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Denis Hayes: From Earth Day to the Bullitt Center

Published October 23, 2014
Denis Hayes: From Earth Day to the Bullitt Center

Catch Denis Hayes in person at VERGE SF 2014, Oct. 27-30.

The Seattle Bullitt Center has been touted as one of the world's greenest commercial buildings. Spearheaded by the Bullitt Foundation, which offers grants to organizations working to advance environmental initiatives in the Pacific Northwest, the six-story, 50,000-square-foot building was completed last year and is undergoing certification for the Living Building Challenge — a standard more ambitious than LEED.

To be declared a Living Building, a structure must be self-sufficient for energy and water for a full year and meet standards for the materials used and the indoor environment. The standard also requires that the building helps restore the natural environment.

The Bullitt Center is the brainchild of Denis Hayes, president of the Bullitt Foundation, who has been at the forefront of the sustainability movement since serving as national coordinator of the first Earth Day in 1970. Since then, he has fought countless legislative, cultural and courtroom battles and authored several books and articles aimed at advancing the interests of human, urban and industrial ecology.

Next week at VERGE SF, Hayes will showcase the Bullitt Center and how it embodies the concept of human, urban and industrial ecology. I recently had a chance to chat with Hayes to learn more about the project ahead of his presentation.

Mike Hower: Can you please explain how the Bullitt Center is a 'living building'?

Denis Hayes: The Bullitt Center is an example of biomimicry in the built environment. It more or less functions like an organism. For example, it has a nervous system that senses what the temperature is outside, what the temperature is inside, whether the wind is blowing, what direction it's blowing from, how fast it's blowing, whether or not it's raining, how intense the sunlight is and how much carbon dioxide is built up inside. Just like your autonomic nervous system, the computer absorbs all of this information and plugs it into a few fairly simple algorithms that determine whether the external venetian blinds should be up or should be down and — if down — whether they should be shut or angled upward, whether they are trying to keep heat out of the building or merely reflect light further into the building and eliminate glare. The same system determines whether the windows should be open or shut just like the pores on your body.

Like an ecosystem, the Center gets all of its energy (and in fact, it's net energy positive) from sunbeams that fall on its roof in Seattle. It is a six-story office building that last year produced 50 percent more electricity than it used. It captures rainwater that falls on the roof, filters it, uses it for all purposes, including potable drinking water. It's the first commercial building in America that treats gray water and re-injects it right into the soil and the water table, right inside a city.

Credit: cactusbones via Flickr

Hower: What other sustainable features does the Bullitt Center boast?

Hayes: We identified 362 materials that are harmful for people and other living things that are common in buildings — things that are carcinogenic or mutagenic or endocrine disrupting or something — and we kept them all out of the building. The facility has composting toilets and uses a flush toilet system that is foaming, so that in a typical flush, it uses less than a half a cup of water. All of the waste is composted right on site. It's the first office building in the United States to be project-certified by the Forest Stewardship Council, which is to say every piece of wood in the building is FSC-certified, so it's from a forest that has much larger buffers around its drains, doesn't cut any old growth, has longer rotation times, doesn't use herbicides and should be able to produce wood 1,000, 2,000 years from now, unlike a typical industrial forest model.

Hower: A key objective of VERGE SF is creating a dialogue between cities and tech companies to help scale solutions that ultimately will help them achieve their sustainability and resilience goals. What do you personally believe it means for a city to be resilient?

Hayes: It means that the city is redesigning itself with an awareness that the world around it is now inevitably changing and will continue to do so no matter what we do for several more decades into the future, as a consequence of changes that already have been made in the atmosphere. A resilient city is able to accommodate those — whether it's floods or droughts or hurricanes or whatever the changing climate throws at it. Resilience in human ecosystems, just as in natural ecosystems, is a measure of the flexibility to endure and prosper, regardless of what challenges arise.

Credit: Eugene Kim via Flickr

Hower: How do you believe cities can develop successful public-private partnerships and create a marketplace for things such as smart city products and services?

Hayes: There are several things within the city that historically have been and continue to be public sector responsibilities, such as roads, transit, sewage systems, water mains. There are opportunities to privatize some of that, but it's not clear that there is much advantage in doing so, at least in American cities today. But there are a bunch of other places in the built environment, and especially in buildings and cultural institutions that give life and dynamism to a city, where the private sector, if not influenced by incentives and disincentives, will be driven by market forces to something suboptimal. The typical developer, to be financially successful, spends no more than is absolutely necessary to produce a building that will attract the tenants that it's designed to attract. He can then fully lease up the building and flip it, ideally within a year or two, to an insurance company or real estate investment trust. The developer moves on to the next project — so it's about minimizing a building's initial cost, without regard to its lifetime operating costs. That's why, for example, cities have energy codes and fire codes, and why America banned lead paint.

