In our ongoing series exploring the links between connectivity and innovation, we spoke with Mitch Jackson, vice president of Environmental Affairs and Sustainability for FedEx. Jackson spearheaded the implementation of FedEx hybrid-electric vehicles, among the first in the commercial marketplace.
Access: How would you describe the relationship between increased global connectivity and innovation?
MITCH JACKSON: I believe that global connectivity and innovation go hand in hand. If you think about it, attempts at globalization have been ongoing for centuries. Books like A Splendid Exchange: How Trade Shaped the World (Grove Press) and Bound Together: How Traders, Preachers, Adventurers, and Warriors Shaped Globalization (Yale University Press) illustrate many of these efforts. What makes our current efforts different is the state of technology used for global connectivity — providing better efficiencies, speed and information. Innovation is clearly a driving force for these changes.
Access: What are the biggest impediments to innovation?
MJ: There are quite a few. I have referred to innovation as “applied inspiration.” Focusing on this, one impediment that comes to mind is inertia. Something will continue in its current trajectory until an external force is applied. Innovation can be that applied force, but it takes action to apply it. Sometimes organizations simply fail to take the actions required to change what’s possible.
Another is the fear of change itself. Think about the old adage, the light at the end of the tunnel is the headlight of an oncoming train. That’s a fear of change.
And, in some ways, I think innovation can also be impeded by thinking that a solution must be the ideal one for a problem, rather than a needed step in the right direction. I’ve used the phrase “enlightened serendipity” to state that we are sometimes enlightened enough to know we have to innovate or change, with a general goal in mind — and serendipitous enough to have it sometimes succeed. But failing to act can also lead to failing to improve.
Access: So then how does innovation link to the idea of sustainability?
MJ: I think they should be inextricably linked. In fact, innovation is one of four building blocks we use for our sustainability program at FedEx, along with performance, transparency and leadership. I believe innovation and leadership are the two most important from a standpoint of influence on society, as this model demonstrates.
I’ve written a great deal about this. But, to be brief, I should just direct you to blog.fedex.com, under the EarthSmart tab.
Access: What’s the most revolutionary innovation you see on the horizon?
MJ: Just one? Well, if I focus on transportation, I would have to say the trend towards electrification of transportation, including hybrids, plug-in hybrids and all-electric vehicles.
Access: What is the future for electric vehicles? When do you see them becoming commercially viable?
MJ: The key will be scope and synergy, along with technological improvement in battery technology and pricing. In theory, this range of electrification can be utilized in the developed world for a sizable percentage of light-duty passenger vehicle transportation. This, along with a transformation of the power generation grid with natural gas and, increasingly, renewables, could lower our environmental impacts, diversify our energy solutions, and lower our fiscal and geopolitical dependencies. And, synergistically, with more fuel-efficient diesel and gasoline vehicles across the transportation spectrum, natural gas for longhaul and centrally fueled fleets, electrification could be a revolutionary innovation.
But without question, battery pricing must drop. I’ve seen information that suggests electric vehicle battery prices dropped 40 percent from 2010 and that they’ll drop further in the coming decade. Clearly, this will be a crucial development needed to make electric vehicle technology a solution for the masses.
Access: A greater percentage of global citizens are choosing to live in cities today than ever before. Are cities increasingly defining the global economy?
MJ: In essence, cities are increasingly where the opportunities are. And these opportunities are making cities larger, especially in the developing world. Clearly, these growing economic centers are impacting the global economy.
But there are also unintended consequences. That’s why FedEx began working with the World Resources Institute’s EMBARQ program. The FedEx-EMBARQ Mobility and Accessibility Program uses FedEx know-how and expertise to help EMBARQ catalyze sustainable transportation solutions in developing countries — in other words, to help cities create mobility and access marketplaces, jobs, schools and community life in ways that minimize environmental impacts and increase safety.
Access: Through new technologies, North America has tapped new sources of energy, becoming less dependent on energy imports. In what ways does this shift affect the global economy?
MJ: Innovation has been key to the recent energy renaissance in the U.S. as it relates to natural gas and oil production. New drilling techniques have allowed the U.S. to increase its oil production by 2.1 million barrels per day since 2008, according to Securing America’s Future Energy.
This innovation, along with better fuel efficiency performance in transportation and other industry sectors, is helping to drive what I stated previously: It could lower our environmental impacts, diversify our energy solutions, and lower our fiscal and geopolitical dependencies.
Access: What kind of investments is FedEx making toward a more globally sustainable future?
MJ: FedEx works to achieve our sustainability goals through EarthSmart, the FedEx roadmap for operating in an increasingly sustainable way, and engaging our team members, customers, suppliers, vendors and communities where we operate to help us reduce the environmental impact of daily business operations. EarthSmart includes three pillars:
- EarthSmart Innovations focuses on business and customer solutions, including products, services and assets.
- EarthSmart @ Work is our employee engagement component and focuses on three key areas: recycling and waste minimization, lower fuel emissions, and reduced energy usage in the FedEx workplace.
- EarthSmart Outreach is our philanthropic and volunteer component. It focuses on sustainable transportation, cities and ecosystems.
Some EarthSmart Innovations include: Paperless Processing; Zero-Emission, All-Electric Vehicles; Low-Emission, Hybrid-Electric Vehicles; FedEx Paper Recycling Program; LEED Certified Facilities; Carbon-Neutral Envelope Shipping; Zero-Emission Electric Tricycles; Solar Facilities; Efficient Containers; Repair Service Center; Extended Range Electric Vehicles; and Fuel Sense. You can find more on these at earthsmart.fedex.com.
FedEx has also worked closely with the Environmental Defense Fund (EDF) to create innovative, clean delivery vans — the first commercially available hybrid-electric delivery vans. More than 200 other fleets have since added the very vehicles we helped develop. We’ve also pushed for commercial and passenger electric vehicles for widespread usage. And we’re working with The Nature Conservancy to develop a roadmap for achieving our goal of getting 30 percent of our aviation fuel from alternative sources by 2030, which can also serve as a roadmap for others.
There is much more at csr.fedex.com. And, here’s an interesting informational graphic: