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Letter from the CEO (Fall 2009)

“Necessity is the mother of invention.” But who is the father?
By Michael Potts

Necessity alone falls flat. Our need to do something doesn’t mean it’s going to happen. Everyone needs to exercise more and eat better. We need to get more sleep. We need to pay down our consumer credit. But, as a society, we just don’t.

Is it because we don’t know they are necessities? No—plenty of healthcare professionals are unhealthy and plenty of bankers are deep in debt. They aren’t oblivious or stupid. They struggle with conflicting priorities today that prompt them to push action out to the future…even in the face of certain necessity. So necessity alone creates a feeling of uneasiness and incompletion, but no action.

What’s missing is the father of invention: urgency. It takes necessity plus urgency to trigger decisive action. There’s nothing like an impending high school reunion to shave off a few pounds, or the possibility of a dream home purchase to clean up a credit record.

Today, most people and organizations agree that we need to shift off of fossil fuels to create a smarter, safer world fueled by efficiency and renewable energy. We need to stop wasting energy by poor design and bad choices. We need to improve our environment, our economy, and our national security. Is there any single issue that is more important for our future?

There are those who attempt to generate urgency by generating fear of the future. Hence the robust discussions about peak oil, energy wars, grid vulnerability, and climate change.

These are important issues, but there are inevitably at least two perspectives on every subject, with smart people on all sides forming ranks to do battle. The dark, scary scenarios and the upbeat, cheery scenarios get polarized and over-simplified.

Ultimately, these discussions often create more conflict than urgency—more heat than light. In any event, positive and sustained change rarely emerges from fear.

Another way to build urgency is to create a compelling vision of a positive future and a concrete road map to get there.

This is the work of RMI. We speed transformational change by helping people and organizations understand what they need to do and how they can benefit.

Our new strategy, Reinventing Fire™, targets the four sectors where fossil-fuel energy is consumed—transportation, buildings, industry, and electricity generation—and outlines a realistic path for each sector to make the transition from oil, coal, and ultimately natural gas to efficiency and renewables.

This transition faces monumental barriers, but we tackle them head on. As practitioners, we take a hands-on role in the actual work:

  • We co-lead the design and retrofit of buildings
  • We consult for utilities to influence their resource planning
  • We crawl into ducts, delve into mines, and redesign factories
  • We help real-estate developers, high-tech companies, universities, automakers, trucking firms and military officers look at their work, and their world, in a different way

When we dive into each challenging project, our eyes are set not only on its successful completion but also on the ten or hundred or thousand future projects it can trigger by providing a game-changing example of what is possible.

We achieve this amplification by designing engagements so our partners can leverage shared findings into wide replication, so breakthrough results can be verified and publicized, and so key players will be motivated to accelerate additional change.

When we help to transform the Empire State Building or a transportation fleet or the resource plan of a major utility, we are determined that all of our lessons learned build urgency that will trigger many more transformational events, at home and abroad.

Our new strategy aims to build this powerful urgency, over and over, to speed this most critical transformation. Necessity plus urgency triggers decisive action. Call it our own kind of blind date with destiny—bringing the mother of invention together with the father—to speed the invention of a better world by reinventing fire. We couldn’t do it without your support.

Michael Potts is RMI’s President and CEO

--Published in October 2009