Fellow Spotlight: Keenan Johnson
Join us as we sit down with Keenan, a Subak Fellow, to discuss the Fellowship experience, his project Ribbit Network, and insight on working in the climate space.
Maisie: Can you give me a brief explanation of the work and research that you’re doing at the moment with the Subak Fellowship?
Keenan: Yeah, so I have been really lucky in the fellowship so far to get to work on my project, which is called Ribbit Network. Ribbit Network is a very large network of open source, low cost greenhouse gas sensors that citizen scientists or corporations or governments can deploy here in the ground, on earth, to build this missing map that we have for where greenhouse gas emissions come from. We have really general ideas of where they come from, we know that it’s cars and factories and industrial centres and things like that. And we roughly know where those things are. But we don’t have direct measurement of those things. I think this is a really big opportunity for climate, and for our planet going forward, it is going to be really important to have this living map, which is in the realm of possibility and engineering. We don’t have to invent new science to do this, we just have to deploy engineering tools that we already know how to do. So that’s what I get to work on is sort of all parts of that problem in Ribbit Network, which has been really fascinating and incredible.
Maisie: So, what was the moment for you, because I know you started actually working in aerospace, that made you switch to working on climate?
Keenan: Climate has always been something that I was really interested in, and I wanted to work on. For a long time, I thought that climate and working for our planet had two levels. There was me volunteering to clean up trash in the park, which is certainly great, that’s helpful and good. But I didn’t feel like I was being so effective that way, I always felt like there’s another level which is working on the big systems problem that we’ve created as humans. And it seemed that’s sort of reserved for this elite group of scientists over here, headed by Al Gore or someone, that’s where a lot of my knowledge came from. And, knowing that there was a problem, I was not feeling any agency to go do anything above that for a long time. I remember in university, this is not a major that you could get. So nobody taught you that this is something that you could go to work on.
So I went to work in aerospace, which was really appealing for me because aerospace, as an industry, is just the most hopeful, aspirational place ever. There’s sort of this feeling of everyone can come over here and everyone sort of belongs and it’s just like, if you work really hard, you can do really incredible stuff. I think for me, the turning point wasn’t wasn’t exactly a moment, but sort of a long progression. I got to work on some really awesome projects. I worked at SpaceX doing a reusable rocket, which was impossible to do, or seemingly incredibly challenging. It was really hard, but the team did it. We were able to do it, it took a long time, and a lot of people working really hard. But after that was done, I was reflecting on what I took out of that experience. This was a really hard thing that seemed not possible to do, and people went and did it. So, if you can just figure out how to do the work, you will make progress. You can get to the goals if you can have the right sort of aspirational hope and figure out how to apply people in the right way. I thought, I really want to work on climate. So like, I guess I can take the same approach and go over there and do it. I think that was the moment for me, oh wait, we can do this.
Maisie: Building on that, specifically with Ribbit network, what was the problem that you identified that this seeks to remedy?
Keenan: So, I’ve been lucky to work on climate for a while. I really like learning and being on a learning journey, and one of the questions that I kept asking was okay, we know that greenhouse gases are the problem for climate change. So in my mind, alright, how are we going to get rid of greenhouse gases? How are we going to stop emissions or capture them from the atmosphere? That’s the goal. But when I looked at any sort of actual thing that was getting deployed out in the world to change something, whether it be technology or a piece of policy, those all happen at the really local level. A city will decide to convert to a geothermal heating system for a part of their area, or other really local solutions that will add up to this really big macro solution. But we don’t have very much local data about greenhouse gas emissions, and I just kind of kept asking, well, why do we not have it? Is there something inherently hard about it? And there wasn’t really an answer.
I think the technology about how to put down massive fleets of sensors is still quite new and it’s only sort of come into its own in the last few years. Maybe only now humanity is ready to do this. But also, no one’s really been super motivated to do it, I think. So, yeah, I guess that was the question. I’ve gone so far in the journey that I get to work on it quite a lot now, which is great. I hope it really continues, and, yeah, we get to that point where we have this global map.
Maisie: I really like that an open, collaborative nature is right at the heart of Ribbit network. So, from your experiences with it so far, and more widely your experience of working on climate, do you think that this open collaborative ethos is the way forward to tackling these problems?
