Monday, 28 July 2008

Virgin Virtual, a make or Break for Richard Branson engagement with climate change

Just read the new edition of Richard Branson’s “Screw it, let’s do it” with (as written on the cover) "new chapters on environmentally friendly business". The new chapters are actually quite interesting, but beside the fact that Branson state that climate change is real and that we need to do something about it, few innovative and concrete ways forward are suggested. The big money that Branson have put in so far (or promised to put in) is almost exclusively more of same, but a little better.

Branson seem to think very linear in the field of solutions to natural resources, climate change and the environment. His first reaction was to build more refineries when oil prices started to climb. Then he got information about climate change and started to think about bio fuels (that ended with the $3bn pledge). Realizing that we have bigger challenges than this he initiated a price for the person who could figure out a way to suck a lot of CO2 out of the atmosphere.

These things are not necessarily bad, they are much better than 90% of what CEOs are doing out there, but they are also a sign of the linear thinking that the reactive parts of the industry are spending their time on (one of the most sad and destructive cases is probably Vattenfall and their “all-eggs-in-one-basket-approach” to coal power pollution by dreaming of a CCS solution that will solve all the world’s problems). I’m sure Branson is more progressive than Josefsson from Vattenfall, but he must do something a bit more innovative than promoting incremental improvements that are wiped out by an increased consumption.

Actually most of Branson’s business ideas over the decades are not very innovative, he is doing what others have done, but a little better. Nothing wrong with that, but Branson seem to aim higher. The one thing that is really innovative is Virgin Galactic and putting people in space. This might not be the most resource friendly activity, but it is new and I think Branson must find something similar (but sustainable) to be really engaged.

With Branson’s portfolio (mobile communication, trains and airplanes) it is one really obvious way forward that would put Branson in the history book and make a significant contribution to climate change, a launch of “Virgin Virtual”.

By creating Virgin Virtual Branson would have a portfolio that covers enough parts of a sustainable transport system, i.e. trains, mobile communication, airplanes and virtual meetings in order to be credible.

Establishing Virgin Virtual in the world’s largest and fastest growing metropolises would allow a new generation of entrepreneurs to collaborate in new ways and it would help governments to collaborate more, not just negotiate. The technology already exist but needs to move from exclusive small scale systems like the systems HP and Cisco have today, to a system that can benefit from an economy of scale and ensure that a critical mass is created so a virtual meeting can be the default option for people that fly a lot today in their work.

By setting up Virgin virtual he could also be the first one how created a “frequent meeting” bonus system that people who use these new sustainable innovations could enjoy. Ensuring that people and companies that take the lead towards a low carbon society are rewarded and acknowledged would be one important part that could open up for other ideas.

Virgin Virtual would be the first global network of high quality virtual meeting facilities, think video conferencing but full wall high-resolutions quality that make you feel as if you are in the same room as the other person. This could dramatically reduce the need for business flight (leaving more room for holiday trips and important flights). It would also be an important contribution to a shift in thinking from products and incremental improvements to services and transformative change.