The top 10 sustainability stories of 2012

Radical Transparency and “Open Data.” 
The conversation is elevated. There’s lots of buzz—you couldn’t have missed it—about Big Data the Internet of Things. Radical Transparency still scares the dickens out of most business people and “Open Data” still has a long way to go. But as my friend Andrew Winston observed, Transparency May Lose Battles, But It Will Win the War. 

Widening green gap 

The steady and accelerating strategic shift continues to drive a widening competitive gap, as some companies (Method and Unilever, to name a few) race to embed “sustainability” as a driver of business value, while others—with a financial stake clearly stick in the past—dawdle. But if the cascade of value-eating disruptions of the past few decades is any indication, a strategy bent on preserving the past is doomed. Just ask Borders and Blockbuster.

A few top stories that my predictions missed (there were many):

Collaborative Consumption, peer-to-peer marketplaces and the sharing economy (which made by 2011 list) are taking off, with a flood of business innovations everywhere, as more customers decide they don’t need to own the thing if they can get the benefit of the thing. AirBnB grew in seven years to the same number of beds Hyatt or Hilton reached in 70. The business challenge—what happens to Detroit if the US needs one-tenth the number of cars—opens business opportunity, as Ford announced a strategic alliance with ZipCar. But it also raises macroeconomic challenges: dramatically better capital utilization will help lower environmental footprint, but the national economy faces tectonic shifts if the auto industry—currently responsible for one-sixth the jobs—is forced to radically reinvent itself.

Congressional obstruction of DoD innovation
. The US Defense Department (often a major driver of technology innovation) has been investing in renewable energy, biofuels and efficiency, including in 2020 goals to reduce energy intensity 37.5 percent, water consumption intensity 26 percent, greenhouse gas emissions 34 percent, and produce or Procure at least 20 percent of electricity from renewable sources. Why? DoD has a clear strategic vision of the national security implications of climate and energy policy, measured in metrics as stark as the number of troops killed defending convoys delivering diesel to forward positions in Afghanistan at an estimated cost of $400/gallon), and the vulnerability of the US economy to supply disruption of critical [+imported+declining+hazardous+conflict-zone] raw materials.

Congress—specifically the House of Representatives—on the other hand, has tried—and fortunately failed—to block these DoD initiatives. Why? Only two reasons I can think of: loyal service to their fossil fuel industry funders trumping their oath of office; or an anti-science theology so deep that it has trumped traditional alliances.

Next page: The end of oil?