Innovation at SXSW Eco

Innovation at SXSW Eco

Last week at the South by Southwest Eco conference welcome from UNFCCC Executive Secretary Christina Figueres, she spoke about the need for “eco innovation” and for these entrepreneurs to lead the way in new ways of doing business that are sustainable.

In the jam-packed three days after Figueres welcomed us to SXSW Eco, her words stayed with me as I kept meeting more and more people who were doing really amazing things with sustainability in business. I feel I got a glimpse into the world of eco innovation, and they’re doing some pretty exciting things to solve some pretty big problems.

Wandering through the exhibition hall, I came across the desk for Owlized and could not guess what they were about from looking at their booth or from the name. Owlized…. a play on “Owl Eyes”? What am I supposed to be looking at? Then I got chatting with Aaron Selverston, the founder and CEO of Owlized and realized the potential for his creation.

Not your average viewfinder (from

Owl viewfinders look like the coin-operated binoculars you would find at monuments and lookouts. However, Owl viewfinders are not binoculars; rather, they have digital screens inside them so that you can visualize the future of whatever you’re looking at. This has public engagement benefits such as allowing people to see what the finished building will look like when you walk past a construction site each day, but it has even more interesting applications for climate change.

The Owl viewfinders can be used to engage the public in projects likely to be met with controversy/animosity such as bike lanes. Here in Vancouver, everyone either loves or loves to hate separated bike lanes–there seems to be no middle ground. Every time a new bike lane gets proposed, the same battle between interest groups happens. If the city put an Owl viewfinder on the street corner so that people could see what it could be like when finished, that may minimize some of the angst.

There could be a role for the viewfinders in climate adaptation as well. Imagine going down to the sea wall to look at the view and instead getting an Owl that shows you what sea level rise will look like in that location. That’s a pretty visceral way of bringing climate change home to the local.

I also met several people at the conference who worked for energy accelerators, which sounds like they have something to do with particle physics, but actually involves solving energy challenges and promoting renewable energy. Surge Accelerator is an organization based in Houston that mentors startups that are focused on not just solving energy problems, but also water problems, which is a key issue in drought-stressed Texas.

Energy Excelerator is based in Hawaii where energy prices are higher, which creates a better playing field for renewable energy startups that can then expand. Even Siemens is getting into the renewable energy entrepreneur space with their “Technology to Business” program in Berkeley, California, and that was just the people I had a chance to speak with!

At the other end of the supply chain, two companies stood out for me with the eco innovative things they’re doing. Firstly, Method cleaning products had a representative speaking on the ocean plastic pollution panel about how the company has worked out how to collect plastic that washes up on the beach and turn it into soap bottles. The bottles are a mix of recovered ocean plastic and post-consumer recycled plastic and a brilliant example of taking waste and turning it into something reusable.

From the Method website

It’s not an easy process; it involves getting volunteers and staff down to remote beach locations where Pacific Ocean currents wash up most of the plastic and then sometimes having to hike out the collected plastic trash, but it’s definitely innovative and the right thing to do.

Another use for plastic it turns out is apparel. Thread is a company based in Haiti that takes plastic and turns it into clothes and bags and other products. They not only reduce waste and plastic pollution, but they also create jobs in the struggling Haitian economy for locals. It’s the clichéd win-win, and they’re actually doing it.

Plastic bottles in Haiti get turned into products locally (from Thread International website)

So, as Christina Figueres said, eco innovation is the future of how we are going to do business in a more sustainable world. If the eco innovators I met and saw present at SXSW Eco this year are any indication of the future of sustainable business, then it’s a really exciting time to be at the forefront of the global transition to a low-carbon economy.

Amy Huva is a research assistant for Climate Access. She is also founder of the Read the Science blog.