Adrienne Doolan, of SustainUAE, a panelist at Sustainable Cities in Action Forum’s City Building Blocks session, highlights the disparity between SMEs’ ability to innovate for our warming climate and their access to capital to develop and scale solutions

Sustainable Cities in Action Forum 2024
Sustainable Urban Development
Green Business

Adrienne Doolan proposes new models of finance, such as cooperative funding, to enable small businesses to bring their climate innovations to market at scale

There are so many simple solutions that involve technology but that are simple enough to be infinitely scalable and can help us on our journey to sustainability

How would you describe the current landscape for SMEs and start-ups who are creating innovative tech solutions for climate issues faced by cities and the planet?

We’re in a good place insofar as there is a wealth of solutions including ones that are infinitely scalable and workable and which don’t, by the way, have to be high-tech. But the big question is, where's the funding that’s needed to scale up these solutions? It’s really hard for SMEs because they’re not polished and they’re not perceived as being scalable. Not only that but SMEs worldwide are often treated the same way as big corporates. But they don’t get the same funding from venture capitalists and the banking system and, at a procurement level, it’s really difficult for them to get onto the supply chain.

How can the playing field be levelled?

Here in the UAE we are talking to a bank about the possibility of creating an SMEs for SMEs fund. The proposed model is that the bank puts in some high-risk money on the understanding that we connect them with scalable SMEs who we know will make it in the market. For their part, the SMEs who receive funding would sign a pledge committing to put some of their profits back into the fund. So not crowdfunding exactly, more like cooperative funding.

Do you see an initiative like this gaining traction with the broader banking community?

The banks definitely have enough risk capital and, to be honest, they already lose a lot of money on much of what they invest in, which often aren’t event impact businesses. What we’re offering through an initiative like this is to identify a group of SMEs who are not only scalable but who will deliver environmental impact. Because if you’re talking about net zero, you can’t achieve that with just the big corporates.

You mentioned earlier that climate solutions needn’t always be hi-tech. Are some innovations overlooked because they are not at the technological cutting edge?

There are so many simple solutions that involve technology but that are simple enough to be infinitely scalable and can help us on our journey to sustainability. Moreover, many of these solutions exist in abundance in global south cities and countries. And I’m very much a proponent for those types of solutions because they are immediate, accessible and actionable. Sometimes I think we spend far too much time strategising, meanwhile the action needed is missing.

Equipped with the appropriate support, enablers and funding, can SMEs and startups save our cities and our planet?

I firmly believe so, yes. By working together, and with government support, small businesses and entrepreneurs can be powerful drivers of change.


From 5 - 6 March 2024, more than 400 urban leaders and experts gathered at The Nexus, Expo City Dubai, for the inaugural Sustainable Cities in Action Forum. During a packed programme of dynamic panel discussions and cutting-edge workshops, delegates from all walks of life explored actionable solutions for catalysing urban development across the Middle East, Africa and South Asia.

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