions are being found and tried and invested in and implemented. The story just needs to be told, properly.

Media must both bear witness to, and mobilise the support of, the emergence of a new society by providing accurate information and participating in solutions. – Pierre Louette, CEO of Groupe Les Echos – Le Parisien

It is not about being naïve or forgiving, nor giving way to self-indulgence or to procrastination. It is in fact about saying that changes are happening now, everywhere, at large and small levels, sometimes tiny step by step.

In the emergency of climate change and climate induced tragedies, if 180-degree overturns are required now in some sectors of the economy and industry, mutations are and will be of short, medium and long terms.

Intention is good, but technology and ability to properly master it are better, a primary requirement so that time and investment are not wasted in dead-end projects or generating additional problems for the future. Young adults and students are the key generation that will act now, convince, get involved because they are looking for a “greater good for all” purpose. They will be the fuel to action and positive change.

What can I say to climate change denial? solutions must be practical and profitable to make changes in favour of the environment possible and convince those who are not here and need arguments to become advocates of viable positive change. – Bertrand Picard, Solar Impulse Foundation

All agreed that collective action within an industry, even between competitors should be seen as positive. As is the action by public or international bodies, to impose (by regulation if required), evaluation tools, indices and practices to further support positive action and change.

Amongst engagements and announcements during the three days, BNP Paribas and the European Investment Fund launched a fund for Social Impact Contracts – responding to the need for an alliance between companies, investors, financial institutions and the State to finance sectors of the economy with a social impact. It is not only a financial initiative, but also a political endeavor, recognizing that priorities must be assessed and dedicated to social impact for positive change to have a chance. Similar projects are due to be announced.

More than just a summit, ChangeNow could simply be part of that “happening now” universal movement leading to change and social impact and a positive revolution, the drivers of a more sustainable world.