#XynteoLife: Language, empathy and the energy transition

22 Mar 2019

Tim Steinecke, advisor in the Xynteo Insights team, talks about his interest in China, language and culture and the energy transition in India.

You've written a lot about Asia – where did your interest in the region emerge from?

I studied as a political scientist, specialising in International Relations. When I was an undergraduate student, the explosion of growth in China in the 2000s happened on a huge scale and in such a short period. I got curious to learn more about their domestic system and how they channelled foreign investment.

You also studied Chinese – how was that experience?

I'm German. I live in Norway. I speak English at work. But while I'm exposed to three different languages in my daily life, a lot of the underlying cultural context is quite similar. When I started learning Chinese, I realised I was not just learning a language – I was learning a whole new way of thinking. It was like stepping into a different world and it gave me a route into understanding Chinese culture (and subsequently also my own culture) better.

For example, the Chinese character signifying the state is jade, surrounded by a wall. It symbolises the protection of something precious. To "separate hands" takes on the meaning of breaking up or ending a relationship in Chinese – it's very lyrical and romantic.

There's a lot of pride and respect for people who have an in-depth understanding of traditional culture and appreciate the beauty of the language. For example, I met one senior member of the foreign ministry in China who had chosen to highlight that he was a provincial champion of calligraphy on the back of his business cards.

India is another core expertise of yours and you've just written an article for The Diplomat about the energy transition in India and the opportunity it has to become a global leader. How can India become a champion of the energy transition?

India will become a leader in the energy space whether it wants to or not. Over the next 20 years, India is expected to add up to 30% of growth in global energy demand and will end up consuming around 11% of global energy by 2040. This raises a number of challenges and opportunities. For example, how to help India's state-owned energy companies to innovate and move hydrocarbons to green energy, or how to bring energy to rural areas while leapfrogging conventional energy sources. I see an opportunity for India to harness its tech and financial expertise to become a commercial hub for renewable energy.

The public sector dominates India's energy landscape. What role should the private sector play in the Indian energy transition?

There are good reasons for the public sector playing an active role in the energy market. But there must be a realisation among India's public sector undertakings (PSUs) that business as usual won't work. The private sector is a force for innovation - PSUs can draw on expertise and venture capital collaboration with international energy companies to scale innovation. For example, international energy companies bring unique competencies, specific innovations and ways of driving operational efficiencies that PSUs can apply and scale. The partnership benefits both sides. As well as access to markets, international energy companies also stand to learn from working with PSUs to scale new ideas. It pushes the international energy companies to become more innovative too.

You're now project managing The Performance Theatre, a programme focused on the personal role of leaders in bringing about a different kind of growth. What, if any, connection is there to the energy transition?

Collaboration will be essential to the energy transition. Xynteo's work with Shell, TechnipFMC and Baker Hughes, a GE Company, as part of India2022 is an example of this – bringing different partners together to develop innovation in waste-to-energy in different urban environments.

To drive change you need to be able to understand the perspectives and motivations of different stakeholders – whether they're local community leaders or the CEO of a global company. But you also need to communicate their perspectives effectively – that's where empathy comes in. You need to step into their shoes and respect people equally in order to communicate well. The Performance Theatre does a lot to encourage that by bringing very different people together and sharing perspectives and solutions.

Last question: what's more important to change – people or structures?

In my post-graduate research, I was focused on the links between energy and foreign policy across different countries – big structural questions. But I spent a lot of time on the ground meeting very different people across Asia and Africa – whether it be people in rural villages, local academics or executives. The work took me from the board rooms of global energy companies in Asia to villages of local oil workers in South Sudan (and singing karaoke with Chinese executives in the South Sudanese capital along the way). I came to the conclusion that ultimately, it's people that make decisions –systems are made by people. It sounds obvious but it's not an overly popular view for analysts – especially people with an international relations background. But I believe if leaders come together, then they can change things. And the more responsibility you have, the more your actions echo.

Photo credit: Bernhard Georgii