THE BLOG
05/18/2016 01:23 pm ET | Updated May 20, 2016

When it Comes to Climate Change, We Should Start Small, Fail Fast, and Dream Big

By William Kamkwamba

When I set out to build a windmill and deliver renewable energy to my small village in Malawi, I was thinking only of the energy opportunities that would come; I never dreamed of the other doors that would open. I wanted to bring a cleaner, more stable form of energy to my community, to help ease the burdens of day-to-day life - from helping young people continue their studies at night to helping families avoid spending on disposable batteries and kerosene.

What started as a small project eventually received international attention and, with that, exciting new opportunities. I have traveled a lot over the past few years. I have met countless young people who share my passion for electronics, energy and invention, and have worked alongside some of the most inspiring leaders in the energy space. I attended the African Leadership Academy and Dartmouth College, and told my story to audiences large and small. I am grateful for how these experiences have shaped my perspective on the topics I care about most; and, specifically, on energy sustainability.

I believe a renewable energy future can become our reality in our lifetimes. But the climate crisis will not be solved by a single big idea. It will be solved by everyday people working both on their own and together, and combining their best approaches to make the biggest incremental impact.

Take Iceland for example: a country that has transformed its energy profile in recent years by generating more than 90 percent of its power from sustainable sources. I was recently in Iceland to deliver a keynote address at the EF Global Student Leaders Summit. The Summit was an intense experience that combined immersive travel through the world's most energy sustainable nation with design thinking, and ultimately challenged the 700 American and Icelandic students in attendance to come up with big solutions to the climate crisis. It was here that I learned how Iceland's energy success has just as much to do with the Icelandic people and their shared sense of stewardship over their island and its resources, as it does with the country's natural geothermal advantage.

These days, many of us living "on-grid" are living in the age of tech unicorns and innovative disruption. A time when people know they can dream big and change the world, if they just come up with the right idea. It is an experience that mirrors my "off-grid" story in many ways, just with a different set of circumstances, scale, and materials for tinkering and following through with my dream.

In Iceland, it was incredibly inspiring to hear students' ideas for "silver bullet" climate change solutions - from David Livingstone of Texas, who hopes to build a more effective solar panel using cutting-edge new materials, to the students of Cambridge Rindge & Latin High School in Massachusetts who are working on a variety of projects to help their City win the $5 million Georgetown Energy Prize.

But it was equally inspiring to hear from the many students who decided to focus their efforts on much smaller scales - from installing a few solar panels at their schools, to planting a rooftop garden, focusing on energy conservation advocacy, or working to eliminate plastic grocery bags in their home communities. Like my windmill, these projects tend to be less flashy, but they are in no way less impactful when it comes to creating scalable initiatives, changing perceptions, and combating the climate crisis.

The fight against climate change cannot succeed without big, disruptive innovation. After all, people like Jessica O. Matthews of Uncharted Play or the students behind Our Children's Trust and their lawsuit against the Federal Government (each of whom also spoke at the Iceland Summit) wouldn't be doing the amazingly impactful work they are if they hadn't dreamt big and "failed forward." But large-scale projects like these required highly coordinated effort and, in the case of Our Children's Trust, skilled navigation of the legal system before they really took off.

So I urge everyone - and especially our next generation of leaders - to remember to sweat the small stuff too. What do I mean by this?

  • Small projects are more transferable: As I continue to travel to Malawi to work on new projects focused on wind, biofuel and solar energy, I try to engage with as many young people as possible in the invention process; and a project that is easily replicated is more likely to take root in many different places.

  • Small projects are easier to complete: We're all busy. Many of us are forced to juggle competing personal, professional, and academic priorities. Unfortunately, during our most challenging times, that complex, energy-focused "passion project" is probably the first thing to drop-off. If we set more reasonable goals - like installing a few solar panels at home or school, or getting our friends involved in a more robust community recycling program - the work may be easier to achieve, but no less important.
  • Small projects facilitate incremental innovation: If I took you to Malawi today, you would see dozens of renewable energy projects like my first windmill cropping up in villages around the country. Beyond that, you would see how Malawians have added innovative new approaches to my original plans. The Green Malata Children's Entrepreneurial Training Centre in Luchenza Thyolo offers a great example. The Center's leaders have not only installed wind power at the facility, but they are using it to support trade skills development among the village's young people, a battery rental and recharging service that costs villagers less than disposable batteries, and a sub-business focused on repairing computers and cellphones. I am happy to see how my original idea has transformed to bring new benefits to this one community.
  • I feel so strongly about this approach. Which is why I am so excited to be working with the team at Widernet.org to create an open source platform to house the blueprints for all of my energy projects, so that they are available free-of-charge and easily accessible to people in both developing and developed world communities. In addition to sharing plans for my own energy work, my project with Widernet will also feature information on how communities can use their newfound renewable energy to spark other forms of community development.

    As we look back on the historic COP21 climate talks in Paris, and as we consider the sweeping reforms and innovative technologies that could right the course of our climate future, let's not lose sight of the value and impact of the small projects and the fact that they too can have a big impact.


    Check out William's TED Talk on why he set out to build a windmill in his Malawaian village and how he brought the project to life

    William Kamkwamba is a Malawian innovator, engineer, and author of 'The Boy Who Harnessed the Wind.'

    This post is part of a series produced by The Huffington Post and EF Educational Tours about the recent EF Global Student Leaders Summit, which explored the future of energy from Iceland. The Summit Series combines educational travel with a two-day leadership conference, and asks students to tackle global challenges in places where those challenges are notably present or well-addressed. To view all posts in the series, visit here.

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