We have an enormous amount of wood in our building; the ceilings are all wood and the substructures of the floor underneath it and the external beams are all wood. It's the first wood beam construction in Seattle for a six-story building since 1927. We paid 10 percent more for all of that wood because it is all from FSC forests. If you're a tenant and you look at it, what you see is simply wood. If you're a structural engineer looking for its characteristics, it has the characteristics of wood. All of the additional benefits accrue to the forests where it came from and to the workers in those forests; none of them adhere to the developer or the tenants in the building. Yet if we want to continue to have forests 1,000 years from now, we need to have something that incentivizes that.

So you can have governments that encourage developers to use wood that is sustainably harvested, either by providing them a swifter path through the regulatory maze or providing them a little bit of additional space on the lot, transferable development rights, some kind of preferential treatment in real estate taxes. There are all kinds of tools available to cities, and they use them for a variety of good purposes. They use them principally for low income housing, but also to bring parks and recreational space into underserved neighborhoods. Some cities insist upon urban art.

Only rarely do cities use their tools to promote resiliency and sustainability. But the same tools should be used for those purposes, in a partnership where the private sector can say that "we would love to do this but we can't make it pencil-out unless we have this incentive." As long as everyone is honest, it can be a pretty productive partnership.

Top image of Denis Hayes by David Hiller.



Suzanne Buchta

Global Co-Head of Green Bonds and Market Linked Notes
Bank of America Merrill Lynch
Suzanne Buchta is a managing director in Debt Capital Markets and a 14-year veteran at Bank of America Merrill Lynch. As global co-head of Green Bonds and Market Linked Notes, she and her team work across industry lines to advise capital markets clients on product-specific financings. Buchta has been active in advising issuers and consulting investors on green bonds since 2010.

Inside Paul Hawken’s audacious plan to 'drawdown' climate change

Published October 22, 2014
Tags: Climate
Inside Paul Hawken’s audacious plan to 'drawdown' climate change

Catch Paul Hawken in person next week at VERGE SF 2014, Oct. 27 to 30.

Today, at the Greenbuild conference in New Orleans, entrepreneur and author Paul Hawken will publicly unveil a project, more than a year in the works, aimed at reducing greenhouse gas concentration in the atmosphere.

You read that right: to reduce, not just stabilize, atmospheric CO2 and other gases, in order to reverse rising global temperatures.

Project Drawdown, as it is named, will produce a book in 2016, detailing the costs and benefits of scores of climate solutions, from light bulb technology to livestock techniques to literacy for teenage girls. For each, Hawken and his team will “do the numbers,” providing detailed, science-based data and econometric models showing how each plays out, based on current technology and how it will likely evolve over the project’s 30-year horizon.

“The book is not a plan,” Hawken explained to me recently. “It is not a proposal. It is a reflection back to the world what we are doing and know how to do right this second.”

A meaningful dent

The project grew out of Hawken’s frustration with actionable, scalable solutions that would make a meaningful dent in the atmosphere’s growing accumulation of greenhouse gases. The solutions that had been proffered over the years were all seemingly out of reach — ungodly amounts of solar and wind energy that would be required, for example, or the mass adoption of futuristic, unproven technologies.

“It made me feel like this is intractable, that it requires such Promethean work by such mammoth institutions, with policy changes that are more than structural,” he recalled. “It made me feel like it wasn’t possible to address climate change, rather than giving me hope.”

When the activist Bill McKibben wrote the seminal article, “Global Warming’s Terrifying New Math,” in Rolling Stone in 2012, Hawken asked, “Why aren’t we doing the math on the solutions? Somebody should come up with a list and see what it requires so you get to drawdown.”

The idea of “drawdown” — actually reducing greenhouse gas concentrations so that global temperatures drop — hasn’t been part of the conversation, at least among the United Nations crowd, climate activists or cleantech companies. Most focus on the seemingly pragmatic goal of stabilizing greenhouse gases at some level, expressed in parts per million, or ppm, that would be tolerable — or at least not catastrophic, from economic, environmental and social perspectives.

Hawken thought differently. “There’s no such thing as stabilization at 450 or 550 ppm,” he said. “That’s not stabilized. That’s volatile. I felt that the goal should be drawdown, which is a year-to-year reduction of carbon from the upper atmosphere, period.”

Last year, Hawken began teaching at the Presidio Graduate School, alongside climate activist and entrepreneur Amanda Joy Ravenhill. “One day we were just riffing, and we started talking about drawdown and said, ‘Let’s do it. No one else is doing it,’” Hawken recounted. Today, Ravenhill is Project Drawdown’s executive director and, with Hawken, the book’s co-editor. The two have recruited more than 80 advisors, partners, scientists, government agencies and participating universities, along with more than 200 graduate students.

Doing the numbers

Hawken and Ravenhill will need that army to pull off their audacious vision. The challenge, as Hawken describes it, isn’t in describing the solutions but in doing the numbers — the carbon savings and financial accounting, of course, but also how each solution plays out by country or region, based on available energy resources, climate, economy and other factors — and how each is likely to morph over the next 30 years.

And not just the positives. “We had to be very, very careful that we had the subtraction sign,” factoring in ways greenhouse gas emissions can increase in the atmosphere along the way, offsetting any reductions. For example, he said, ”We can talk about reforestation as being one of the hundred solutions, which it certainly is, but we have to make sure we subtract out the rate of fires in the world to reflect what’s burning down.”

Moreover, he says, technologies can’t be measured in isolation; they need to be viewed as parts of the systems in which they operate. “We can talk about LED bulbs, but we also have to talk about solutions like dynamic skins or smart glass, which actually reduce light load by 40 or 50 percent. Each of these solutions has a history and measurements and metrics and numbers, so we are not pulling rabbits out of a hat.”

And then there’s the problem of double-counting, where individual benefits — energy reductions or financial savings, for example — are counted twice, or even three or four times in a single calculation, inflating a technology’s benefits or understating its costs. That’s been a frequent problem with some clean technology advocates’ rosy scenarios.

The goal, says Hawken, is to make the numbers indisputable. “The numbers wanted to be beyond impeccable in terms of methodology and inputs and even their bias. We wanted to have a very conservative bias on the numbers, so that nobody could say we’re egging the pudding or exaggerating.”

“Doing the numbers” has proved to be as daunting a challenge as Hawken expected, or perhaps more so. The concern over getting it right has led Project Drawdown to push back the book’s publication date, to spring 2016 from the original goal of fall 2015.

Beyond books

True to Hawken’s nature — he’s not likely to be satisfied with simply creating a book, however ambitious and meticulously detailed — Project Drawdown’s plans extend in several directions. The solutions and calculations will be contained in a publicly available database, along with the means for individuals and groups to create customized applications (using APIs, in computer parlance). “Anybody can repurpose it, download it, regionalize it, so they can use the Drawdown solutions to measure progress in any geographically bounded area,” he explained. Users could model solutions differently — for example, factoring in different scenarios of how the cost and efficiency of solar energy might play out over the years. Hawken says there are also plans for accompanying educational curricula developed by National Science Foundation. And possibly some media projects based on the work.

The research could even be used as a policy tool, Hawken says. “What we see again and again is negative cost. We don’t see the opprobrium that is always cast on climate mitigation, which is, ‘It costs too much, costs too much, costs too much.’ We don’t see that at all. We see ‘Return, return, return.’ So governments — whether cities or local or communities or counties or states — can understand that these are no-regrets projects that have a very strong positive return, in which case you would want to do them, regardless of what you think about the rate of change in climate or whether you believe in it at all.”

Despite the long road ahead, Hawken is already looking past the publication of what he dubs “Drawdown 1,” and on to its sequel. That, he promises, will look at the next generation of technologies, with all of their unrealized potential to solve climate change. “We don’t know the ending of this book, make that very clear, but with Drawdown 2, we’re saying, ‘Look what is coming. It is stunning.’” 

It’s easy, in today’s divisive and toxic political environment, to view Project Drawdown as too good to be true, a quixotic quest for an unattainable goal.

But there’s something simple and sane about Project Drawdown’s collective ingredients: unabashed optimism tempered by sharp-pencil calculations, a bold goal undergirded by scientific pragmatism, immediacy coupled with a 30-year horizon, all leveraging the wisdom of a very smart crowd.

Not all of it will pan out — there are simply too many variables and uncertainties — but much of it will. And it just could move the needle.

Also in The Two Steps Forward Blog:


Why data is essential to a Mexico City family farmer's survival

Published October 22, 2014
Why data is essential to a Mexico City family farmer's survival

Every year EY, a global professional services organization, takes a group of employees out of their cubicles and drops them into nature. Organized by the Earthwatch Institute and supported by a group of local scientists, EY-Earthwatch Ambassadors help with field research and use their professional knowledge to tackle a business or social challenge. This is one participant’s story.

A Mexico City farmer stands straddling a small canal that he has just finished digging. He tells us that for as long as he can remember, his family has dug a canal in that same place, year after year. He shows us his crops, describing how he learned crop rotation from his father, a technique used to renew the soil. He points out the species of flowers and herbs his sons have planted in a field nearby to naturally repel bugs. He brings us to a pile of natural fertilizer, made of straw and cow dung, steaming and stinky in the hot afternoon sun.

On first glance, visiting Xochimilco, an area of wetlands area just south of Mexico City, gives you the impression that nothing has changed for decades. It is a place rich with tradition, where everyone knows the neighbors, where more food is cultivated than bought, where livestock outnumber Internet connections. Just under the surface, however, a quiet battle emerges in these wetlands, pitting these traditional farmers against modern farming techniques and a depleted environment, forcing local farmers to confront a simple question: will they adapt and embrace a new way of farming, or will they stay the course and risk irrelevancy? As EY-Earthwatch Ambassadors, our goal was to help answer this question.

In the last decade, farmers of Xochimilco have been confronted with new environmental issues. One is the advent of chemical fertilizers and pesticides to increase crop yields and keep bugs away. Our team took water and insect samples to measure the effect of these chemicals. The results demonstrated a significant increase in harmful chemicals and decrease in nutrients in areas near farms with chemical pesticides. The data we collected for Earthwatch will be used to promote organic farming in the area and as a call to action to politicians to shape environmental policy.

