Systems virtue

It’s one thing to change your light bulbs. But how do you change an entire system?

It’s one thing to change your light bulbs. But how do you change an entire system?

Rosie Bosworth

Thinking //

It’s one thing to change your light bulbs. But how do you change an entire lighting system? Meaningful sustainability requires ‘systems innovation’—fundamental transformations to the entire system.

The way we drive is a good example. Boffins may have found ways to create fuel from their own kitchen waste, but it’s something else to replace an entire transport infrastructure built on oil.

Systems innovation is multi-actor, multi-factor and multi-level, and only works when all these successfully connect. And when they do, the world becomes a better place—literally.

Better Place is a US-based electric car start-up that has taken a simple idea, the electric car, and built a complex infrastructure to deliver a simple, sustainable solution. The limitation of electric cars is finding somewhere to plug them in. Better Place proposes replaceable batteries and ‘recharge stations’ that swap the battery with fully recharged ones. It’s currently rolling out operations in Northern California, Denmark and Israel, with Hawaii and possibly Australia to follow.

While switching to an electric car network doesn’t seem as radical as the leap from horse to the Model T, Better Place is the catalyst for truly disruptive change. Better Place’s approach is simple, yet radical. When the transition to an electric or hydrogen car network is complete, the global land-based mobility model will shift from being environmentally polluting to environmentally enhancing.

The business model? Drivers pay for the service in a similar way to cellphone users, paying for a combination of kilometres travelled (airtime) and for the use of the battery (network fees). Battery recharge spots have been designed to ensure car batteries always have 160 kilometres of driving capacity and, for journeys that are longer, battery switching stations will be available roadside. It takes less time to swap batteries than to fill a tank of liquid fuel.

Better Place has partnered with energy providers of renewable power to ensure the batteries are charged by clean energy, including excess power from the solar and wind industries during off peak hours. And to top it off, the electric cars are offered to consumers at highly affordable prices. The business model requires scale, so getting as many into the network as possible, as fast as possible, is the key.

When the transition to electric (and perhaps hydrogen) cars and systems are complete, the petrol infrastructure will totter. Comparisons with the mobile and fixed lines telco industries are irresistible. It took time for vanilla telcos to be overtaken by the mobile operators. Now an entire infrastructure exists where even a decade ago it didn’t. It took a systems innovation for it to happen—and with the end of the petrol-powered car infrastructure in sight, the world might even be a better place.

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