Peggy Liu, one of the leading catalysts of a green China, recalls how she harnessed her energies and technology to transform China’s environmental and ecological approach.
I am the daughter of Chinese immigrants, and was born and raised in the US. I was an unusual kid, and always felt like the odd one out as the child of Chinese parents in a white neighbourhood. I spent a lot of time reading sci-fi books, which may be part of the reason why, ever since I was a young child, I felt called to use technology to improve life for humanity.
A pivotal moment came when I saw a girl wearing an MIT (Massachusetts Institute of Technology) T-shirt at a summer camp. Girls can go to MIT too? I thought. The idea that that was even a possibility had never occurred to me before, but from that moment I wanted to go to MIT. I was also inspired by Isaac Asimov’s Foundation series to want to build robots and was later lucky enough to meet him during my freshman year at MIT.
After I graduated from MIT, I started one of the earliest e-commerce companies in California’s Silicon Valley, and a venture capital firm in Shanghai. My whole career has been about leveraging tech to improve personal and planetary health. Then, about ten years ago, sort of by accident, I started a Chinese NGO, called the Joint US-China Collaboration for Clean Energy (JUCCCE). Like all the best things in life, nothing good is ever truly planned, and the creation of JUCCCE was a mix of serendipity and synchronicity. At the time, I had been in China for three years, and had two kids. The first female president of MIT, Susan Hockfield, came to Shanghai and our MIT alumni group hosted her. She told me they were going to reorganise MIT around the life sciences, and I asked how we could support her mission.
Together we decided to organise a series of conferences on clean energy investments. This would be the first world-class clean tech conference ever to take place in China. Just before the first conference was due to happen, someone asked me who my Chinese government sponsor was. I’d had no idea I needed a sponsor, but apparently the conference couldn’t go ahead without one. So, I had to scramble to find one. I quickly found out that I first needed to have a US government official of suitably high ranking to approach his opposite number in China. A friend called an Ambassador, who called Steve Papermaster, who was then on the US President’s Council of Advisors on Science and Technology. Then another MIT alumni approached the National Development and Reform Commission (NDRC) of China, and before I knew it, the MIT forum on the future of energy in China that I organised ended up being one of the first public dialogues between the US and China governments on clean energy! In the ten years since then, I’ve been dedicated to changing the way China generates and uses energy. Over this time I have been working on introducing smart grid into China to revolutionize the way energy is transmitted; teaching over 1,000 Chinese mayors how to build ecocities and transition to energy-efficient lighting; convening some of the earliest clean energy conferences and embedding sustainability into our national identity: the China Dream.
Due to China's scale, even small changes can be quite transformational. Over the years, at JUCCCE we’ve been identifying systemic acupressure points, which are the points where a small intervention can have a disproportionate impact. As an example, we identified city-level smart grids as a possible acupressure point. So, we wrote a white paper, translated it into Chinese, and presented it to the people who supply China with energy. We brought together the best leaders in the field – such as the mayors and engineers – and used pictures and videos to help them imagine a new world. Thanks to our efforts, China now has smart grid systems in 400 cities. JUCCCE has taught me the importance of getting people from the highest level in government and industry involved from the start, when trying to create a movement.
In 2013, I realised that food systems contributed 30% of our greenhouse gas emissions. Beef alone causes 15% of the greenhouse gas emissions. So, we started to focus on creating a solution that would change the diet across China to a more plant-focussed one and, thereby, reducing food waste. This has resulted in our Food Heroes project which is a gamified curriculum for five- to nine-year-olds and their parents. It is the first curriculum-compliant scheme with the new EAT Lancet commission on defining what is both a healthy and sustainable diet. We’ve reached over a million kids in China but I hope to develop this around the world. To learn more, explore our Food Heroes for Teachers resources.
This shift towards food education is actually perfect for me because my mother’s side of the family have always been great cooks, restaurant owners and gardeners. So, sharing banquets of fresh food that comes from our ground and cooked with love is something that is close to my heart.
I sometimes get asked how I find the energy to drive through these changes. I’d say that change is like drugs – it gives you a dopamine hit. Once you’ve created change once, you’ve got to do it again. Now in hindsight, I’ve started to understand some key principles of how to create societal-scale change. I’ll probably write a book soon on the lessons I’ve learnt about gigapace and gigascale changemaking from the heart of the greening of China.
And, for me, the highest level of personal achievement, the one which brings me great happiness, is to be of service to others. A lot of the decisions I make are quite intuitive, rather than intellectual. When I get that sense of being uniquely suited to doing a particular project, I just know I’m in the right place and doing the right thing.
I’m now embarking on a new mission to spread the word about life-force-centred design. In China we call this force, which exists in every living object in the universe, qi. In the Chinese world, qi is not only something that you can build up within yourself, but something you can transfer to others. Qi flows in meetings, in relationships, in rooms, in cities, in geopolitics. It is an invisible energy flow that you have to design for in a deliberate way.
I see this around the world, people are awakening, especially in the last year. The entire Earth is awakening. It’s all about disruption and change, and as women, we’re very well suited to adapting to this disruption, and helping others to adapt. Here’s how I see it: when a woman has a baby, the mother rushes to the baby to understand what is troubling it when it cries. Before the child can speak, the mother has to have the empathy to know what it needs. This is the qi bond between mother and child. Whether or not you’ve had a child, as a woman you’re wired to do that.
Peggy’s Top Tip: Host a Superpower Tea for Your Female Friends
Create a safe space where everybody can speak. Choose an object to be a ‘talking stick’, like a white swan feather or a wooden spoon. When you’re holding the object, it’s your turn to speak, and when you’ve spoken, you can’t speak again until everybody else has also spoken.
Take turns to answer the question: what is your superpower in service of humanity?
When you’ve answered, the women who know you reflect back: you’re also good at this, you’re much better at that than you’re saying.
What is so special about asking this simple question is that women really know how to create a safe space for each other. Often, women don’t think of themselves as special, so this is an opportunity to witness self-love in action. With other women saying ‘yes, and...’ we witness the birth of a superpower.
What’s important to honour is that every one of us has a superpower. Not all of us use it.
Editor’s note: Read more about how to ‘Find and Use Your Superpower’ in Annalisa Gigante’s article.
As Chairperson of JUCCCE, Peggy Liu is one of the leading catalysts of a green China and consults companies and governments on sustainability and cross-cultural collaboration with China. JUCCCE is an environmental organisation that has been at the heart of the greening of China since 2007. It is most noted for accelerating societal-scale change in diets, sustainable cities, sustainable consumerism and smart grid with its multi-sector, cross-border convening power. Since 2017, the sole focus of JUCCCE has been Food Heroes, as changing our eating habits is the one single intervention that will affect all 17 SDGs (sustainable development goals).
Peggy has a passion for connecting personal and planetary health. Her life goal in childhood was to use technology to improve the living standards of people around the world. She believes that the most helpful skill is heart-based storytelling, that cultural translators will have the most important roles of the next generation, and that those who can create a better shared future, should.