Innovation That Matters

A Conversation With Santiago Lefebvre, Founder of ChangeNOW, and Springwise's James Bidwell

Wise Words

Ahead of ChangeNOW 2021, two leaders in the global innovation community underline the power of innovation and collaboration in solving the world’s biggest challenges.

Springwise is a proud media partner for ChangeNOW 2021, the world’s largest event for the planet. In the lead-up to this year’s summit, which will take place online from 27 — 29 May, we are gaining insights from some of the key innovators and changemakers taking part in this year’s event.

ChangeNOW is an international event focused on creating positive change — founded in 2017 by Santiago Lefebvre, Rose-May Lucotte and Kevin Tayebaly. Its mission is to develop solutions and new models to respond to major environmental and social emergencies. The ChangeNOW summit has since become the world’s largest gathering of innovations for the planet.

In a shared conversation ahead of this year’s virtual edition, Lefebvre and Springwise Chair James Bidwell underline the power of innovation and collaboration in solving the world’s biggest challenges.

James Bidwell: I think the first thing I’d love to know is a bit about your journey and how you’ve got to ChangeNOW. How did you come up with this incredible idea? 

Santiago Lefebvre: Thank you for having me, James. So even as a child, I wanted to have a positive impact and I think that life just drove me in this direction. In 2015, I did an MBA at INSEAD which was where I launched the TEDxINSEAD, and where I saw a lot of innovators trying to tackle this issue of the planet. This coincided with COP 21 and many things like that. I felt that this was a good opportunity to get to work on these issues and as an entrepreneur, I said, look, I would like to try to do something for the ocean or for a circular economy. But I didn’t know where to meet my peers, investors, or the media. And so I said, OK, we need to create this huge gathering where people who want to really get involved in the transition can find all the resources and the people they need to meet. 

JB: For anyone who isn’t familiar with ChangeNOW, how would you describe it? 

SL: In brief, ChangeNOW is the world’s largest event for the planet. Every year we find around 1000 solutions that are attacking the SDGs and bring together the investors, the mayors, city representatives, policymakers and general media, along with the corporate world because often there are great collaborations happening between big companies and start-ups, talent and citizens.

JB: Do you have any good examples of things that have really tangibly made a difference following ChangeNOW? 

SL: There is a company in France called Jean Bouteille that sells refillable bottles and they managed to strike a deal with L’Occitane at ChangeNOW and now they are deploying in 25 countries.

Another example is a French minister, who came to ChangeNOW was trying to pass a law regarding the use of micro-plastics that pollute the water but was struggling to get it passed due to the complexity of the issue. She met a startup from the UK, PlanetCare, who had been doing this kind of work for years. Thanks to this collaboration, in 2025 all laundry machines will need to have a filter embedded in France to prevent these micro-fibres from entering the water.

JB: It’s really exciting to hear things that come out of it that are tangible and making a big difference. 

SL: Yeah, I think that this is necessary because what we are doing is a super entrepreneurial journey. When ChangeNOW started out, we had around two and a half thousand participants. Now we’re at twenty-eight thousand this year. But it has also been a very difficult journey as all entrepreneurial journeys are. 

JB: My next question is around the acceleration of change. Are you seeing enough momentum with what has happened in the last year since we last met in Paris? 

SL: The desire for positive impact is accelerating. For example, in the beginning, startups who were pitching to investors were asking on average for 3, 300 euros. By January 2020, the average was more around 1 to 1.5 million euros which means that the start-ups in this sector are really embracing speed. This, for me, is a real sign that things are accelerating. 

Now the question is are we going fast enough? I don’t think so yet, because the curve shows that we are not taking back our carbon. But the solution is to keep going and we don’t have to view change as linear. There are tipping points. And I feel that we have already achieved the first tipping point and maybe there will be another one and we have to push towards it. 

