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The reinvention of everything: why we need imaginative new ways of thinking on climate action

climate action is needed.

As Stephen Hawking advised, 'remember to look up to the stars and not down at your feet,' we need imaginative new ways of thinking on climate action. Image: Unsplash/Greg Rakozy

Jim Hagemann Snabe
Chairman, Siemens
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  • Systemic challenges are piling up and getting bigger, but we’re still trying to solve them in an incremental manner.
  • It’s time for a more radical approach to the reinvention of global value chains – in the sense of radical imagination and its consistent implementation.
  • 'Remember to look up to the stars and not down at your feet' – we should heed Stephen Hawking's advice when it comes to solving the world's biggest challenges.

I have always been fascinated by Stephen Hawking. Bound to a wheelchair for most of his life, the famous astrophysicist faced great limitations every single day.

Yet he relentlessly pursued his ambition to challenge and expand our understanding of the universe – in search of a “Theory of Everything”.

“Remember to look up to the stars and not down at your feet,” said Hawking and with this brilliant call, he encouraged us to make use of the tremendous power of human imagination.

In this article, I argue that the power of our imagination is the key also to mastering the challenges fundamental to the future of human existence on this planet.

And I encourage this year’s Davos participants to make full use of it and lead fundamental reinventions. Why? Because the incremental approach is obviously not delivering results fast enough.

Current crises are manifestations of wider issues

This year’s programme booklet for the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting somberly notes that the many crises we see today “are manifestations of larger systemic deficiencies accrued over time”.

It concludes that the world needs “new systems” for energy, climate, food, and nature; for investment, trade and infrastructure; for frontier technologies for innovation and resilience; for work skills and human care… The list goes on and on. Today, it seems the world needs to reinvent the systems for just about everything.

Whereas the systemic challenges are piling up and getting bigger and bigger, we’re still trying to solve them in a mostly incremental manner. Climate action is a good example: The world is moving from COP to COP – an important mechanism, but the breakthrough moments are getting rarer. In the meantime, the climate crisis is accelerating drastically, as we saw in so many global regions in 2022.

We need a radical reinvention of global value chains

In my view, it’s time for a more radical approach to the reinvention of global value chains – radical not in the political sense, but in the sense of radical imagination and its consistent implementation.

This kind of reinvention always starts with relevant questions: What would be the ideal future we’re aiming for? What would an energy system without carbon emissions, designed from scratch, look like? What’s our best imagination of the transportation systems of the future, of circular and efficient manufacturing, of strong and affordable healthcare, of livable cities?

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This kind of imagination – in concrete, tangible terms – is where it starts. Once we have defined our dream, it’s time to extrapolate back: What do we have to do today to get us there much faster? What should be our first steps, what is an aggressive timeline, what critical details are to be taken care of, what is still missing?

For some readers, this radical reinvention approach will sound risky or even scary. But, in fact, it is much more risky not to adopt it.

Radical reinvention leads to superior results

Many times in my life, I have seen how the radical reinvention approach leads to superior results. When I served as Chairman at A.P. Moller Maersk, the world’s largest container shipping company, the leadership team showed bold imagination in climate action.

Shipping is an industry extremely hard to decarbonize – but in 2018, Maersk committed to this dream anyways. Now, only five years later, the company is on track to reach that goal 10 years earlier than originally planned. So, it is possible to reinvent radically – even in industries hard to reinvent, there is no excuse.

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How is the World Economic Forum fighting the climate crisis?

As I am writing, then, I am joining another great reinvention project. In the global effort to accelerate decarbonization, electrification will play a pivotal role. And with that batteries will become a critical part of the infrastructure – not just in electric vehicles but in the energy system overall.

In 2017, the company Northvolt came into being with the vision of developing the world’s greenest battery cells, for electric vehicles and energy systems overall. In battery production, it is the only company that takes the radical approach of a zero-carbon footprint and a circular design for the maximum re-use of materials. I have been very inspired by this vision.

From the beginning, it was clear to Northvolt that carbon neutral and waste-free battery production would require entirely new product designs and ways of production. Northvolt tackled that challenge by partnering with Siemens and other industry leaders in order to harnes the most modern technologies – including digital enterprise tools for product design, automation, industrial communications networks to build a very efficient and totally cloud based manufacturing setup.

Davos 2023 ; climate action ; Today’s powerful technologies for product and production design and simulation enable us to reimagine and implement radically better futures fast and at low cost.
Today’s powerful technologies for product and production design and simulation enable us to reimagine and implement radically better futures fast and at low cost. Image: Siemens/Nvidia

I believe the Northvolt example holds two important conclusions. First of all, digital technologies today offer us exponential opportunities to translate our boldest imagination into reality. So, we really shouldn’t limit our dreams.

Secondly, companies that support the radical reinvention of others, of entire value chains – as Siemens does – have a very strong business case. In fact, at a time when the whole world is in search of “new systems”, these companies are addressing the biggest business opportunity ever. They are likely to be the winners in the next phase of industrialization – the Sustainable Industrial Revolution.

'Look up to the stars'

I hope these examples will inspire us at Davos this year to dare nothing less than the reinvention of everything. Traditional leadership is about continuous improvements and incremental change. Modern leadership, by contrast, is about dreams and details.

The dream is the great imagination, the great vision, that unleashes energies far beyond expectations. And the details are the critical elements to take care of on our way to realizing the dream faster than ever before.

Using Hawking’s words as inspiration, it’s time to redirect our view and look up to the stars again. My question to the Davos community is: Are you in?

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Related topics:
Forum InstitutionalManufacturing and Value ChainsClimate Action
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