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How thinking of environmental issues as a personal problem leads to something truly special

Dan Bowden

· Auckland Climathon

In New Zealand we can be pretty complacent with our clean, green image, especially given the magnitude of the issues and how hard it can be to see how they affect us on a daily basis.

But air quality in global megacities is in bad shape: in Beijing, for example, it’s unsafe to exercise two out of three days a year[1], while airborne pollution claims a sobering seven million lives annually[2], and the World Health Organisation (WHO) air quality model confirms that 92 per cent of the world’s population live in places where air quality levels exceed safe limits. [3]

These are some big, scary numbers. Numbers so large that they were impossible to grapple with and seemed beyond the impact of one or two people. This was where I was some 12-18 months ago when I started on the O2O2 journey. Despite experiencing the horrendous air in London on a daily basis I felt relatively removed from the topic of climate change and environmental impacts.

So it was somewhat by intuition – rather than first-hand experience - that my cofounders and I started to pull on the thread of the statistics of air pollution and began to unravel its real impacts– the human, personal impacts. We started to see images like the below from the Beijing Marathon, where citizens were seeking to enjoy their city despite the air pollution being 14 times higher than safe levels. We realised that the “solution” of a seal around the nose and mouth was inherently flawed, in that it ignored the impacts on the person behind the mask.

As we continued to unpick the threads of air pollution the team at O2O2 focused on two simple ideas:

1. People at risk deserved better protection. Our brilliant CTO devised an answer that quite literally flipped the current solution on its head. Instead of restricting air to the person at risk via a tight seal, we would oversupply clean air to them, and in doing so free them from the mask.

2. People at risk are part of the solution. Guided by the Louis D. Brandeis quote that “sunlight is the best disinfectant”, we theorised that if we gave people at risk the ability to collect data that shone a light on the problem, they would support the O2O2 alternative model.

These simple ideas have taken me and my O2O2 cofounders on an incredible journey in the past nine months. Less than a year old, we have partnerships with BMW, the US Navy, global venture capitalists, and a billion-dollar engineering company; we are also developing partnerships with the world’s greatest fitness brands. A key to successfully unlocking these partnerships has been our focus on “design thinking”. Design thinking was, for me, simply focusing on the user experience and the user needs, rather than the technology. Design thinking is hardcoded into O2O2’s DNA.

In New York I saw the second major tenet of O2O2’s vision come to life: the importance of “citizen science”. In the face of indisputable evidence, the United States President unilaterally withdrew from the Paris Agreement to combat climate change. In the United States, the response by citizens was immediate and strong, leading to mass rallies for science and pressure on state politicians, many of whom then pledged to honour the Paris Agreement at a local level. The impact of such gatherings underlines our belief that citizen science (consumers and individuals) can be part of the solution to the seemingly insurmountable challenges of climate change.

Our company is at the cusp of something truly special but we are only just beginning. But with our lofty global ambitions, we know we can’t do it alone. That’s why O2O2 strongly believes in open innovation, always looking for opportunities to embrace multi-disciplinary approaches and cooperation with others who share our vision. This open innovation has become a centrepiece to our strategy, enabling us to forge strong connections with those at the pulse of global innovation. It has leveraged our strengths to take us to places we would never have thought of - including working closely with the US military.

The O2O2 story effectively started at the same place those involved in the Climathon Auckland event are today. You’re starting to pull on the threads of big issues. And that is my simple advice: keep pulling on that thread until you get to a human story and a personal problem. Then be brave, collaborate, ask the stupid questions, create diversity in your team and enjoy the ride.

Dan Bowden is cofounder and CEO of O2O2.

[1] Source: WHO

[2] Source: WHO

[3] Source: WHO

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