Christina Figueres, ex-Executive Secretary of the UNFCCC delivered the keynote speech at the Ashden Awards last night. She described the cohort of winning entrepreneurs, chosen for their potential to help solve some of the world’s biggest problems, as ‘stubborn optimists’.

Ashden is a charitable trust with a mission to influence real-world change and help us move towards a world where everyone can live secure, healthy and fulfilling lives. They champion the businesses that are making those changes happen, through awards, support programmes and investment for scale-up. 

The awards ceremony is an optimistic and inspiring affair. In the face of the huge global problems that we face today, climate change, population growth, political uncertainty, it applauds the individuals who continue to come up with ideas and technologies that address directly the needs of the world they see around them. Ideas like Shuttl, which is reducing pollution and congestion in India’s biggest cities by providing safe and comfortable public transport for commuters, Lumos Global that offers affordable off-grid solar energy to homes and businesses in rural Nigeria and, in the UK, Upside Energy, which uses data to aggregate and manage flexible energy demand allowing more use of renewables by the grid. This then, is optimism: not to deny or ignore the difficulties we face but to take action to do something about it, and to keep on doing that, stubbornly if necessary, until things get better.

A couple of weeks ago, Chris Stark, recently appointed CEO of the UK Committee for Climate Change (CCC), addressed a small gathering of angel investors in London. He pointed out that since 1990, the UK has cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 43%, whilst at the same time growing its economy by around 70%. More reasons for optimism is would seem. 

Or is it? The problem is that we have done the ‘easy’ bit. The success to date has come mainly as result of the replacement of coal-fired power plants with renewables and gas. According to Chris, the most difficult challenges still lie ahead. We need big changes in transport, the built environment and in our individual behaviours if we are to meet the target to reduce green house gas emissions by 80% on 1990 figures by 2050.

Enter once more, those stubborn optimists, the entrepreneurs. The role of business in addressing the world’s most complex global challenges has never been more crucial. Ever since Stuart Hart’s seminal article in the Harvard Business Review in 1997 challenged the business world to see the pressing need for sustainability as a business opportunity for innovation and revenue growth (Hart, 1997), enlightened, inspiring business people have been doing just that.

Governments and their policies will not solve the problem of climate change on their own. It is up to all of us to use the tools, knowledge and resources available to us to act in the best way we can, including encouraging and supporting those purposeful optimistic entrepreneurs, by recognising their contribution, investing in their ideas and telling their stories, because the future, however uncertain it may be, belongs to the optimists.


HART, S. 1997. Beyond Greening: Strategies for a Sustainable World. Harvard Business Review.