The frame and undercarriage of a fuel cell vehicle

Innovation comes in many forms. It can be tech, but it can also take form in intangible ways: new partnerships, a flexible schedule, finding a workaround to a persistent problem. Innovation begins with the people behind the ideas, and an environment which encourages them to ask “what if?”  What if we install a fully automated coffee dispenser to save time? What if we replace the office’s wooden doors with glass to help break down silos? What if we take this simple plan and expand it? What if this one project could structurally transform an industry?

By giving us the freedom to think outside the box, a culture of innovation has grown organically and spread throughout the UNDP China office, in everything we do. Innovation is a journey, from an idea’s conception, trial (and sometimes error), to possible success.

Our journey is over a decade in the making; it took patience, and even bit of luck at the outset.  It is the story of taking a GEF funded project for fuel cell buses and scaling it up, introducing the hydrogen economy across several cities in China. While this does represent innovation in technology, the success of this project relied on innovation on other fronts as well; namely planning to scale up from the outset, innovative financing (reaching 100% government funding) and identifying non-traditional partners to do so.

The first step in this journey was identifying a potential solution to the environmental impacts caused by emissions from the transportation and energy sectors. Hydrogen technology, in both its fuel cell and energy storage/generation capacity suited this challenge. Establishing a hydrogen economy would allow cities to have functioning clean energy transportation.

However, the CO did not have an entry point. At least not until 2003. That year GEF selected China to receive funds for implementing a pilot project on fuel cell buses for public transport. With the support of the Ministry of Science and Technology, we jumped at the opportunity. Although it was only for one aspect of the emerging technology, we planned to introduce others along the way.

We started out slowly, as we needed to showcase a working product in a space that had zero regulations supporting the technology. It was a struggle to get permits and licenses to use the buses on the streets (and reducing misconceptions that the hydrogen in the buses might go “boom”), but it finally worked. With ministerial support, we landed a national and even global audience to demonstrate at the 2008 Beijing Olympics. It was an ambitious venue for a first demonstration, but it needed to be big to grab attention.  That was just the beginning.

By 2010 we had more buses to demonstrate at the Shanghai World Expo. Then, after the two successful deployments at major international events, there was sufficient traction to keep moving forward. To reach the scale we envisioned, we had to create a platform of partners around the issue; using the momentum gained from the events, we helped establish the International Hydrogen and Fuel Cell Association, and help organize the annual Fuel Cell Vehicle Congress. This platform allowed us to promote not just the buses, but also fuel cell passenger cars, cargo trucks and utility vehicles, as well as impact national policy.

We began scanning the horizon for more opportunities, speaking with more cities that were seeking prospects for clean transport, and came upon a smaller city – small for China – which had already shown interest in fuel cell vehicles. We approached them with a pitch to scale up, to embrace the cars and buses, but also to integrate hydrogen storage, heat, and energy production to create the first hydrogen economy in China. The local government was thrilled at the prospect, and agreed to fully fund the project.

At the same time we moved horizontally, establishing fuel cell bus pilots in 5 other cities, refueling stations in others, and are in the process of establishing a hydrogen separation plant in another. Now more cities are reaching out to us to participate in this ecosystem of hydrogen technology, which has grown to a US$12.6 billion industry of R&D and production since the start of the GEF project.   

There were many points along our journey where this project could have fallen short, or if luck had escaped us, not taken off at all. But fortunately through years of fostering innovation culture in the office - we have a dynamic innovation team, we have innovation champions in all teams, we have the leadership who supports informed risk taking and embraces failures as an opportunity to learn, we have vertical and horizontal partnerships, … Without such enabling environment in the office, most likely we wouldn’t have been as bold. In short, this is the key to our success.


This blog was written as a reflection of “Think Big with Achim Steiner, UNDP Administrator, Conversations on Innovation and #NextGenUNDP,” on March 22nd, by UNDP China’s Communication Innovation & Partnerships Team.

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