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Climate Tech's Story Opportunity (Part 2): Awesome Non-Fiction
How to inspire audiences with everyday climate tech.
👋 Hi y’all 1,136 climate buddies 🌳
What is this? This newsletter explores topics in climate, energy, and everything in between.
Today’s essay is part of a series about story telling for climate (tech).
Climate Tech’s Story Opportunity (Part 2): Awesome Non-Fiction
By Art Lapinsch
Climate tech is an industry full of magic.
But at times, people tune out before they can get inspired.
If you are struggling with this problem, this essay is for you.
Rest assured, you already have all the building blocks. What you’re missing is a structure to put them in the right order.
In the coming minutes, you will learn how to create your own awesome non-fiction 👇
The AlphaGo Playbook
In preparation for today’s essay, I rewatched AlphaGo.
On the surface, it is a story about a software company trying to beat the best human player at a board game 🙄
But below the surface, it is a masterclass in documenting everyday life at a tech company to tell a compelling story 🥲
The numbers don’t lie:
TL;DR: What Is AlphaGo?
⚪️ The Game: Go is the oldest known board game with a history reaching more than 4000 years into the past.
Two players, using either white or black stones, take turns placing their stones on a board. The goal is to surround and capture their opponent's stones or strategically create spaces of territory. Once all possible moves have been played, both the stones on the board and the empty points are tallied. The highest number wins.
As simple as the rules may seem, Go is profoundly complex. There are an astonishing 10 to the power of 170 possible board configurations - more than the number of atoms in the known universe. This makes the game of Go a googol* times more complex than chess.
*Art’s comment: a googol is a 1 followed by 100 zeroes 👀
🤖 AlphaGo Project: Due to the complexity of the game, it is impossible to calculate all possible board configurations. All our existing computational power would run for millions of years and we still wouldn’t find the right answers. As a result, the AlphaGo team is building a Machine Learning system capable of making “intuitive decisions”. IF this project is successful THEN it will lay the ground for other scientific breakthroughs.
🇬🇧 AlphaGo team: Demis Hassabis (CEO), Fan Hui (European Go champion and advisor), and the rest of the AlphaGo team.
🇰🇷 Lee Sedol: World champion and Go legend. Litmus test for the AlphaGo system.
Narrative Recap: Three Elements to Create an Enticing Story
You might remember the key story telling insight from our previous essay “Climate Tech’s Story Problem”:
… every story revolves around a single question 👇
"Who wants what and what stops them from getting it?"
If you think of your favorite books, TV shows, or stories, you might recognize that all of them share three fundamental elements:
→ Subject 🙋 = Who?
→ Desire ❤️ = Want What?
→ Conflict ⚔️ = What’s in the Way?
Greg Kohs - the director of the AlphaGo documentary - masterfully edited the available video material into a collection of enticing stories:
AlphaGo (subject) wants to beat the best Go player in the world (desire). The lack of compute power is in the way (conflict).
Lee Sedol (subject) - a representative of the human race - wants to beat the superhuman machine (desire). The machine’s superhuman intuition and creativity is in the way (conflict).
This is what happens when you put the existing building blocks of your everyday life into an enticing narrative 👇
This is the level of resonance you can achieve with proper story telling.
🍓 Low-Hanging Fruit: Subject + Desire + Tension
You might be thinking:
“Art, DeepMind is a subsidiary of Google. They have infinite money from their advertising business to pay the best communication professionals in the world.”
Yes, but more often than not, large companies still suck at inspiring people.
DeepMind could have easily sent out a press release stating the facts:
Our AI-system AlphaGo beat Go champion Lee Sedol 4-1 in an exhibition match in Korea.
Job done. Message is out in the wild and now Inshallah and pray for the best.
But instead, someone in their organization thought it would be worthwhile to go the extra mile and create awesome non-fiction.
Why? Because stories beat statistics.
Yes, not everyone has Google’s wallet.
Yes, not everyone has Google’s technology.
But, everyone has similar building blocks to construct a story.
A subject. A desire. A tension.
Which Why Stories Work
Now, let’s have a look how to approach non-fiction story telling in a structured manner 👇
The Golden Circle Applied to Non-Fiction Story Telling
Why: Purpose, cause, and belief.
How: Processes, standards, and culture.
What: Products, services, and outputs.
He argues that most communicators fail to capture their audience because they focus exclusively on the uninspiring “what”.
On the other hand, the best communicators start with “why”.
Then, they work their way out.
The less context someone has about a certain thing, the more you have to cater to their emotions. Professional sports is doing it, so can you.
“People don’t buy what you do but why you do it.”
I’ll give you an easy shorthand to remember these principles:
I’m not rooting for your company. I’m rooting for you.
