The Solar Impulse project is an ambitious initiative which demonstrates not only how Solvay can contribute to future business solutions, but how other companies can do the same
Headed up by environmental entrepreneurs Bertrand Piccard and André Borschberg, the Solar Impulse project is an ambitious initiative with an equally ambitious goal; to fly around the world using only solar energy - without a drop of fuel – and prove the limitless potential of clean power sources. It first won backing from Belgian chemical company Solvay in 2004, and former head of innovation Jacques von Rijckevorsal was the man to coordinate the chemical company’s involvement.
I had the pleasure of meeting Jacques recently and talking not only about the solar-powered plane and its lofty, world-saving goals, but about the spirit of innovation and intrapreneurship – as well as the brand benefits – that such an undertaking has generated too. One thing became resoundingly clear throughout the conversation: the elements that made the project so successful are interchangeable, and can be employed by any company seeking both to innovate and demonstrate.
First and foremost, according to Jacques, key to any project is the purpose, and there are three elements to this consideration; why do you feel passionately about this particular cause or problem? How does the project affect your market position moving forward? How will this initiative affect internal culture and direction?
While it would be difficult to convince anyone that a company is acting entirely in the name of altruism, and indeed mostly it would be impractical for the company to do so, the broader societal goals of any project should of course be paramount. In the case of Solar Impulse, this was to prove that clean energy has the potential to power far more than it currently does, and to force the renewable energy agenda where standards – especially back in 2004 – could be seen to be faltering.
Jacques insists emphatically that this was the key consideration for him as head of innovation, but this is not to say that the immediate benefits to the brand cannot be considered too. If a public demonstration of innovative prowess can place your company at the future workbench of business – where increasingly businesses will need to act to tackle societal issues – internal buy-in is all but guaranteed.
“It is true that it was difficult to get the executive committee on board – obviously I had to convince them. The foremost point though was the sense of the project: demonstrating that we are a part of the solution to a huge societal challenge, particularly renewable energy, and everyone in the executive committee was sensitive to that.”
Demonstrating value and (relatively) immediate return for the brand and its reputation can be just as important in persuading the board to commit to sustainable initiatives.
Once that desire and determination has been transferred to the top of the business, it filters down through the departments and tends to stick. This is evident in the way everyone at Solvay views the Solar Impulse initiative: “If someone were to think of stopping the project, they’d have a problem with everyone at Solvay people. If someone spoke of stopping the project, they would ask “Why?””
Ultimately, this is one of the primary benefits of involvement in innovative projects: employees – the board included – can become inspired and rejuvenated in their work. The knowledge that they’re making a tangible difference in tackling some greater social or environmental issue, coupled with the recognition that they have a chance to improve the success and standing of the company as a whole, is a powerful influencer. Jacques noted redoubled positivity and imagination in work not just for this project, but generally too.
This is the kind of widespread buy-in to ethical business strategy that most would love to see, but which certainly isn’t impossible to achieve as long as a sense, a purpose (both in a broad and in an internal sense), and a significant level of inclusion is considered.
This is of course mostly theoretical, and you may well ask what it is that a chemical company can actually do to contribute to the challenge of fuelless flight, and indeed so did I. Lots, is the answer.
“It is true that the technologies which existed at that time weren’t sufficient,” Jacques explained; “We were determined to prove that the chemical industry can be a part of the solution, and that with research, innovation, and entrepreneurship – or even, intrapreneurship – we can make possible that which is declared impossible.”
Herein lies one of the most salient points: Solvay’s involvement wasn’t the product of accommodation through agility or force, but rather of meticulous planning and forethought in which all members of the research and innovation teams worked to provide concrete instances in which they could potentially contribute.
This planning resulted in the inclusion of no less than 13 Solvay products in the Si2 plane, including; lighter and more efficient batteries, lubrication for the motors to withstand extreme temperatures, and insulating structural foams – a clear display of how chemical companies can provide practical applications for innovative technologies, both now and in the future.
So when taking on an innovative project (particularly one deemed elsewhere to be impossible), it is important to take a practical approach, both to ensure inclusion and to determine how best the project can display that which is already core to the company in a future business context. Diversifying to accommodate won’t make much sense to stakeholders, no matter how positive the initial intent, and having to drop out owing to poor planning is probably the worst possible outcome.