Water supply

Another issue facing these farmers is water supply. With the increase in the population of Mexico City, the water levels have drained, turning once popular canal routes into patches of mud. Farmers who used to relying solely on irrigation ditches now have had to buy gas-powered pumps and sprinkler systems which pipe water from canals, draining more water and compounding the problem even more.

Environmental changes aside, farmers in the area also encounter a changing Mexican consumer. The urban Mexican is increasingly asking questions about where her food comes from and how it is produced. Using the skillsets we bring from the business world, our EY team spent about half of our time supporting a group of about 10 organic farmers in the area, suggesting organizational, financial and marketing changes to increase efficiency and visibility. Some of our deliverables included a mission and vision statement, a profit and loss statement, and an analysis of new distribution channels as community-sponsored agriculture. Equipped with these new tools, the organization — we hope — will grow stronger and provide a home base for organic farmers in the area.

Personal transformation

Upon my return from Xochimilco, I find myself changed, both professionally and personally. Personally, I never will take for granted the water from my faucet again. Professionally, I hope to make sustainability an emphasis of my career going forward by bringing leading sustainability practices to future client projects.

My biggest takeaway from my time in Xochimilco is the importance of data to equip the green movement. In our polarized country, blogs such as GreenBiz, organizations such as Earthwatch and topics such as organic farming tend to turn some people off. Many too often will write off the green movement as politically biased.

As advocates for the earth, how do we overcome this? The answer is simple: data. Data is the alchemy furnace, the only tool with the magical power to transform a whining environmentalist into a hard-nosed pragmatist confronting a real-world problem. It is one thing to say, “Without action from local and national political leaders to regulate the amount of water taken from the area, Mexico City’s remaining wetlands will be drastically depleted.” It is yet another to say, “At the current rate, Mexico City’s water supply will be depleted by 2020.”

Suffice it to say, in all matters — especially in charged environmental matters — it is best to follow the advice of my former boss, who used to tell me, “In God we trust; all others bring data.”

Top image of Xochimilco via Eric & Autumn's World Roll Up



Working together, EHS systems and CSR rocket a company to success

Published October 22, 2014
Working together, EHS systems and CSR rocket a company to success

Making environmental, health and safety compliance sexy may seem impossible, but the Sustainable Performance Forum Americas 2014 conference came close. With former NASA astronaut Capt. John Creighton on stage, a Discovery Bar in the lobby and over 500 attendees with roles spanning the sustainability spectrum, enterprise software company Enablon turned an enterprise event into an industry influencer.

Now in its sixth year, SPF Americas attracts EHS compliance managers and sustainability innovators. Rule enforcers plus silo breakers makes a potentially combustible mixture, but these elements can transform organizations — if they can find a way to work together.

The EHS system is a catalyst for transformation. Sophisticated EHS software platforms can collect and parse Big Data, allowing compliance managers to work efficiently while contributing to their company's knowledge pool. Analytics captured for risk-management purposes can improve performance and even support CSR programs and sustainability reporting.

"Even a mom-and-pop shop has to complete safety reviews. The compliance requirements are there regardless," said Chris McClean, principal analyst and research director at Forrester Research. "These tools help companies manage their compliance responses more efficiently. Better performance translates into better results."

Earlier this year, McClean released a report analyzing 19 governance, risk and compliance software platforms. Enablon's platform emerged as one of the leaders, but as McClean points out, a wide range of variables factor into selecting the right platform.

Leveraging EHS systems for efficiency, resilience and compliance

Enablon doesn't define sustainability according the classic "triple bottom line" but by more essential attributes: efficiency, resilience and compliance. My charge as keynote panel moderator was to get into the minds of strategists, managers, analysts and developers to expose opportunities and challenges associated with EHS systems. In talking with McClean and other panelists, I learned how these systems help companies navigate the sea of data to improve performance, manage risk and ensure compliance.

"In today's information-intense world, we all can easily get swamped in data and information overload," said John Mogge, environment and nuclear market global director of technology, practice and design for CH2MHill. "The strongest environmental and sustainability programs are based on best available and sound data, which inform both your operations and your risk management programs."

Properly informed management systems enhance an organization's value-creation efforts for both the short term and the long term, and "we have a lot of proof to support this," explained Mogge, who has led complex projects for clients ranging from the 2012 Olympics in London to the U.S. Department of Defense.

Allen Stegman, general director of environmental and hazardous materials for BNSF Railway, said scalability is also important in an enterprise-wide EHS system. "Gathering information (vs. data) allows us to transition from lagging metrics to leading indicators and predictive analytics so that we can continue to drive improvement in our performance," said Stegman.

An EHS system can help a company become more resilient, but a good fit is crucial. If improperly selected or misunderstood, risk management systems ostensibly there to "risk-proof" your company can become "something else you have to worry about risk-proofing," warned Scott Nadler, senior partner at ERM.

"You know things are going to go poorly from time to time. But are incidents a one-time thing or is this a pattern of things going poorly?" said McClean. Performance systems can help establish and maintain patterns of performance that become part of a company's brand, leading to what McClean calls "brand resilience."

