Climate-KIC’s CEO on what TIP research is needed, why XR matters, and whether the answer is military rule…

Thinking & Analysis

We caught up with Dr Kirsten Dunlop, CEO of the European Institute of Technology’s Climate Knowledge Innovation Community (EIT Climate-KIC) during the TIP Conference to ask her a few pressing questions about the climate emergency, what research the TIP networks should focus on and how do we achieve systems change…


Welcome Dr Dunlop. The title of the EIT Climate-KIC strategy, is ‘Transformation, In Time.’ For you what does that encapsulate?

“Transformation, In Time represents for us a culmination of a reflection on our own first eight to ten years of life, which we have done over the last two and a half years with our community, to address some critical questions – what does addressing climate change need in the next 10 years? What should the role of innovation be? And how might innovation be designed to be as effective as possible in responding to the needs of this research?

We went through a process of reflecting on those questions. What have been the characteristics, patterns and outcomes of our own activities, and what’s that relationship. The one between that identity as an organisation, a business identity and a community identity, and the future, emerging context for the next ten years which is framed by the IPCC report, and a new European Commission, and a number of other structural elements of change in our context.  So, we asked ourselves: what should our identity and purpose be?

The conclusions to that question are summarised in the strategy. What those questions posed was a significant structural shift, a pivot in our activities – away from being an organisation with a programme-theory, focused on knowledge transfer and integration, and an innovation approach fundamentally grounded in the supply-side model of innovation. In the TIPC framing language, a mash-up between Frame 1 and 2. We have essentially been doing Frame 1 , couched in a Frame 2 kind of context or language from the European Commission in terms of eco-system building and knowledge transfer, with the sting in the tail being that as an organisation and as a community, we would become financially sustainable. We would take equity stakes in start-ups, push those start ups out to market, and the market would do its thing and pick up successful businesses and scale them up to transform the world! That’s been the activity we’ve done. We have produced high levels of productivity, characterised by some significant features of, fundamentally, almost all single-point solutions that were very technology focused,very technology optimistic, and also, incremental. That combination, in the context of what we are trying to do, and what addressing climate change specifically requires in the next ten years, we felt was deeply inadequate. There was no way we could continue. We wouldn’t have a license to operate using tax payers money if we did ten years more of the same. So our strategy name represents a very significant structural shift in our approach to innovation. We have reframed and recast innovation to play a very different role. Instead of focusing on, behind, the production end of innovation, focusing on the supply models and trusting the market to sort out transformation, this new strategy shifts us to pay attention to the role, the place, the nature of innovation, its positioning and the role it plays in the context of enabling and catalysing change, with a particular focus on systems change and systemic transformation.

We built a theory of change in 2017 which demonstrated very clearly the urgency and the need for profound systemic shifts, and particularly for the importance of addressing the fact that every city, every region, every country, has hundreds of projects that they are doing addressing their national development commitments, for example, their carbon road maps, their adaptation road maps. They all have projects. These projects, however, are not knitting together into anything like whole scale systemic change or a series of systemic transformations.

At the core of the problem, is the constant failure to recognise that the transformations that are most essential and most difficult are human. So without the social transformation at the heart, the whole thing doesn’t work.

Our strategy really pivots us around to say we’re going to do innovation differently, we’re going to do innovation that’s coherent with the nature of the problem, and it comes with a number of very significant characterisation shifts in the way in which we work. The essence of the changes are four to five key changes which are at the heart of how we are doing things differently. Not just a statement of intent, but technically, practically and methodologically, how we will we do innovation very differently and why. This is what we’re in the middle of implementing right now. It’s a deep methodological shift. We are introducing a methodological rigour and discipline that Climate-KIC didn’t have, but that’s probably bias towards my preferences around how you make innovation effective!”

So EIT Climate-KIC has moved to a whole-system approach which is the one at the heart of TIP thinking. What are the key drivers of system change for you and how might it best be achieved?

“That’s a huge question! Well, with this new theory and practice we have, there is an intersection in that part of the way we’re doing innovation is about designing it for systems change and designing it in relationship to the characteristics and properties of systems.

So how do systems change? They alter due to the inputs in terms of directional guidance in the form of policy and regulations, the drifts in terms of underpinning cultural narratives, essentially meanings and structures which can create drift in a particular direction, or phased transitions in a more discontinuous fashion into a different place, and traction into a different place to describe what matters and is important to people. I think there are elements around a concentration of effects and the things that begin to feed into each other. Particularly say, technological change that then causes a phased transition in the way in which people move around or engage with one another and interact. It’s a massive question.”

Partly it’s about the idea of leverage points and understanding how to intervene in a system – what are the moveable levers? Or what might you engage with whether it’s policy, or behaviour, or financial incentives and structuring mechanisms, or physical environment, or narratives and meaning structures, world views and ideologies.

