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A Thriving Interdisciplinary Ecosystem Powered by Human Energy

Leonardo da Vinci was the original polymath. A painter, sculptor, scientist, mathematician, engineer, inventor, anatomist, botanist, musician and writer all in one body. Da Vinci filled notebooks with writing, drawings and plans — even ideas for hydraulic and solar power. Polymaths like da Vinci, Marie Curie and Benjamin Franklin are capable of creativity and innovation across multiple fields — practically an interdisciplinary team located in a single brain.

The complex problem of addressing the climate crisis requires thinking across multiple disciplines. But there are simply not enough polymaths to go around. That’s why Onward is building a global community of thinkers and innovators to accelerate the development of tomorrow’s clean energy solutions. In an age of increasing specialization, only the combined knowledge of many will bring meaningful solutions for a global energy transition.

“This is the largest global collaboration we’re going to have in a lifetime,” says Jeff Allyn, CEO of Onward. Developing economies around the world are increasing their demand for energy while the clock is ticking to decrease carbon emissions. No individual or company is going to invent our way out of this. It’s got to be a sustained and collaborative effort. That’s why Allyn’s primary goal is to build an interdisciplinary ecosystem that fuels ideas with data, tools and inspiration.

Scaling up the thinking

The global energy challenge is enormous, but it consists of a multitude of addressable questions. Organizations that are developing climate tech solutions are increasingly getting the attention of venture capital firms. In fact, these organizations are reaching unicorn status (becoming billion-dollar companies) in an average of four years rather than the seven years it can take other startups. The energy behind individual initiatives is exciting, but not enough.

“Fifty percent of the technology we will need to navigate the energy transition hasn’t been thought of yet,” says Allyn. “The Onward community is unique because we’re 100% focused on energy innovation and energy transition. No distractions.” Real answers will involve more people, more ideas and more resources. The community is developing solutions, sharing data and building tools as part of a global collaboration.

No time to wait for accidental collaboration

“There’s so much in the energy space that has to be explored, reimagined and rebuilt,” says Nate Suurmeyer, director of the crowdsourcing platform at Onward. “We need a lot of different voices so we can imagine things together. There will be voices that help us constrain and voices that come up with wild ideas and want to try out new things.” Suurmeyer’s job is to gather those voices and present challenges that will excite them; challenges that connect to the real world.

Suurmeyer tells a story of interdisciplinary collaboration that came about somewhat by accident. When the University of Washington acquired its first supercomputer in the early 1980s, computing was done using paper punch cards. Still, the new computer was so powerful and interesting that students and faculty had to sign up for time to use it. They would arrive early — sometimes an hour before their appointment — to make sure they didn’t miss a second of their allotted time. Then they’d sit with other researchers and their stack of punch cards in a green room.

People remember that time at the University of Washington as being an especially prolific time for research. At first, they assumed it was due to the supercomputer. But it was actually the green room, where people from Biology, Physics, Mathematics and departments all across campus were making connections and thinking about each other's problems and how they might apply to their own work.

Onward intends to be a global version of that green room. And it’s not just for researchers and scientists. Onward is developing an interdisciplinary ecosystem with the goal of getting as many people as possible contributing to the development of green energy solutions. A thriving ecosystem will depend on diversity of thought, background, education, discipline and even motivation. It’s being structured to attract everyone from students, entrepreneurs and professionals to retirees and citizen scientists. A problem as big as our global climate and energy future needs to be viewed from multiple angles simultaneously.

Building community with intent

Communities like this don’t just happen. Onward has composed several initiatives to energize collaboration and attract people with ideas and skills they want to explore with others. Onward is matching scientists and entrepreneurs with companies and capital that will help speed up bringing practical solutions to market. Innovators are plugged into an ecosystem where they can benefit from shared knowledge, skills and connections along with access to technical expertise and business strategy. That doesn't mean Onward is for entrepreneurs only.

Individuals, whether they’re employed, resume-building or just wanting to make an impact, can apply their skills to a variety of rewarding challenges . Many of the challenges rely on Python programming, which has become a universal language of the Onward community. Other challenges benefit from a unique perspective that people from outside of the energy sector can bring. All of the challenges include money.

An example is the recently posted challenge that tempts problem-solvers with this opening sentence: Optimization problems are notoriously tricky and fun to solve. It asks participants to build an algorithm that identifies the most profitable solution for sending workers over a map area to collect rewards. The winner completes the challenge while optimizing resources within a particular time and budget.

“The rationale behind doing this kind of challenge is that we're trying to better understand rig sequencing. It's a very nuanced problem to the oil and gas industry, but it’s presented in such a way that a large number of people can contribute to it,” explains Suurmeyer. “Another type of problem might involve reducing CO2 emissions for global trade. If we assign a single subject matter expert to work on it, we get a narrow set of solutions. We can get more people involved with a more abstract question.”

There are challenges to suit every taste, which are intended to attract the kind of diversity that will fuel a thriving innovation community. “Sometimes it's serious hard math, with everyone focusing on a single equation. Then we’ll change it up and present a fun starship challenge that’s more like a computer game,” says Suurmeyer.

More voices and more brains equal more solutions

People who want to engage in the Onward community are also finding their niche on discussion forums. Forums are where people can get help, share what they’re working on or have a conversation about a mutual interest. These conversations can lead to thinking that might unlock a new way of addressing a problem.

Onward communities are coming together around topics and datasets, but they’re also forming around people who are building tools, websites and communications. Onward is developing ways to connect different groups so they can benefit from collaboration and mutual support and also connect with business and funding opportunities.

“I’m often asked what our end goal is,” says Allyn. “Onward is working toward equitable and secure energy for everyone. But there really is no end goal because we’re continuing to identify new challenges that our communities can help solve. I personally think that’s invigorating — the fact that our goal keeps evolving.”

ThinkOnward  |  ThinkOnward Team

ThinkOnward is a nexus of innovation, collaboration, and energy entrepreneurialism focused on energy resilience and pursuing a net-zero future. We’re creating a hub for the “thinkers”, the “change makers” who want to foster new ideas, leverage and use powerful data and tools, and collaborate with the best scientific minds, together with investors and entrepreneurs committed to accelerating the commercial success of innovative energy and climate solutions. 

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