Translating EHS data to CSR deliverables

"Through performance improvements such as fuel efficiency," said Stegman, "BNSF Railway can now move 1 ton of freight, on average, approximately 500 miles on a single gallon of diesel fuel." The company sees corporate social responsibility as a means to communicate improvements with stakeholders.

Credit: Enablon

For example, BNSF Railway "shares with our customers how we are reducing their emissions by more than 30 million metric tons of carbon dioxide equivalent emissions each year," said Stegman. "That is equivalent to our customers eliminating the consumption and resultant emissions produced by burning more than 3 billion gallons of diesel fuel."

If relaying EHS performance is a driving purpose behind CSR, what prevents these different teams from working together more often?

"A lot of CSR data is only available after a bit of corporate crow-barring," said Joe Jones, principal sustainability consultant with SustainIt, in his presentation. Getting energy managers, transport managers and the OHS team to part with "their" data is challenging, said Jones, "but if you can get hold of that information, then you can subject that data to the math you need to go from no CSR data to what I would consider quite a strong CSR dataset."

One of the most interesting differences he sees between the U.S. and Europe is the firewall between CSR and EHS.

"I've found — and firmly believe — that companies need to view CSR as a core part of business strategy rather than a risk mitigation exercise," he said. "Sustainability should be about a global stakeholder rather than just cashflow protection.

"Clever software is often the best way to do this, especially if you get fancy with it and start working out stuff like CO2 impact per average employee."

Good EHS data can be the cornerstone of a broader CSR data strategy. Energy and accident data are one of the easiest components of CSR data to come by, and this data is already being collected at the EHS level. As Jones sees it, "finding a way to make this data usable allows corporates to really kick start their CSR momentum."

How humans help and hinder EHS implementations

As much as technology can do, the human piece often gets in the way. That's why one of the key features among the leaders in Forrester's report is usability.

"We've completely redesigned our platform to make sure it is easy to use, intuitive, and beautiful. It is made by humans, for humans," said Phil Tesler, co-founder and CEO of Enablon North America. By offering "the most intuitive user interface on the market," Enablon's software aims to simplify the user experience, thus enabling the rigorous data collection that can lead to superior performance.

As on-the-ground guardians of data, compliance managers need a platform that allows them to respond in a crisis situation. Much further upstream, CSR staff and consultants can use this data to build the sustainability case. Facilitating this connection are the software developers and IT consultants who create and implement compliance-oriented platforms. Together, EHS, CSR and IT form a triumvirate of competencies capable of forging truly sustainable solutions.

However, most users still only exploit a fraction of the available functionality of EHS systems. Jill Gilbert, president of Lexicon Systems, explained in her presentation that the breakdown often occurs at a failure to anticipate and meet basic business requirements.

"Companies can make emotional decisions. They see bells and whistles and forget what their needs are," said Gilbert, who sees the EHS system purchase as analogous to the car-buying experience.

"Say you're car-shopping and you're thinking, 'Gee, the Tesla only costs $900 per month. It's such a cool car and does so much. Maybe it's too expensive, but I'll make it work.' Then you get it and realize it can't carry much or hold the child carriers in the back." In other words, the slickest product doesn't always fit a company's needs, nor its budget.

Credit: EnablonGilbert offered clients seeking an EHS system some advice: "Get buy-in up front. Pre-qualify. Settle infighting. Get the right people involved. You have to resolve those issues before you invest in a system." Gilbert said clients who follow her advice on business requirements can shorten the lifecycle by months and save "millions of dollars in the process."

I encountered a range of explanations for why companies don't maximize the opportunities presented by translating EHS performance into CSR results. Another barrier is the persistent confusion around what sustainability even means. As Nadler explained, "sustainability is a term of art."

And then there's good old-fashioned human error. As Capt. John Creighton said during his keynote, "Sometimes your wingman's an idiot."

No fighter pilot is really an idiot, but anyone can become myopic. People with a compliance orientation (and I'm generalizing here) tend to regard CSR with suspicion, which makes sense when you think about their day-to-day priorities. At the same time, CSR types have little connection to the daily rigors of managing risk. That's somebody else's job.

Creighton told us that in times of high stress, pilots revert to their native tongues. The same may hold true for people on the ground. As stressful as the average workday has become, it's difficult to reach beyond immediate concerns. But if we can learn to breathe outside of the insulated modules of our limited perspectives and let go of the jargon that encapsulates them, a universe awaits.

A launching pad for industry leadership

"A lot of companies over the last 10 years are taking the voluntary approach because they see business values other than checking a box, such as the desire to recruit and retain good talent," said McClean. "If you comply, good, you won't get fined, but if you go above and beyond, you attract good people and build a better reputation."

A narrow, half-hearted EHS system rollout is not going to produce stratospheric results. Nor is there is a one-size-fits all solution. The important thing is to do a thorough job at selecting the right system for a given situation, then forge a culture that is forward-looking and resilient enough to handle the task of maximizing its potential.