I would probably default to the various resources in terms of how people have thought about systems change. Climate-KIC is also bringing into play the work of John Schellnhuber (one of the authors of the original IPPC report and founding chair of Climate-KIC). His background is in fractal physics and he looks at inherent evolutionary dynamics. His work, on how natural systems transform and evolve, is key. How can we take some of that insight into the way in which natural systems behave, and apply it to social and behavioural change or economic, or policy and financial change? We’ve not previously designed innovation to respond to that and comprehend in terms of that phenomenon. Whether it’s decision making in governance systems, board directors of companies, or whether it is market dynamics and engagement with social dynamics. I read with great interest the article of Deep Transitions (Schot and Kanger 2018), it resonates very well with the ways we are challenging ourselves to think – what are we actually going to have to engage with here? It’s not the surface level patterns of business models.”


What role do you see for the Transformative Innovation Policy (TIP) Research Network in Climate-KIC’s aim? What should we seek to achieve and how can we strengthen each other?

“I see enormous resonance in the work of the TIP Consortium with Climate-KIC, and the research work that’s being done there. I have come to what we are doing from a different point of provenience, which is from years of working within a big business, the corporate environment and being responsible for innovation. I have learnt the hard way why Frames 1 and 2 of innovation do not work!

I have come to (Frame 3 and transformative change) from a different trajectory – from practice and discipline, and experience of learning and failing constantly on how to do innovation and by developing a different way of thinking about innovation. By reframing it, in relation to strategic risk as something which is about a learning and hedging relationship to generate options. We’re applying this to how Climate-KIC evolves and tackles the question of climate change in a much bigger order, in an industrial-economic-order-paradigm-shift and system-change way.”

So from my perspective, our relationship with TIPC is very much reciprocal, I would love to see it evolve as an exchange of ideas, of practice, of experience, and be about the relationship between theory and practice. How we reframe and capture that within theorisation and conceptualisation which then goes back into practice. We’re in a very active and ongoing learning mode of cocreation.

I would see the relationship with TIPC as one in which we learn together, exchange ideas and enrich each other’s understanding on what is happening. Climate-KIC can be a large-scale, living prototype. We can be an object of research and at the same time, feeding in ways of refining and understanding to see what it all looks like in practice. We are essentially a community of practitioners and we are orchestrating that community right at the interface between public policy, public funding, private funding and climate world-decision making.”


What would your expectations be of a) the TIP Research Network and b) our member policymakers around knowledge and innovation for climate action?

“This is an interesting question. So the obvious answer would be accompanying research into what is being experimented on and attempted, and how it is working. It is about listening to learn, not listening to judge or adjudicate. The traditional sense of evaluation is not going to help. What we are doing here is stepping off the edge of the Grand Canyon and into space! The expectation would involve accompanying the research in the perspective of a learning journey, so it’s captured in the reflection, and the reflective practice around it.

The difficulty we have at the moment is producing an evaluative learning logic for big funders and policy makers, who watch what we are doing, who are convinced by the principal idea of why we have to stop doing innovation the way before, and do it differently. The big funders and policymakers are completely bought into why we need to stop doing innovation as we were doing, and do it completely differently, BUT the immediate next response is – we are holders of public trust and public money: we need to know that it’s working! What do we need to look at? What do we need to measure? What do we need to track? What do we need to chase? How do we answer those big questions? When in the climate space, the natural point of reference is carbon emissions and emissions reduction, and yet we know, both intuitively and practically, that not only does that not tell a lot of the story about exponential effects, combinations, structural and social change, but it actually risks telling a very distorted story, on say efficiency, that doesn’t necessarily mean you don’t have high carbon productivity.

So how do we tell the story of a set of paradigm shift effects in motion? That for me would be one of THE most important areas of research. There are many possibilities on contribution logic, using analogies from natural systems change to convert that thinking, about creating a space of action by financially evaluating future fault lines. For example, by thinking of cities as the biggest assets we have, then put a price on the value of the city at risk, the whole city, and then put a price on the opportunity costs of not acting now, this gives you an economic field of action – if you need quantitive measures. But it’s a completely different logic to the simple, incremental, substitution logic of carbon emissions. This is the area I would see as the greatest challenge, and the greatest urgency, to come up with frameworks where we can understand climate-change impact over time. An absolutely critical conversation is that of the experience of innovation, and using innovation for experiential learning and the generation of options, and the notion of optionality – providing pathways of choices. It is then the conversion of that into decision support and actionable intelligence. It is something that is then rendered for decision makers. And that is not at all banal!

It not because you learn about the success of a technology or the cumulative effects of a social movement that, that automatically results in a decision to promote or support or fund. The way decisions happen in governance systems, they require information to be rendered and arguments for change to be rendered in very particular ways.

And without doing that innovation doesn’t actually convert into system change. So it would be very interesting to have research on the relationship between innovation experience and governance practice, and responsibility and decision making. It has to do with mechanisms of liability, of responsibility, of the relationship between stewardship and entrepreneurship that governance systems need to hold, that they are not always equipped well to do so. They don’t have policy frameworks and decision-making  frameworks and professional codes of practice that help them constantly hold that plurality. It will be a major issue if we don’t address this research for the future.”