JB: I couldn’t agree with you more. Of course, climate change is exponential in the wrong direction but equally, innovation can be exponential as well. What do you think about the role of innovation in solving climate change?

SL: Innovation is important because it will help us solve some issues relating to new materials, and to facilitate the circular economy. But we shouldn’t discount the past. We can see that things from ancient times almost make sense today. And so I think that we also have to keep that in mind. Innovation will contribute, but it won’t solve the whole problem. 

JB: It feels like the ocean is much of the answer to some of the problems we’re facing. Will it be a big ocean kind of theme going through ChangeNOW this year? 

SL: Definitely, yes, but the theme of the ocean has always been part of ChangeNOW. This year there will be a lot of content on this topic, with the launch of a new global coalition of start-ups for the ocean, with UNESCO launching their decade for the ocean also. We have the President of the Palau Islands who has done a lot of work in this sector. We really need to focus on the ocean because it is super important for food and agriculture, and biodiversity.

JB: In terms of this year and the challenges that you face from not being able to host the event in the beautiful Grand Palais, how are you navigating the digital aspect of this year’s event to give this extraordinary exposition the energy and dynamism of last year or of other years? 

SL: Well, that’s a fair point, and at the live event you really have a sense of the energy and that everyone is here to try to find solutions for the planet. In terms of content, I think that digital has been a superb opportunity for us. We reach out to so many other speakers, like those who couldn’t have been present in the venue. Amongst these people, I could just mention Nemonte Nenquimo, who is an indigenous leader in the Amazonian region. She will give talks directly from the president. That’s super cool.

You also have people who just couldn’t fit coming to Paris into their agenda and now they will be here. For example, Jeffrey Sachs from the U.N. and the Prince Albert of Monaco. So we have more people that can join and bring their knowledge to the community. For us, this is super exciting.

JB: Where do you see ChangeNOW in three or four years? 

SL: We’re putting a lot of things in place. With the digital advantages of the event this year, we are going beyond the content we’re gathering and increasing opportunities for collaboration by creating other events on the platform. You can come to ChangeNOW and when you want, you will be able to go to the event organised by B Corp, for example, the event organised by HeForShe if you are really into gender equality. We have around 20 to 30 summits inside the summit organised by other key players in the world, like 1% for the Planet, One World and many others. 

JB: How are you seeing generational shifts in what you’re doing and is it just people spiritually involved in what you’re doing or does it manifest in other ways?

SL: Well, youth is definitely involved in what we are doing. I think that my generation has the responsibility to show and to initiate the path of transition because it is only this way that we will be able to motivate the younger generations to take bigger action. And if we don’t do anything, I’m not sure we’re showing the right examples for them to really act. So for me, this is the generation, the generational shift will happen only if we do our part.

JB: I completely agree with you, and I think it is our responsibility because we are now at the top of our professions and our businesses, it’s our job. And I also think that on another topic education is really, really important, embedding this agenda in the education system.

SL: Yes, definitely. This also comes back to your question as to where we are going in five years. This year, we are deploying a new programme and one of our priorities is the younger generations, focussing on those at high school, university, and early-career level. We want to give visibility and transparency when it comes to choosing the right path for a career in impact. We have just launched the first ranking here in France of the schools and universities to change the world, so students can make the right choices. At ChangeNOW 2021 there will be an online job fair,  so if you’re interested in finding a job in impact, you can maybe do it on the digital platform. 

JB: That is so exciting to hear. I think a career in impact is such a powerful role. What’s refreshing is more and more people are thinking about that. But to be able to show the path to a career in impact is incredibly powerful.

SL: Life becomes just so fulfilling when you start making an impact. Maybe one of the great ways to join in is to come to ChangeNOW 2021, which is at the end of the month of May 27th, 28th and 29th. It’s free to access with a lot of great content and networking opportunities, with the film festival, with the job fair, with many things in arts also. We have an amazing team of 20 people right now who are really working very hard over the next month to make something huge happen.