Management information systems have the power to bridge EHS and CSR so long as the people using them know how to work collaboratively. Only when the powerful forces of technology and human ingenuity are integrated will sustainability truly lift off.

Top image of Endeavor space shuttle by Steve Jurvetson via Flickr.

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8 ways Big Data helps improve global water and food security

By Christopher M.U. Neale
Published October 22, 2014
Email | Print | Single Page View
Tags: Agriculture, Information & Communications Technology, More... Agriculture, Information & Communications Technology, Water, Water Efficiency & Conservation
8 ways Big Data helps improve global water and food security

Big Data is transforming agriculture, and just in time. The demand for food is expected to double by 2050 as the world's population heads toward 9 billion people and increasing incomes allow many more to afford a better diet. Lack of water is a critical constraint to increasing food production, particularly as droughts and other consequences of climate change are making water scarcer.

To help solve this enormous challenge, the agriculture and water communities are harnessing Big Data to ramp up food production with less pressure on our water resources. Experts from around the world gathered in Seattle this week at the Water for Food Global Conference to discuss ways to harness this data revolution in agriculture. Hosted by the Robert B. Daugherty Water for Food Institute at the University of Nebraska in association with the Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation, the conference focused on mobilizing Big Data to improve global water and food security.

With that in mind, here are eight ways Big Data is helping to create a more water- and food-secure world.

1. Satellite imagery and data

Satellites gather vast amounts of data that are used at global and local scales. For example, satellites can track atmospheric patterns, precipitation and ocean currents. Combined with weather data, researchers are using satellite data to develop better forecasting and risk-management tools to help farmers, whether in Nebraska or Ethiopia, make better decisions, and to help governments better plan for droughts and floods. Satellite data also can be used to home in on local areas to precisely map landscapes, analyze soils or assess crop yields, among many other uses.

2. Groundwater monitoring

Globally, agriculture consumes 70 percent of all freshwater withdrawals, primarily for irrigation, and groundwater is a key source of irrigation water. Data regarding aquifer conditions, groundwater withdrawals and other metrics are critical for water managers to prevent catastrophic aquifer depletions. Although water metering to potentially regulate use is unpopular — most recently in California as the state undertakes new groundwater management rules — it's been successfully used in areas of Nebraska for more than 40 years to help maintain groundwater levels, despite having the most irrigated acres in the nation.

Credit: Lee via Flickr

3. Viewing advantages

These days, most people are familiar with the potential of drones outside the military. In agriculture, drones will help farmers, water managers and researchers peer into places otherwise difficult to see. They capture images of entire fields and can zoom into individual leaves to determine the plant's condition. Researchers are developing drones to go beyond capturing images to actually interact with the environment, taking leaf samples, gathering water samples, measuring crop height or applying herbicides to individual plants.

Cameras — and the ability to process huge data files — are giving us new perspectives on our world. In one example, the Platte Basin Timelapse Project from the University of Nebraska-Lincoln placed more than 40 cameras along the entire length of the Platte River watershed, from the headwaters in the Colorado Rockies through Nebraska to the Missouri River. The cameras take a picture every daylight hour. The visual timeline gives scientists, resource managers and the public a greater understanding of the influences agriculture, municipal water supplies, geological processes, restoration projects and other activities have on the watershed, leading to better watershed management.

4. Precision agriculture

Precision agriculture defies the stereotype of farmers as low-tech traditionalists. Today, a host of technology from GPS-equipped tractors to remote-controlled or even automated irrigation systems is turning farming into a high-tech business.

Water sensors placed throughout a field monitor soil moisture in real-time, which help a farmer decide when and how much to irrigate. Fed to computer-controlled irrigation systems, that information allows precise water applications rather than a single amount across an entire field.

In another example, computer-equipped combines gather data during harvest to create detailed yield maps, which are used to create a precise prescription of fertilizers and other inputs to improve productivity the following year. Such advances translate into higher yields using less water and energy. And, thankfully, the high-tech nature of agriculture is also attracting young people back to farming.

5. Global atlases

Where in the world do we have existing farmland with the capacity to produce much higher, stable yields? Which river basins are running dry, and why? Researchers are gathering and analyzing satellite, atmospheric, on-the-ground and historic data to create mapping tools and models that help governments and others improve agriculture and conserve water.

For example, the Global Yield Gap and Water Productivity Atlas, a global collaboration led by the Water for Food Institute, identifies existing farmland worldwide where significant gaps exist between actual and potential yields for different crops. The atlas estimates global yield trends and food security for global analyses and, perhaps more important, helps individual countries identify production potential to improve policy and to better strategize resource allocations and trade opportunities.

Credit: Bioversity International

6. Regional mapping

Countries are taking on their own Big Data projects to better plan for the future. Sri Lanka, for example, recently began mapping many of its primary river basins and modeling climate risks to develop a comprehensive flood and drought mitigation plan. In the Dominican Republic, I participated in a project that created a spatial database of the country's entire irrigated properties. The data allows water managers to better maintain the country's extensive irrigation canal systems, conserve water and create equity among water users.

