May 11, 2011

Social Media for biomass industries

Last week at the BBI International Biomass Conference and Expo Greg Veerman of Astronaut Studio, Matthew Spoor and John Nelson of BBI, and I held a two-hour conference panel titled "Social Media and PR Strategies to Grow Your Business and Win Over Industry Skeptics." I know panels on using social media are frequently held at conferences for business-to-consumer industries and I imagine that other business-to-business industries address them, too, but I hadn't seen one at any bioenergy conferences (and I've been to many) in spite of frequent calls for educating the public and informing their support.

It is well past time to recognize the double-edged sword potential of social media to either educate and galvanize public support of the industry or stop it dead in its tracks. So much of the success of emerging enterprises is dependent on the public perception of industry credibility and relevance - yet, we bury ourselves in technology issues and financing. If we are learning anything in marketing, it is that we must reach out and engage communities early in consensus-building on goals. We must engage with them on the development of solutions before we try to deploy ours in their midst. Social media can help us do that.

Biofuels Digest has started a three-part series this week titled "Brazilian renewable energy: Attitude before altitude" talking about the great environment of Brazil. Why - because of its vast resources? No - it's because of their positive attitude toward renewable energy. They are the flip-side of California - which has money, R&D, ample resources, but a terrible highly resistant attitude toward bioenergy. Brazil, in contrast, is happy to take the money, benefit from the R&D, allow access to the sustainable use of its resources - but most of all the Brazilian people are proud to grow as leaders in the development and deployment of bioenergy. They experience the benefits every time they compare prices at the pump. Choosing is empowering.

So many of California's bioenergy assets are moving to foreign markets like Brazil. No wonder the state's finances are in shambles! Frustrating development and deployment in other parts of the country hurt national finances as well. Iowa and the Midwest is the Brazilian experiment in the United States. They have emerged from being one of the most energy dependent states in the union thirty years ago to being one of the most independent now thanks to ethanol and wind power. Again the regional attitude is great and they have choices at the pump.

It is time to get to work providing links to postings about the progress, aspirations, and commitment of the bioenergy industry to sustainability. First we need more content. Greg Veerman made that point during his presentation last week. Working with Nathan Schock and Jeff Broin at the Broin Companies he was a major architect of the shift of corporate identity to POET, LLC.

Bioenergy companies need to realize (like POET did) that they have content that can help script the future for the growth of their industry. Ignoring the responsibility to communicate cedes too much of the idea battlefield to the interests of project obstruction. It is disheartening to see the NRDC as bedfellows to the fossil fuel industry. They may not agree on much but they are united in their stance to see a slow-down in bioenergy and biofuels development.

Part of my role in the conference panel was to talk about the accelerating rate of change of media and the explosion of personal channels that characterize the social media paradigm. Companies were empowered by the internet and business websites. Individuals have been greatly empowered by social media. Just look at Wael Ghonim's Facebook impact on Egypt's overthrow of Mubarek and the fear the Chinese authorities are exhibiting with the incarceration of artist Ai Wei-wei - a social media acolyte in that country. Discussions, links, and group networks are democratizing communications and developing consensus on key issues.

But, again, social media is a double-edged sword. Waiting for someone else to take the reins could slow the domestic rise of the industry, lose valuable ground to foreign competition, prevent the development of new resource management tools for environmental sustainability, and further erode our balance of trade. We need to convince emerging companies that it is time to get involved at the local, state, and national level to build consensus on the urgency of these issues. Joining associations and taking an active role online are ways to get involved.

We need to admit that many of the bioenergy technologies we have are at bench-level, pilot, or demo scale. They aren't perfect - and they won't get better until we deploy scale-ups so we can deal with technical issues. In the meantime, we all need to support technologies that are at scale so we can build the infrastructure of distribution and alternative fuel vehicles for the day that new, better technologies have been allowed to mature.


technorati , , , , decentralization,

May 9, 2011

Who controls the Social Media conversation?

In a clarion call for more proactive thinking Abraham Lincoln said, "The best way to predict your future is to create it." Something must have been lost in translation in the last 35 years because the U.S. energy policy has been anything but proactive.

In comparison, the digital media industry has been the beneficiary of the best and the brightest minds during this period. Its exponential expansion results from its remaining highly competitive and incredibly proactive. From 3 channels of TV in the 70's we now have hundreds of video channels to choose from, cell technology girds the earth in transmission connections, and the internet enables virtually unrestrained interactivity between users and content.

The accelerating shifts in communications has delivered the social media explosion. Now every user is their own channel opting-in and -out of connections on the fly. We don't need to go to the polling booth anymore - we vote and buy with each click to decide what's relevant and what isn't.