The Climate Emergency is truly in the mainstream agenda now. How does it benefit your organisation’s work? Does it change things for Climate-KIC?

“Yes and no. It is a big deal. First of all, it simply removes having to invest any time whatsoever on explaining why is this particular concern is business relevant or politically relevant. If you think of bandwidth, on where you have to spend your attention in a meeting, I don’t have to spend half an hour on why this is a thing that you need to pay attention to. I can reinvest all of that time in how do we pay attention to it. So that’s a material efficiency gain – put it that way! You get so much more listening space on the much more ‘wicked’ problem of how the hell are we going to do something about this, and in time! And what is the nature of the scale of it and the order of change that needs to be achieved. And that is a fantastic thing.

I was at a meeting earlier in the year that was preparing for the G20 and I was sitting in a room, and on the stage there were the chairmen, male chairs, of the biggest German car manufacturers, and they literally all said to each other, ‘Oh, oh well, now that the children are protesting, we’re going to need to do something!’ On the one hand it just makes me want to weep and on the other hand, it’s, well there you go, if that’s what it takes. It is a framing of a need to act that is beginning to reach into the inter-generational responsibility and justice that is making huge inroads into connecting what are currently frameworks for professional and personal liability, in terms of governance, and it starts to pull forward into action now! So this is not about being compliant with a set of liability concerns. This is where notions of legacy and captains of legacy comes into play – what are you leaving the world with as you step down or move on from the organisation that you’ve been leading at a board or chair level? It is also accentuating an imperative to act and a focus on leadership choices. So who is going to lead and who is going to follow? And what does that say about them to the stakeholders, constituents and employees that they care about?

The Chief Operating Officer of Unilever has been known to say that the biggest problem is, ‘we simply won’t have any employees if we don’t address this, forget the customers! The average age of our employees is 25 and they will not work for an organisation that is using palm oil as companies have been!’ So there is a very different space of convergence around the need, the means, the imperative and the sense of responsibility and legacy now.

Probably the third element is, you begin to get access to a different way of marshalling resources. It is the message that featured in John Maynard Keynes pamphlet on ‘How to fund a War.’ With the shift from climate change to climate emergency, it starts to give you access to the kind of thinking outlined in that argument, that this is not about if we can, this is about we MUST. If you come at it from ‘we must’ then what can you achieve? Keynes argument around the war was, forget thinking about whether you can afford it- you are not going to have any choice! This is a rather massive deficit which if you solve well, with enough integrated investment, so essentially by cooption of some of your leading businesses, and then you will set it to rights afterwards. There will be a set of transformational dynamics that happens. Keynes was perfectly right about this – it will sort itself out because you are responding to ‘a something’ which is a much higher order of urgency, concern and disruption than any individual discounted cash flow is ever going to comprehend. Forget thinking about whether you can afford it, you’re not going to have any choice…”


So on a personal level, when did you first become aware of the environmental emergency? What triggered your desire to work in this area?

“My background is as a cultural historian with a particular focus on medieval and renaissance cities, Italian cities, so I taught for many years in universities. When I transitioned away from this world into business, my work was working with decision-makers to help them understand and to create meaning and see the implications about decisions. Particularly the meaning in what they are choosing to do, and who that makes them in relationship to their context. I used to draw upon a lot of my background of looking at cities as active acts of meaning-making and identity-making. This led me into working with executives on the relationship between industry and single businesses, and human communities that those businesses represent, and their context in the future, over time. This led me into the understanding of how does discontinuous change in the future, and in the external context, create a challenge and also create a space for action, an opportunity for transformation? And then from quite an early stage, I started working in innovation. I was handed responsibility for a huge innovation programme, completely randomly and found that because I had occupied the space of executive education, it was about bringing innovation and learning together. This was a particularly powerful cocktail. I was working for one of the biggest global insurers and responsible for these different strands, pulling them together, working with executives from across the organisation globally and looking at what were the big discontinuous changes in the world that would be relevant to the business of insurance and financial services? So climate turned up very early in that, although not in the overall scheme of things! But it meant it was on my radar from 2002 as something that an organisation in the business of insurance would have to pay attention to, and then it became more and more a question of thinking about this to comprehend and scope for the scale of it. To begin with, it was one of the things going on in the world but increasingly it became THE thing going on in the world and subsumed other things within it. So I worked in that area of strategic risk management and strategic innovation within a corporate environment of self transformation and renewal.

As well, my father is a former Shell Executive, turned passionate peak-oil and climate activist so I’ve spent my last two decades over dinner party arguments on  – how are we going to sort this?! His perspective now is that the only hope is military rule! I then come from the position, where I say well, we don’t have many examples of where military rule has done good in the world!? My argument is, we should use some ingenuity, creativity and hope to get there!

I came to this job at the beginning of 2017 because I felt like changing a single organisation and industry was beginning to feel constraining. I wanted to tackle the real need, and the real need is, is to change whole systems. That was the first deliberate step into a world that is uniquely focused on climate and environment because before that I was looking at a much broader range of things – technologies, social change, regulatory change. Now I want to address whole systems change.”