Innovation That Matters

Enlightened leaders: Santiago Lefebvre

Enlightened Leaders

Ahead of ChangeNOW 2022, Springwise chair, James Bidwell speaks to the founder of the event about the power of innovation and its ability to tackle the world’s most pressing issues

Read the edited interview transcript below

James: With ChangeNOW nearly here, how are the preparations going? And how are you guys all feeling? 

Santiago: We’re feeling super excited, because we’ve been working on this for several months – almost a year. And also it will be the first time since our 2020 edition, that we will be getting back to an in person format. So, we’re super excited about it. 

ChangeNOW is the world’s largest event of solutions for the planet. It’s the only event, except for the COPs, where you have so many different people and participants joining together. So this creates real energy on the spot in the venue. 

James: How many how many people do expect to come? 

Santiago: We’re expecting around 30,000 participants,  

James: We’ve experienced so much disruption since we last met live. We’ve had COP26 in Glasgow last November, we’ve had the IPCC report, we’ve seen the conflict in Ukraine, we’ve got the pandemic – so the levels of disruption are so accelerated and accentuated now. So, for me, ChangeNOW comes at such an important time. How is the momentum of this agenda growing among the community and the participants you’re talking to every day, Santiago? 

Santiago: What you’re mentioning here is super important. Because indeed I think that for a couple of years now, we’ve been experiencing very extreme events and conditions. We’ve been through a global pandemic, and then there’s war in Europe. And every year we have bigger wildfires and floods… 

And we are in a critical moment where we need to be super solid, because we need to take care of the short-term events without forgetting that we also need to build the long-term future. And this long term can only be built if we, in the short-term, make the right decisions as well. So, we are in this very complicated moment where we need to trust this wisdom and capacity of both sides to say ‘OK, things aren’t happening’, but don’t lose the fact that we are still facing one of the biggest, hugest challenges we have for this planet.  

So, I will say we have these issues, and we are talking about them at ChangeNOW. But, we’re also here to show what the people on this planet are already creating, to prepare for a better future.  

And the trends we see follow on from COP26 in Glasgow, which felt like the COP of climate justice. It was the first time the agenda of climate justice was so strong. And I believe that this is down to the generation of young people who are so aware of the suffering of other young people in the world. There is this kind of empathy that is really growing in this young generation that makes that it’s really a topic in the agenda.  

Energy and mobility are also really strong topics at this year’s event. And with this in mind, we will be hosting around 30 amazing mayors from all around the planet and asking them to join together to meet the innovators and see the solutions at ChangeNOW, and to create a sustainable city in their own countries. We will also be talking about the ocean and circular economy. 

James: It’s amazing: this whole idea of ‘next generation’ – which is definitely something we saw when we were at COP last year. There’s a real energy of youth. One of the great parts of ChangeNOW is that you showcase these innovators from all around the world who are have created the solutions that we need to deal with, massive issues. And, of course, the biggest of all right now is the climate change agenda, 

Santiago: But I don’t want people to think that we’re saying that it’s only the youth who have to make the change. I think that the current leading generation, right now has this opportunity and this responsibility to actually start doing enough work. So, the young generations can say, ‘OK, I’m still optimistic about the future’. Otherwise we’ll just get anger and nothing really constructive. We need to do our part, so they have something to take on afterwards. 

James: Picking up on the on the energy agenda, which is so top of mind at the moment with the conflict in Ukraine, and also a big topic in the French election. How are you thinking about energy at ChangeNOW? Who are some of the participants who are going to come in and talk to us? What are some of the innovations that you’re seeing? 

Santiago: The topic of energy is super interesting, because it’s so big, often people feel that they can’t do anything about it. And what we are trying to show through the energy track at ChangeNOW is that we can change things.  

We can change things in two ways. First, there are some great innovators talking about what they’re doing. In renewable energies, we have a startup called Aqueous, for example, who is making energy from sounds – the vibration of an engine. We’ve been following this idea now for three years and they’re coming back this year, they’re really growing. And we’re excited about it, because we see that every year they come back with new learnings, new connections, increased support.  

And the other thing is that citizens can do something. Because there is a tool that we don’t use a lot and that is the law. Those that can help us slow down or stop some fossil fuel projects. And so we’ll have onstage different speakers that really incapsulate that, from Chibeze Ezekiel, the activist who blocked a coal power plant in Ghana, to Client Earth, who find the legal  oopholes and the leverages in the loss so we can really increase the cost of accessing new fossil fuels to get it to a point where it’s not even interesting for big businesses to use it.  

James: It’s fantastic to have the addition of those heavyweight speakers, who are going after governments – and you know, and they deserve to be gone after on these issues – and really fighting for the environment, as well as all the innovations coming through. And that’s part of the magic of ChangeNow – having all those people together and coalescing and having those debates,  

You also mentioned about the power of cities and citizens. I was previously the CEO of Visit London, and was very much involved in the 2012 Olympics in a past life – so I know the power of cities to make the change and the power of mayors who sometimes can step up where governments aren’t. How are you thinking about that? 

Santiago: For the second edition of ChangeNOW in 2018, we identified cities and mayors as key players in this transition. Why because for most of the activities in the world, and so the pollution, the co2 is emitted from cities. In so if we manage to solve the issue at the city level, we have solved the good part of the equation. And so having the mayors and cities involved is super important.  

So, what we do every year is that we gather around 30 mayors for one day, and show them the innovations and solutions that can help them create more sustainable cities. At the end of the day, they’ve really discovered a lot of things, and also started to create connections with solutions that they think that they can implement in their cities.  