7. Smartphones

Big Data analysis and modeling can reach even subsistence farmers in remote areas. Many farmers in poor, rural areas in sub-Saharan Africa and elsewhere, long isolated by insufficient phone service and roads, have cellphones. They now have access to weather forecasting and market information to make better decisions, manage money and develop a wider support network, thereby improving livelihoods as well as local water and food security.

8. Research advances

Science is driven by data. Greater data gathering and computing power is allowing researchers to develop drought-resistant crop breeds, better understand climate change and create models that help us understand risks and opportunities moving forward, among other research goals.

Much data is flowing in agriculture, creating numerous opportunities to increase food production without compromising limited water resources. But many challenges remain to ensure the data flows efficiently and to those who need it most.

Top image of water on data DVD by panda3800 via Shutterstock.

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Christopher Neale

Director of Research
Daugherty Water for Food Institute, University of Nebraska
Christopher M.U. Neale is director of research at the Robert B.
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5 concepts that could revolutionize 3-D printing

By GreenBiz Staff
Published October 21, 2014
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Tags: Design & Innovation, Manufacturing, More... Design & Innovation, Manufacturing, Materials, Printing, Recycled Products, Resource Efficiency, Supply Chain, Toxics
5 concepts that could revolutionize 3-D printing

Back in the dark ages of mainstream 3-D printing — say, five years ago — the next-generation hardware was idealized as a game changer in consumer electronics.

Users could create just about any kind of plastic trinket they could imagine, so long as they came back several hours later to claim the object after it finally finished rendering.

Along with shorter print times, recent years have ushered in new competition, market segmentation and economic incentives for 3-D printing. A horde of startups and public companies have already entered the $2-billion field, but tech giants like Amazon Inc. are also now circling to plot new competing offerings or scout acquisitions.

From improved efficiency to more advanced fabrication possibilities, specialized 3-D printing subsectors are emerging that cater to an array of enterprise buyers with money to inject into the field. Machines can now produce materials with potential health applications, such as human cartilage, plus batteries, LEDs and motor components.

“These advances have brought the technology to a tipping point — it appears ready to emerge from its niche status and become a viable alternative to conventional manufacturing processes in an increasing number of applications,” notes one 2014 report by New York-based consultancy McKinsey & Company.

In the meantime, researchers are also starting to piece together the puzzle on what the proliferation of 3-D printing technology could mean from a sustainability perspective. Generally, higher-volume production lowers the amount of energy wasted. But the amount of waste and potential for harmful environmental impacts of materials used in the supply chain still varies.

Here, a guided tour of five trends driving innovation in the 3-D printing space — and the companies angling to make the most of them:

1. Advanced manufacturing

Industrial designers have been relying on 3-D printers to generate rapid prototypes for decades. But analysts now say that the real business value of the technology lies in the production of market-ready components.

"The money is in manufacturing, not prototyping,” wrote Tim Caffrey, senior consultant at the 3-D printing-focused advisory firm Wohlers Associates, in a report on growth in the market.

That dynamic is appealing for governments and large companies (think General Electric and Tesla) committed to pursuing advanced manufacturing that could create jobs while maximizing efficiency, which is no easy task.

Well-established 3-D printing businesses, like 3D Systems, are now positioning themselves as generalists that can help customers ranging from automakers to hospitals manufacture components and materials. Then there are upstarts like Silicon Valley’s Made in Space, which has adapted 3-D printers for zero-gravity conditions to create replacement parts for the International Space Station.

The potential upside for the environment is huge, given that old-school manufacturing processes relied heavily on fossil fuels and unrecyclable materials (not to mention the toxic runoff that has resulted in some areas.)

How “green” a 3-D printing operation is still depends largely on the supply chain of the sector at hand. Some machines work with recycled plastic filaments, while others rely on new types of inks or metals that sometimes require chemical agents or generate toxic, un-recyclable waste. To that end, there are multiple efforts afoot in the world of open source, or RepRap 3-D printing, focused on recycling wasted polymers.

It is also worth emphasizing that manufacturing automation also comes with other challenges, like the elimination of middle-class jobs or a need to retrain workers on new skills.

Still, Wohlers Associates projects that 3-D printing will be a $10.8-billion business by 2021 — an optimistic forecast that has spurred some pundits to worry the field may be ballooning too fast, into a bubble.

2. The Amazon effect

As with other tech fads of the moment, like drones and instant retail delivery, one major wildcard in the realm of 3-D printing is how tech giants like Amazon, Apple and Google might come into play.

Amazon recently unveiled a 3D Printing Store offering jewelry, toys, décor and customization options branded with the tagline “shop the future.” That effort throws quite a wrench into the plans of upstarts like Shapeaways also chasing the made-to-order 3-D printing market.

Apple, meanwhile, has been quietly filing patents related to 3-D printing. Google is also rumored to be mulling its own offering in the space after signing on earlier this year to help 3D Systems build a high-speed 3-D printer. If and when that project comes to fruition, it could be a good thing for cutting down on the environmental toll of 3-D printing, since, “Anything that reduces the time spent running also reduces eco-impacts,” reports University of California, Berkeley mechanical engineering professor Jeremy Faludi.