Now cater to that.
Playbook for Awesome Non-Fiction in Climate
If this structure gets people excited about computer science then it might as well get people excited about our journey to net zero.
Case Study: Frontier Climate (by Stripe)
To avoid the worst effects of climate change, most climate models agree it won’t be enough to just reduce emissions. We’ll also need to permanently remove gigatons of carbon dioxide already in the atmosphere and ocean.
While we have some ways to capture carbon, such as planting trees or soil carbon sequestration, these solutions alone are unlikely to scale to the size of the problem.
In short, we need a gigaton-scale portfolio of new and permanent carbon removal solutions.
While carbon removal has made significant progress over the past few years, it’s still not at all on track to get to the required scale. As of 2021, less than 10,000 tons of carbon dioxide had been permanently removed from the atmosphere by new technologies—1 million times short of the annual scale needed.
Carbon removal needs a bold assist. An AMC can give the industry the confidence to begin building, and to do so with urgency.
💨 AMCs: An Advance Market Commitment is an idea borrowed from vaccine development. Think of it as a solution to the typical chicken-and-egg problem. A vaccine developer has to spend hundreds of millions of dollars on average to develop a new drug. But the developer has no certainty that there will be customers willing to pay for a developed drug. Therefore, the drug development project is too risky (from a financial perspective) and it is rational not to develop the drug. This is bad for society. Enter AMCs. Governments had the brilliant idea to pool money - i.e. Advance Market Commitment - to tell drug developers “Hey, we will buy $1 Billion worth of drugs if you can successfully develop them.” Suddenly the risk calculus of the drug developer changes and they say “Heck, let’s get started.” Et voila, you kickstarted a market.
🌳 Frontier Climate: Frontier Climate is doing the same for Carbon Removal technologies by pooling $1 Billion and telling carbon removal companies to roll up their sleeves and start building.
🇺🇸 Frontier Climate team: Nan Ransohoff (Head of Frontier Climate) + team.
🌬️ Carbon Removal Founders: All the bright minds who are busy developing new ways to remove carbon from the atmosphere. To get a taste, have a look at the video below 👇
A Narrative Framework for Awesome Non-Fiction
Now, what would the AlphaGo Playbook look like for them?
Remember, the two main ideas for awesome story telling:
Subject + Desire + Tension = Enticing Story
Why (Subject; Origin Story; Purpose) → How (Processes; Standards) → What (Goal; Outcomes)
Based on the current org chart, this is what a storyboard for Frontier Climate’s awesome non-fiction could look like 👇
I’m not rooting for your company. I’m rooting for you.
So tell me:
Org: Why did Nan decide to build an organization like Frontier? How do you build such a first-of-its-kind org?
Product: Why did Lauren trade a career in investment banking to become a product manager in (climate) tech? How do you even create such a
productmarket such as Frontier Climate?
Science: Why did Frauke dedicate her career to finding and evaluating frontier technologies? How do you even do this with cutting-edge technology?
Ecosystem: Why did Joanna say ‘yes’ to becoming the ecosystem lead at Frontier Climate? How do you even procure and manage various stakeholders for such a novel idea?
[PLACEHOLDER]: I’m sure there tons of other “boring” stories that I would be interested in. How does the back office come up with creative financial and legal engineering schemes to make this work? … and so on… and so on…
Tell me about the human subjects and their desires. I want to hear about the background stories, their vision, and their everyday battles. You catch me with the why.
How they overcome this tension is what ultimately keeps the story going.
Do this well enough and maybe one day you’ll create your own awesome non-fiction show:
The Formula: Building Blocks + Sequence
For ages, storytellers have captured our imagination by telling us how heroes (subjects) struggle and overcome their challenges (tension) to fulfill their destiny (desire).
This structure has worked for thousands of years. Use it to your advantage.
All of us want to protect this precious pale blue dot of ours 🌍 Regardless of what you’re doing in climate tech, you know that we need all hands on deck. To do that, we must tackle the top-of-funnel problem of our industry.
On an industry level this means turning climate oblivious folks into climate curious folks.
On an organizational level this means catching the attention and capture the trust of talent, customers, and other shareholders.
The main question all of them will ask: Why?
If you are working in climate tech and want to improve your narrative, please reach out. Always happy to help where I can. We need more of you succeeding!
If you enjoyed this essay, please consider forwarding it to a friend who is climate oblivious or climate curious 🌳
All of the above is my best hypothesis. If you have feedback/ideas/critique/etc. where I’m right and where I’m wrong, please get in touch and let’s talk.
This is work-in-progress and I’m looking forward to update my thinking on this.
ps: Pat, John, or Nan… happy to help where I can 👋