That begs the question "is bioenergy relevant?" Apparently this is a regional question. Dr. Bruce Dale reintroduced the term of "syllogism" to explain the following:

"House Speaker Tip O'Neill is famous for having asserted that all politics is local. Every farmer, rancher, and forester knows that all biomass is local. The syllogism is that all biomass is political!"

If you live in California you would be led to believe that bioenergy is not relevant. Greentech (photosynthesis) has been superceded with Cleantech (photovoltaics, geothermal, and wind). The Natural Resources Committees of the State Legislature votes down every regulatory change that would enable bioenergy projects to sprout. The California Air Resources Board seemed to go out of its way to de-certify corn ethanol as a low carbon fuel - affixing an unsubstantiated factor to indirect land use change that barely disqualified the fuel. Once challenged, they discounted the factor.

Why are they so obstinate? They'll insist that it is because of science but it is really the opposite of science. Science leads to more understanding and change. California, the most bio-diverse state in the union, could easily develop best practices to provide ag and forestry residues for biofuels while helping the proper funding of forest, farm, and ranch management. It's R&D centers can improve on developing conversion technologies.

It's all about local pressure engendered by social consensus building in the heart of California's liberal academia heartland. The inverted justice of guilty until proven innocent (of indirect land use change, toxic emissions, etc.) prevails. And you can't build anything until it is proven innocent. How else does one explain a regulatory standard that insists that a conversion technology cannot be permitted if it has ANY emissions?

Silicon Valley giants including Google, Facebook, YouTube, and LinkedIn have built the swords of social media and they are available to all interest groups in this country. Unless bioenergy enterprises, associations, and leaders start employing these tools, the debate will be dictated by those resistant to change and those with deep pockets who favor the status quo.

One egregious example is the European "Stop Bad Biofuels" Facebook page which features a animated YouTube treatment to simplistically educate followers about indirect land use change. The info page asserts "For most current biofuels, the effect is to wipeout any benefits for climate change - making them worse even than fossil fuels."

The consequence of this video's "Joe Camel" treatment of speculative iLUC theory is more status quo monopolization of unsustainable fossil choices at the pump - harmful to future generations. Either we research, develop and deploy more biofuels technologies now or suffer more oil addiction later.

technorati , , , , ,

May 8, 2011

Due diligence on content as well as technology

On March 29, 2007 the biofuels industry witnessed an audacious transformation - Broin Companies President Jeff Broin announced the name change of his company to "Poet, LLC." There must be an important reason why a company the size and scale of the world's largest producer of corn ethanol decides to recast their corporate identity.

Isn't "a rose by any other name still a rose"? Not at all. Corporate identities impact all stakeholders' perception of the enterprise. That includes management, investors, policymakers, community leaders, and company employees. As the Broin Companies, this Midwestern enterprise appeared to all to be a family dominated business of self-interest and bottomline conservatism. As POET, the enterprise becomes a creative entity that is “writing the next chapter in the story of bio-refining.”

“We wanted a name that would represent, rather than describe, who we are and what we do,” the 41-year-old Broin told the Sioux Falls Argus Leader. “Just as a poet takes everyday words and turns them into something valuable and beautiful, our team takes information that comes from common sense to leave things better than before.”

A company that is more than the sum of its parts? A company that seeks lasting relevance rather than just bottomline results? Maybe this is just public relations manipulation masking viler interests. Or maybe this is a sophisticated, innovative company that pursues deeper truths and accepts its responsibility to communicate them to the people whose futures are impacted. Ultimately, they saw themselves as developers of content important to the biofuels industry - not just builders of biorefineries.

I use this example to suggest that companies in emerging technologies need to think beyond what they are capable of doing and more to what ends society seeks and the means to get there. Developers who attempt to convince stakeholders of the wisdom of their plans, without first reaching out to the communities and insuring buy-in to the perceived need, are finding harsh and dogged resistance. The justification for resistance takes various forms - social injustice, environmental harm, toxic emissions, etc. - but they mask the true objections:
  • Many stakeholders don't trust corporations and their own community leaders to make decisions based on the good of the community.
  • Change is messy and could result in a drop in property values. Why should this community be the fall guys?
I recently made a presentation titled "Building your business' C.R.E.D. using social media" at the BBI International Biomass Conference and Expo in St. Louis (5/5/11). Two of the points that I made were that the bioenergy industry needs to focus on building its credibility and relevance for efforts to increase sustainability. Stated another way - companies need to jealously guard against the twin accusations of misrepresentation (the opposite of credibility) and self-interest (the opposite of relevance).

It may seem obvious to us that we are working on the side of the angels but not all truths are self-evident - particularly in the tempestuous environment of politics and mass media (which have their own self-interests). Stakeholders need to be convinced and assured not only of our the due diligence of our technology but also our intentions. For this reason we need to forge with society a transparent compact, in word and deed, based on the aim of achieving clean, sustainable solutions for renewable energy.

, , ,