James Ellsmoor – Island Innovation

James Ellsmoor, Founder of Island Innovation: A social entrepreneur with a key focus on renewable energy and sustainable development for island communities. He is the founder of Island Innovation (Consultancy Agency) and co-founder of Solar Head of State (NGO) and a regular contributor for Forbes.


As the Founder and CEO of Island Innovation, a consultancy that focuses on renewable energy and sustainable development on island nations globally, can you explain a bit more about what the organisations’ key aims and achievements are and why they are important? 

Island Innovation works with remote islands around the world to link them together and encourage sustainable development. There is a lack of opportunities for rural, remote and island communities to share information and collaborate, and so we started by simply telling stories of successful projects so that islands could learn from one another. I want to be positive and solutions-focused in my approach to the work.

Regions as diverse as the Pacific, Caribbean, Scotland and the Arctic are all currently engaging with environmental change, and opportunities for exchange are huge. These regions are separated by substantial distances, but new digital communications give an opportunity to change that. It is important that this information sharing happens on an equal footing, acknowledging that poorer countries have just as much to teach richer ones as well as vice-versa. Why should we keep reinventing the wheel?

I started the Virtual Island Summit as an opportunity to share even more information and increase participation. We will engage over 5,000 participants from a diverse range of island communities and discuss environmental issues such as energy and waste but also cultural preservation and social issues. There are big opportunities to share knowledge and now digital communications gives us a way to do so.

You specialise in the implementation of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) on small island developing states. Which do you think are the most vital SDG’s for cities on small islands? And which island states do you consider to be leading the way in achieving their SDG’s? 

In the discussion around islands we often forget that many islands are increasingly urbanized! Cities such as Kingston, Suva and Port Louis are key to the functioning of small island developing states (SIDS) but yet often there is a lack of engagement from those working on the SDGs at the global level with local governments.

The SDGs are just a framework to measure the wider movement in sustainable development, and all apply in some way to island communities. In islands, often the connections between sectors become even more apparent. Water, waste, agriculture and energy are all directly related and this becomes even more apparent on a small island.

One SDG worth highlighting here is SDG14 with its focus on oceans. Some have argued repositioning small island states as “large ocean states” given the huge amount of territorial waters controlled by many, particularly in the Pacific. The ocean is integral for many island communities and deserves particular attention.

I would not say there is a single island ahead of the pack in all areas, but many have specialized on certain aspects and excelled. Seychelles is particularly forward-thinking on ocean issues, having launched the world’s first sovereign blue bonds, a financial instrument designed to support sustainable marine and fisheries projects. In Palau, the entire country was made a shark sanctuary and all visitors are required to sign the “Palau Pledge” to take care of the environment. In Scotland, the Orkney Isles have the most advanced marine energy technology in the world. Many islands are now enforcing widespread plastic bans such as Barbados. Clearly there is much diversity in the movement and room for specialization!

As an expert on the issues of sustainability for small islands, what do you consider to be the greatest challenges for urban areas on islands in becoming more sustainable? 

One issue that is not discussed enough is that of capacity. Government employees on islands, whether at the national or local level, often struggle with the diversity and volume of workload. A single individual may be responsible for diverse and unrelated issues, while being called overseas to attend events and participate in conferences.

For an island nation of a few hundred thousand people, the Ministry of Environment, for example, could have just a handful of staff with all the international responsibilities of a larger country. Often these staff are highly skilled, but simply lack the time to meet all of their responsibilities and the departments lack the funds to bring on more staff.

Given small island nations’ natural geographical restrictions and often isolation, energy provision is a key issue for their development. What do you consider to be the key features of successful sustainable and renewable energy networks on small island states? 

There is no one-size-fits-all approach to island development, but there are many opportunities for exchange and knowledge sharing. There are many good examples of islands that have adopted and excelled in the adoption of renewable energy. Islands tend to have much higher electricity costs than nearby mainland areas. For example, Jamaicans pay on average 3 or 4 times more than those living in the United States. The parts of the United Kingdom with the biggest energy poverty issues are the Northern and Western Isles.

As fossil fuels become increasingly expensive and scarce, and as battery prices continue to drop, many of the solutions implemented first on islands will become commonplace in larger grids. These high costs are a barrier for some aspects of development, but they can also be a driver for innovation in the search for new solutions.

As someone who has travelled in over 60 countries and on all 5 continents, which is your favourite sustainable city to work and live in and why? 

For the last six months I have been based in Medellín, Colombia. The city has such an entrepreneurial and innovative approach to creating a good place to live which makes it very special. Some of its best-known projects are building cable cars and escalators on its still valley sides to improve accessibility for its poorest neighbourhoods. These areas are at the tops of the valley sides, making it difficult and expensive for residents to access jobs in the city centre.

The city is now facing a growing air pollution problem, and is trying to find innovative ways to improve it. They have certain days where half of vehicles are banned and some days when all private vehicles are banned, in addition to a good public transportation system. Like most cities, there is still much to be done to make the city more sustainable but I admire Medellín’s innovative approach!

What do you think small islands and their experiences with urban sustainability can teach mainland cities? 

I have sometimes heard islands described as “laboratories” or “test beds” for new technology in sustainability. Although I understand where this idea comes from, I hesitate on that language as it can position the islanders themselves as the “lab rats”, a concept that has had a long and brutal history.

However, if islanders themselves have the power and autonomy to lead on the decision-making and innovate in a way that suits them, there is great potential for cutting-edge practices that can later be applied to big cities. The key is putting the islanders themselves at the centre. With the upcoming Virtual Island Summit, we emphasise islands at the centre of generating solutions, while acknowledge their diversity. If done correctly they can be incubators for cities to learn from, but the solutions must ultimately benefit the islands themselves first.

Pictures: James Ellsmoor – Island Innovation & Unsplash

Richard Lambert

About Richard Lambert

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Richard Lambert, Coordinator of Liveable Ciiies Prorgam. He has been working for 11 years creating sustainable urban communities in London, UK and Internationally. Specialising in the development of urban green infrastructure and pedestrian walking related improvement projects, policies and strategies.