VERGE Executive Series: Q&A with Facebook's Bill Weihl

VERGE Executive Series: Q&A with Facebook's Bill Weihl

GreenBiz introduces a weekly series of interviews with business leaders that were conducted as the basis for the forthcoming report, "Converging worlds: Five management principles from companies modernizing our vehicles, buildings, and electric grids," produced in conjunction with PwC.

In this first installation, Bill Weihl, Facebook’s manager of energy efficiency and sustainability, speaks with GreenBiz Executive Editor Joel Makower. (The interview took place while Weihl was transitioning out of his previous job, as Energy Czar at Google, and before he started at Facebook.) Weihl, whose career has included technical roles and green energy roles at some of the biggest names in tech, weighs in on technology’s potential to create radical new business opportunities for companies willing to dream big.

Joel Makower: What opportunities do you see in light of VERGE and how would you characterize how fast we'll see widespread change?

Bill Weihl: I think there are huge opportunities around energy management for buildings and around transportation management. I think we're finally getting to the level of communication and computing capabilities that transportation systems could be managed much more efficiently and effectively in real time. And it's not just public transportation that will change, but private transportation too. It’ll probably be at least 10 years before it becomes widespread, but I can see navigation systems in cars becoming much, much, smarter and sort of coordinating with each other, and so on. But one of the more interesting questions to me is: Where is the revenue in that kind of thing?

Makower: Right, where is the money in all of this?

Weihl: On the building side of things, I think there's a huge revenue opportunity for management services, retrofit services and hybrid services. What people want from a building isn't something that consumes energy; they want something that keeps them warm or cool and provides lighting and so on. So, I think one possibility is that companies will focus on providing services based on these things—the things people care about—and then the energy savings component will complement these things. I've already seen some examples of that in the lighting space in commercial buildings.

Makower: Let's switch to transportation. You had some visibility in your previous job into the future of transportation. Talk about what you see happening.

Weihl: I think are two paths we could go down. We could make small changes to where we are today, where vehicles get a little smarter. So, they’ll provide you with better routing information, better safety features. We'll probably see more ride sharing, and services, where you rent cars for short periods of time instead of owning them. I don't see any of that as being dramatically different from where we are today.

I think the big shift will come when autonomous vehicles are legally permitted on the roads. When that day comes, we may see a dramatic shift in the transportation model. It will enable things like fleets of autonomous taxis in urban areas, to use just one example.

Makower: It seems that there's going to be an increasing number of companies that find themselves in different sectors than they started out. How do you think companies should be thinking about that?

Weihl: Honestly, I think it's really hard. If you take a car company, for example, they understand vehicles; they don't necessarily understand large-scale communication and control systems. If you take a computer company, they may understand networks and computers, but not really transportation systems—not just the technical aspects, but the sociological aspects.

So I think it's very hard for companies to stretch outside of their core. I think this concept of convergence requires that companies look at opportunities from a systems perspective, not just from their own historical perspective. That may mean shifting the core business model. It may mean that the big car companies, for example, will focus on more than selling cars; they'll start thinking of themselves as providing transportation services.

Makower: That points to the need for partnerships and collaboration. How well suited do you think companies are to do that?

Weihl: Doing a good job of partnering can be really difficult—and it also carries some risk. You have to think pretty hard about how the business might evolve and how the whole marketplace might evolve; where the value and the money are going to be; how you want to position a partnership. And, presumably, the companies you're partnering with are thinking in the same way or thinking about similar issues.

I think the best situation is one where you can figure out, creatively, how to structure a partnership so that it's really good for everybody involved.

Makower: How does this change the way companies need to think about innovation?

Weihl: I don't think this is different from other things that push companies to innovate. You need a top-down vision, but you also need the ability to try things and see what works. For something like this, you need a long view of where things might be in 5 or 10 years. But you also have to have the humility to believe that things probably won't play out exactly the way, or even close to the way, that you expect or plan. Without a long-term view of where things are going and where you want them to go, and what kind of role you want your organization to play, I think it's going to be very hard to end up really playing a central role in any of this.

Makower: What do you think are the one or two levers that have the highest potential to accelerate convergence?

Weihl: I think that technology is almost certainly a piece of it, particularly on the energy side. We continue to drive down the cost of solar photovoltaics; that's going to continue to make a big difference in how easy it is for buildings to produce their own energy. I think one of the other areas where major breakthroughs could happen is in energy storage.

Standards are almost certainly important, in any case. But there's also a danger in putting standards in place before we really know what we want, and in the process constraining the marketplace in a way that constrains innovation.

Makower: What are some good examples of standards that have worked well and fostered innovation?

Weihl: I think that the best kinds of standards fix what's needed for various players in the marketplace, but they don't try to fix more than that. The worst kinds of standards try standardize way too many things that don't need it.

Take the basic networking standards for the Internet protocol. Those address very basic needs of the system: low-level rules for how to route information in a way that the sender and receiver could each understand it and not interfere with each other.

The ideal is to standardize the minimal amount needed to enable interoperability—but nothing more—and then let people innovate and experiment on everything else.

Be sure to register for an exclusive webcast, "On the VERGE of Innovation: Accelerating Your Business," Wednesday, April 25, 12:30pm ET. The hour-long webcast, produced in partnership with PwC, includes Mark Vachon, VP of ecomaginiation at GE, and Mary Beth Stanek, director of federal environmental and energy regulatory affairs at GM, discussing the business implications of convergence.