24 November 2010


Yesterday was the official Masdar inauguration.

Lab building by night. I recently learned that the long bubbles on the outside walls are filled with argon, a non-toxic, odorless, clear gas that makes a good insulator to keep outside heat from entering the building.
My favorite part is that the organic foods store just opened on campus! I've had various adventures trying to find organic food around Abu Dhabi, and now it's ridiculously easy, 1 minute of walking from my door. Other new additions include a sushi restaurant and a coffee shop.

One thing I've been thinking about a lot recently:

Renewable energy/sustainability has a major marketing problem.

Melinda Gates (yes, Bill Gates' wife) gave an excellent TEDtalk where she decribes lessons nonprofits should learn from the way Coca-Cola does business.

One of the main lessons - aspiration sells. Gloom and doom doesn't.

For example, many organizations try to help developing communities prevent water-borne disease with improved drinking water sources and hygiene programs (washing hands, better latrines.)   These type of programs are dependent on changing behavior, which can be tricky.  

Telling people that they'll get diarrhea and die if they don't wash their hands or chlorinate their water is not very effective or appealing.  That would be like Coke trying to sell by saying "drink sugar water, and maybe you won't feel sad."

Just like the sustainability movement is  saying "reduce fossil fuel use or the whole world is going to burn and die."

Recently, researchers at the UC Berkeley  found that such  doom and gloom climate messages can backfire. Instead of pushing people into taking action, negative messages can push people toward not believing the evidence for climate change is real.

On the other hand, Coca-cola uses an aspirational approach - they associate their drinks with the kind of life that people want to live.  They know that happiness means something different in every country, so they tailor their marketing messages to those aspirations in each location.  Coke ads are full of dancing, singing people, happy families, beautiful women, dashing young men, etc. 

People complain that renewable energy is still too expensive, but I don't think that's the heart of the problem.

Does a Rolex provide anymore functionality than a cheap, plastic $1 wristwatch? Why do people buy Rolexes?

What if, instead, renewable energy and sustainability were associated with the highest quality of life? 

I've worked on a few projects in Zambia and many of my friends there live on a few dollars a day, they face many challenges.  If you ask them what their dreams are, they talk about lots of cars and large houses, hoping for the environmentally disastrous lifestyle that Americans live.

Imagine if part of the viral American dream was low-impact living, and the whole world was instead straining to achieve the social status of a carbon-neutral life.

Likewise, the United Arab Emirates also has one of the highest per person carbon footprints in the world.  Perhaps one of the most significant contributions Masdar can give is to change the marketing message here.  Make sustainability synonymous with a better life. 

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