Introducing Solve for X — a new podcast from MaRS on the climate crisis

Introducing Solve for X — a new podcast from MaRS on the climate crisis

Host Manjula Selvarajah explores planet-saving innovations, conquering her climate anxiety and how even cynics can support the mission.

First, some good news. We know that the climate crisis is solvable, and that a stable of planet-saving innovations is being built right here in Canada. Great. The real challenge is to tackle the crisis before it’s too late, because even if we stop producing greenhouse-gas (GHG) emissions today, the earth will continue to warm for decades. The United Nations asserts that our window “to secure a livable and sustainable future” is closing fast.

That’s where Canada’s tech community comes in. Innovative products and solutions, by definition, are designed to overcome societal problems and scale quickly: homes that warm themselves with winter air; drones that can plant thousands of trees per day; and machines that literally suck carbon from the air, trapping the gas forever or converting it to fuel.

These are powerful innovations with world-changing potential — and the world deserves to know about them.

That’s what host Manjula Selvarajah is exploring in Solve for X: Innovations to Save the Planet, a new podcast series from MaRS meant to spur climate action. “This is the most pressing issue of our time,” says Selvarajah, a tech columnist with CBC. “And I want to work on meaningful projects; projects that affect a lot of people.”

We recently spoke with Selvarajah about working on Solve for X, her first-hand experience with some mind-bending tech, conquering her climate anxiety, and how even cynics can support the mission.

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Had you heard about many of these Canadian climate innovations before?
I had always been drawn to climate tech but didn’t know much about it. With Solve for X, I was shocked to learn about the diversity of work already being deployed. Over these last few months, I’ve seen enough to make me think Canada can be a leader in climate innovation. We’re not talking about ideas in people’s heads or scribbles on napkins. I saw machines that turned wasted heat into electricity. I experienced on-demand public transit. And citizens need to understand how many great things are happening in our backyard.

You’ve worked in the startup world. Did that prepare you for this job?
Absolutely. Working in tech helped me better appreciate the thinkers and scientists behind the products. The world needs these people desperately. I know how hard they work on R&D; how wonderful it feels to see a problem, and then solve it. Canada’s climate innovators aren’t working in a field of luxurious disruption — they’re not making a prettier, faster iPhone. Their disruption is a form of emergency action: it’s change we need to see.

What did you enjoy most about the process?
The ability to actually sit down with an expert and have a conversation. I’m very used to working in radio where you think on the fly and everything is delivered in short, quick bites. With Solve for X, I could peel the layers back: gain real insights on the science and learn about these innovators as people — their reasons for taking on such passion projects. It was entertaining, and it gave me a lot of hope. You can’t get that depth in a five-minute format.

So, do you now feel better about the climate crisis?
It’s funny you ask. A few weeks ago, I woke up with a strange feeling. It was anxiety. I hadn’t felt such stress in a very long time. It came, I think, from all the research I had been doing for the podcast — coming to understand how we arrived at this mess and where it could take us.

Later in the week, though, I spoke with David Rolnick for the series. He’s a scientist figuring out how to best apply AI and machine learning to the problem of climate change. Speaking with him made me feel better. It was the fact that David was taking his own feelings about the emergency and turning them into action.

What do you want listeners to take away from the series? 
If any audience members are feeling cynical, I want them to walk away from Solve for X feeling hopeful and empowered. Not everyone needs to (or can) immerse themselves in the issue like a journalist or startup entrepreneur. But they can listen to podcasts like this. They can read articles and summaries. They can know that so many people are dreaming up new climate solutions every day. I, too, used to think change would be daunting. Now, I know change is possible.

That’s not to say that tech is a silver bullet. We can easily fall prey to “technological solutionism” and other narrow modes of thinking. Before encountering the innovations in this series, I even wondered: ‘Do we really need all these shiny, new things?’ But I can assure listeners, these tech solutions meet and pass the test. It’s magical.

These 10 Canadian companies have the potential to reduce CO2 emissions by 42 megatons by 2030. Meet the Mission from MaRS Climate Champions.