How the sci-fi future makes sustainability crucial

How the sci-fi future makes sustainability crucial

[This article was originally published on the blog of BSR, a sustainability consultancy, and is reprinted with permission.]

As science continues to accelerate around us, the visions of the future are being overtaken by the technologies of today. The personalized ads that popped out of screens for Tom Cruise in Minority Report are being turned into a reality by tech companies such as IBM and NEC.

In his new book Existence, David Brin shows us how a virtual world can overlay a physical world and enable people and information to interact at the same time. Google glasses are now launching us on this journey towards a seamless, real-time overlay of data and information on top of reality.

The “last mile” in the sustainability world is consumer awareness, engagement, and choice. Consumer behavior reinforces corporate sustainability practices through purchasing decisions, but in order for consumers to make informed decisions, they need information.

Today, apps such as Good Guide attempt to inform consumers through technology—for example, a photo of a barcode links to product safety, environment, and social indicators. In China, a new app that informs consumers about food safety issues was recently released. And, QR bar codes, which allow quick linkages from product to web, are springing up everywhere.

If we add these bits of today’s technology to the next generation of engineering, the opportunities for consumer awareness, engagement, and understanding are profound.

It isn’t hard to envision Google glasses continuously scanning and correlating bar codes and presenting the data to users in real time. Google alerts won’t appear in your inbox, but instead will pop up in the glasses when you encounter products and services you've identified as relevant.

For example, if you're comparing fish at the market:  How do the prices compare down the street? Is it same fish you ate at your friend’s house last week (based on information they've shared on Facebook)? Are there recent consumer or health alerts associated with this location?  What about mercury levels in this species?  Was it farm raised or wild caught, and can the traceability prove it? Where and when was it processed? Is it an endangered species? Is this fish recommended by Seafoodwatch? All this information, and more, could be literally in front of the consumer’s eye as decisions are made.

If we take this vision of the future and begin preparing for it, a number of key lessons for corporations emerge:

  • Prepare for continuous, radical transparency: If you think the world of information and awareness is moving quickly, be prepared for rapid acceleration. Requests for information and the data that sits behind your corporate sustainability practices will increasingly matter.
  • Know your product: It sounds obvious, but it can be harder than you think. Where did your raw materials originate? Where and how were they processed and transported? What are the relative carbon, chemical or safety aspects? How does this product interact with consumers, society, and the environment prior to, during, and post consumption?
  • Traceability will matter: In understanding a product, the traceability of materials will increasingly matter as the issues of sustainability performance are more and more connected to the physical reality of the conditions and the locations of extraction, processing, and production. Without traceability, assertions may the lack facts necessary to back them.
  • Collaborate to evaluate: Simple and collaborative measurement will cut through the clutter of facts, information, and assertions. Building trusted, fact-based evaluative criteria and systems will require multi-stakeholder participation. Corporations that are open to both emerging needs for transparency and current, legitimate stakeholder inquiries can help shape these systems.

In short, preparing for an accelerated science fiction future requires continued investment in corporate sustainability.The promise of the future tech revolution moves consumers even closer to easily seeing and understanding the larger impacts of their choices on themselves, their families, and their societies.

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