Keenan: Yeah, I think so. I have two reasons for that. One is intuitive, or, it’s what makes me feel good and hopeful about humanity. I really like being a part of something and being a part of a group of people like working on something together. Climate is a thing that affects all of us on this planet, so it’s an inherently unifying thing. I think that the way to fix it is to all collaborate together and, and work on this together in a really open way.
The second part of that comes from more of the rational brain, as historically we have seen what does not work. That building closed silos of information is not effective at solving really big systems problems. And climate change is not simple, this is not a simple thing that we’re looking at, it’s probably the most complex, giant systems problem that humanity has really ever sat down and said we’re gonna do something about this. So that means this is the hardest thing we’ve ever done. And all of the hardest things that humanity has ever done have come from this really open collaborative approach. So I think practically this is the only approach that’s proven to work.
Maisie: My next question is more about your experience personally. So I’m aware that you’re also an advisor for different startups at various stages of development. So I’m just wondering, from your experience with those, what you think are the biggest challenges of these early stage organisations, and specifically to the climate space, what big hurdles they seem to face?
Keenan: Yeah, it’s a good question. Right now, the biggest challenge that I see is putting together the money to take a risk. Because what capitalism says is, our job as capitalists is to minimise risk, and what climate says is hey, we’re already in kind of one of the most risky scenarios. Those are competing goals. So, if you’re trying to put together the money to try and experiment, which still might be pretty costly unless you’re independently wealthy, and I assume that good ideas are spread out equally among humanity, then the majority of good ideas are not in the hands of people who can fund them. And we don’t really know until we start trying and figure out which ones will work. So right now, I think that’s the really challenging thing is how do we put together enough attempts at good ideas to start figuring out what’s good? It’s a financial challenge, for sure. If you look at the process of building a startup, you have to validate that you can build and sell a product, basically, almost to 100% confidence before you can really raise a lot of money in today’s startup ecosystem. There’s ton of people who have great ideas, and most of them just don’t get a shot to try it out because they can’t put together the funding to make it happen.
Maisie: Brilliant point. So, I guess, the Subak Fellowship, for example, or accelerator programmes that offer funding, offer more of a safe space to take those risks.
Keenan: Definitely, yeah, that’s why I think the Subak programme is so unique and important because it gives a space for some people to come try out some ideas with some funding.
Maisie: Could you tell me more about your experiences so far with the Subak Fellowship, and any ways that it’s helped you with your work?
Keenan: Yeah. It’s been immensely helpful. So for me, part of what Subak has allowed me to do over the past couple months is take a big bet. I still don’t get to work on Ribbit Network 100% of the time, but I get to spend a lot of my time doing it. And that wouldn’t have been possible without Subak. Subak says it’s okay, you can take a few months off, really try to prove out the strategy of this, do a lot of the heavy lifting. It’s really hard stuff, putting together like the first foundational blocks of the organisation. It’s all very time consuming. So it’s really been life changing that I get to do this, because if I hadn’t had the Subak Fellowship, I would have had to have been working during this time. I would have still worked on this project, no matter what. But I would have gone 10 or 15 times more slowly, because I would have only been able to do it, maybe a couple hours a day or less, some days not even probably, and that’s just really quite valuable. You can’t replace that, to give people the time and space to work on projects that they care about.
The other thing that I really like about Subak which is really cool and really important is the Open Data pledge. That’s really important because there’s very few allies in the startup ecosystem who will want to agree with you or to not actively try to destroy your organisation because of that.
Maisie: Do you have any advice or tips for people who maybe have an idea for a project but they’re not sure whether they should apply for the Fellowship? As an existing Subak Fellow, what advice would you give them on how to maximise the application and the experience?
Keenan: Yeah, I think that anybody who has an idea, or a question that they have any inkling of how to start moving towards an answer, should definitely apply. The team at Subak are super helpful. They’re really helpful in helping you look at your blind spots and figure out how this fits into the larger ecosystem. Put together your best effort, it’s okay to be really open with Subak about what you don’t know, because that’s kind of the point — we don’t know a lot of things — so let’s put together plans to figure that out. So yeah, just go for it. More generally, if you have a question that you’re interested in the answer to, just keep trying to figure out the answer. Don’t give up, you can get to an answer. Yes, you have no idea how long it will take you or how exactly it will happen. But if you just keep asking, you can get to an answer. I think that’s really undervalued in society today, just pushing on questions that you don’t know the answer to.