James: It’s so good, this whole idea of marrying innovative solutions with the power, influence, infrastructure, and scale required to actually make a change.  

Santiago: And what’s super exciting about the cities is that we see how this is spreading across the globe. Because we have representatives and mayors from European cities such as Amsterdam, Paris, Athens, and many others. But we also have now, people coming from Iran, from Brazil, from Africa. And that’s really shows that this is moving at very large scale today. So that’s super encouraging for us and for this track. 

James: And ChangeNOW is the catalyst for a lot of that – and you should really be congratulated because it is just fantastic to see cities and mayors standing up for this agenda. So giving them the confidence the support is just fantastic to see.  

Now, one of the tracks that cuts across all of this is, is the investment community. ChangeNOW sees quite a coterie of VC and PE level investors. How are you finding that community engaging with this agenda? And is there a difference this year from a couple of years ago? 

Santiago: I think it has been a privilege to be at the forefront of what happened in the investment field. Because between each year’s edition of ChangeNOW we see a huge change in the attractiveness of the offering. The first year, we had just a couple of impact investors. Then the following year, we had ‘normal’ VCs saying, ‘Oh, this is interesting what you’re doing. Tell me more.’ And the third year, they were totally crazy about these innovations that we were showing. They were also based on real business models.  

And that has been accompanied by the fact that startups themselves were in average, raising from 200 to 200,000 euros, on average, to above one-million the year after. So that shows that ,even at the startup level, maturity was growing fast.  

And now this year, I think, we have around 800, investors from all the fields, looking at innovations for sustainable food to cities, and from the circular economy to the ocean. So that’s cool. We’ll also be dedicating a whole morning to investors who are creating or launching a new fund and looking for limited partners to put money into it. 

James: So it’s like a Dragon’s Den for funds, which is great. It’s good to see the investors on the other end of it, rather than the investors. So I look forward to that.  

We’ve talked a bit about energy, we’ve talked a bit about the investment track. Now I want to pick up on agriculture, biodiversity and the food agenda – which is heightened at the moment because of the conflict, but in general because of the growing population. We need to increase the food production globally, we also need to cut the emissions from agriculture massively. Could you talk a little bit about how that’s playing out?  

Santiago: Well, first of all, I would say that shifts in any society or civilisation have always gone hand in hand with a drastic change in the food system and the agricultural system. And I believe that, because we’re now at the beginning of the revolution, there is also the need for this new model of the food system.  

For me, if there’s something that is really surging here, as a real trend, it’s regenerative agriculture. It’s a topic that’s fascinating, because we just realised that for almost 5,000 years, we’ve been doing things in the wrong way. And it’s not a technical revolution that’s happening in agriculture – it’s a science revolution, because we’re understanding more and more about how soil works. Our understanding of the earth system is pretty recent – and now that we have this knowledge, there’s a lot of potentially positive consequences.  

James: The whole concept of regeneration actually has sort of emerged over the last 18 to 24 months – not just stopping doing stuff, but actually making sure that everything we do is is positive and going back into the system. I love how ChangeNOW mixes this really robust science with inspirational speakers as well as the solutions and the innovators.  

We’re going to wrap soon, Santiago, because we have much to do – particularly you! Is there any anything else you wanted to mention?  

Santiago: Yes, of course. There’s something I think is, is also super important, which is that while we talk a lot about innovation at ChangeNOW, the event is also about wisdom, and how to be a better human being. We’ve been thinking a lot about how to tell the story of the world we’re living in. This is important, because the image, you have of your desired future has a lot of impact on the way you live your day to day life. And so, ChangeNOW has a huge place for the arts too. We have a movie theatre during the evening so people can find another way to see these topics. I believe the way you see the world is profoundly linked to how you can make this world more sustainable.  

We will have the participation of Adam McKay, the director of the movie, Don’t Look Up, with Leonardo DiCaprio. And I think that this is a real example of how cinema images can have a cultural impact. And this is really what we want to target: how do we build this new culture that will make sustainable living just seem normal? 

James: It’s almost like we need to really reflect. We’ve realised that what we’ve been doing in recent years is kind of the wrong thing. Culture and film are important for giving a backdrop that is almost more solid, and allows us to gain that wisdom you mentioned. While ChangeNOW is an urgent movement, because of the agenda, there is a bigger, longer-term picture too. Me, my kids, and next generation will all need to live and think about living differently.  

For anyone who wants to get involved, tickets are available at How are you helping people who can’t make it in person experience the event?  

Santiago: It’s not easy, actually, to develop this experience in an online format. But this is also something we will try to deliver through our platform, where you can see all the talks. We’ll also have a live TV stream, showing the depth and breadth of the content of what this experience is. 

Most importantly, we hope that all those people who are joining together will come with the you know, this strong will to collaborate, learn from each other, talk to each other, and design for the future. 

James: The energy of the experiences is just so powerful, and I’d urge everyone listening to this to attend and get involved. Springwise will of course be creating a special report, featuring a lot of the innovators at the event. We’re so excited to be a partner and to be spreading this message. So, good luck to you and the team. We’ll see you in Paris it’s been fantastic talking to you today thank you so much for your time. 

Santiago: Likewise James, thank you. 

Springwise is a proud partner of ChangeNow, which takes place in Paris 19-21 May 2022. As the world’s largest event for the planet, the three-day international summit brings together entrepreneurs, business leaders and policymakers to accelerate change. To find out more and book your tickets, visit