That said, it can be important to deploy lateral thinking at times, to think outside of the box and not let obstacles deflate or derail the project. A great example of this from the Solar Impulse venture: when plane engineers explained that the solar plane wasn’t a viable enterprise, Bertrand Piccard and his team consulted with a boatyard regarding the assembly of the Solar Impulse. The rest is history. As Jacques said, “It is important to have the mind sufficiently open to transform a possible crisis into an opportunity.”
Once the board is won over, employees are engaged, plans are made, and the project is off the ground, it is a continued devotion to the ethical aspect of the undertaking – and indeed of the broader business strategy – that will ensure long-term success.
One huge contributing factor to ensuring this long-term success is the placement of someone with a personal commitment to the real ethical issues at the head of the project. A figurehead to guide the ship (or plane), to check that no corners are cut, to look to in times of uncertainty, and that ethics remains central to the project is vital. Indeed, one can certainly tell upon meeting Jacques how someone with his verve for innovation, passion for ethics, and tenacity in the face of adversity, could really make the difference.
Partners (both existing and potential), stakeholders, customers, governments, and even the general public, will all demonstrate support of commitment to long-term, ambitious ethical goals. While purists may argue that ethics should exist for ethics’ sake, the fact of the matter is that businesses need be practical. Practicality, after all, does constitute a considerable aspect of responsible business behaviour, which consequently provides a competitive advantage in various arenas. Taking advantage of this fact seems far from unreasonable given the work that can be committed to and completed.
Which leads smoothly on to Jacques’ final point – the impact. On a very basic level, impact is what any employee is paid to create, but in the context of a sponsored innovative project, the impacts are significantly larger and thus, important to have a measure of.
“Wanting to create an impact, creating one, and then being able to measure it – this is key! Both the good and the bad parts. The negative impact – you also need to talk about it! Measure it and work on minimising that negative impact constantly.”
For the positive; things such as value to shareholders are relatively easy to measure, but the impact the sense of the project has on morale, on innovation, on intrapreneurship, on attitude and on motivation is far more difficult to ascertain. Certainly though, both can be spoken about and communicated, and not just in the annual report either.
For the negative; these aspects need to be measured, talked about, and constantly worked upon. Aspects such as emissions and consumption of natural resources are vital to track, report upon and communicated in equal measure - if not more than - the positive. Companies perhaps need to better communicate their downfalls in the interest of broadening general conceptions regarding impact, and further advancing attitudes towards sustainable improvement.
To reiterate the key points, and to paraphrase Jacques himself, there are the 4 main points to take into consideration when taking on an innovative project;
Sense – determine the sense of what you’re doing, the reason for the project. Having a strong societal purpose should be paramount, but also seek to involve and inspire your key stakeholders, particularly employees.
Approach – through extensive research and preparation, determine precisely how your company can contribute, and how this fits into your existing business model
Ethics – an expression of a commitment to seek better, and an expression of good citizenship, will drive the project forwards and win support both internally and externally. If the company/project is led by a passionate individual, so much the better. Often, the “soul” can be more important than the “mind.”
Impact – wanting to create an impact, create one, and then being able to measure this impact – both positive and negative – is key. It is essential to be open about the negative impact: talk about it and work constantly to minimise it.
Essentially, there is a balance to strike between the societal and the internal benefit which if struck, can generate boundless positivity. Not everyone can create a plane powered solely by the sun to traverse the globe, of course, but if you can take on a project to tackle a broader issue that also demonstrates your involvement in the future of business & technology, and if you can win buy-in from stakeholders, you can generate an atmosphere of excitement, and of intrapreneurship internally which could prove invaluable as we move into an uncertain future climate.
In a world where employees are increasingly concerned with the impact of their work (even before personal financial reward), give them a project to become involved in and dedicated to, and demonstrate as directly as possible how your company is taking steps to be a part of the sustainable solution.
If you’re still concerned about the profitability of investing in such projects, Jacques suggests a swift change of perspective: “The shareholder value model is short-term, too narrow in focus, it brought greed. The shared value model is what is good for society, and good for the company. But […] let’s be pragmatic and let’s try to integrate the interests of all stakeholders. Because in the long run there is only one way: you need to have all your stakeholders happy. Look at VW, they are losing customers. Maybe they will come back, but regardless, the survival of the company could be at stake.”innovation Solvay chemical tourism travel aeroplanes Solar Impulse