Finally, there are older printing industry powers, like Hewlett-Packard, who are looking to regain the profit that comes with operating on the bleeding edge of a given technology. Following years of lagging revenues and missed sales targets, the company earlier this month announced that it would split into two companies: an enterprise software business and a hardware business that includes several 3-D printing initiatives.

What exactly this all might mean for sustainability writ large, however, remains supremely unclear. While there are companies working on 3-D printing techniques with applications in fields such as renewable energy (portable wind turbines), most efforts in the space among bigger tech players have focused first and foremost on making consumer goods at relatively low costs. 

3. A new material world

While more primitive 3-D printed products were usually confined to resin or plastics, evolving fabrication capabilities now make it possible to print metals, organic matter and a whole range of non-conventional materials.

ExOne, a spinoff of multinational manufacturing company Extrude Hone Corporation, is one company that attempts to lure customers with the marketing slogan “Go beyond mass production with imminent materialization,” adding that improving metal printing techniques mean that “Inventory is no longer needed.”

Though there are huge long-term implications for reducing wasted materials, the company’s stock has struggled with uncertainty about how fast buyers will gravitate toward new supply processes. 

Another concern is the potential damage caused by producing materials like photopolymers, which are produced through a chemical reaction with a toxic heavy metal. Metals, batteries and LEDs also present challenges when it comes to recycling or disposal.

One especially cutting-edge field with lots of logistical questions left to be answered relates to futuristic R&D underway on 3-D printing more finicky organic substances, like food and internal organs. Estimates vary widely when it comes to how soon that technology might be on the market, let alone what kind of supply chain might be entailed with faux-brains.

4. The maker craze

As businesses rush to make sense of the commercial manufacturing opportunities opened by 3-D printing, enterprising individuals and upstarts have also seized on unprecedented access to the high-tech equipment. The potential upside is drastically cutting down the time it takes to design and execute a new product.

Pair that with consumer shifts toward local and artisanal goods, and you have the “maker” craze fueled by demand for more transparent supply chains and a goal of supporting local economies.

MakerBot, a 3-D printing company with Brooklyn hipster credentials, was acquired for $604 million last year by Stratasys — one of the industry’s heavyweights that, like 3D Systems, was founded during the dot-com era.

Stratasys has also grown its presence in the maker scene by partnering with TechShop, a company with members-only workshops across the country targeting hands-on inventors looking to build their own products.

Those types of smaller, more consumer-friendly “FDM” 3-D printers actually can have “a negligible percent waste, if your model doesn't need any support material to shore it up,” notes Berkeley’s Faludi. Inkjet 3-D printers, which use a combination of polymeric ink and a UV-curing process, waste 40-45 percent of their ink, which also can’t be recycled, he added.

For would-be makers alienated by the prospect of hammering out product specs on their own, more consumer-friendly companies like Shapeaways offer on-demand product design and printing. 

5. Software meets hardware

You can’t use an inkjet printer without ink, and today you can’t use a 3-D printer unless you’ve modeled your product with advanced imaging software.

That’s where companies come in to create a blueprint for 3-D printing jobs.

However, that seemingly-straightforward process has become murkier in recent years as lower-cost or free modeling services become more common.

Autodesk, known for its AutoCAD design software popular with architects and builders, launched its own free demo software last year. The company also recently announced that it will branch out into hardware to sell its own 3-D printers and embark on an open source platform, Spark, to spur innovation in the space.

Longtime French competitor Dassault Systèmes also first gained prominence for its CAD software but has recently taken to acquiring social media and Internet companies. The strategy is to focus more on collaborative design.

Along with these software providers called on at the inception of a new 3-d printed product, there are several other hard-to-categorize business models popping up at the tail end of the supply chain. One example related to raw materials are trash “pickers” in developing countries like India, who are now seeking ways to establish fair trade practices for plastics they discover that could be repurposed for 3-D printing.

For now, the question is which companies and inventors in the increasingly crowded 3-D printing field can best adapt to a rapidly-changing market without succumbing to the financial ups and downs that accompany nascent technology sectors.

Top image by John Biehler via Flickr.

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Why designers are on the front lines of climate change

By Susan Gladwin
Published October 21, 2014
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Tags: Cities, Design, More... Cities, Design, Design & Innovation, VERGE
Why designers are on the front lines of climate change

Now more than ever, society is accepting that climate change is upon us. From President Obama to GE's Jeff Immelt, leaders are confronting the reality we face: The global population will hit 9 billion by 2050, and we need our resources to scale and stay within our finite and dwindling carbon budget.

With scientists estimating budget exhaustion by 2032 if we continue on our current path, there is only one possible solution to avoid climatic bankruptcy: Stop spending and start bringing our systems to net-zero today. We must shift from discussions and debates to a real vision for our future — a vision of a net-zero carbon world, where net-zero solutions comprise our energy systems, cities, infrastructure and product design.

While government action and leadership are essential to reaching a net-zero carbon world, we already have seen how innovation driven by design — from solar- and wind-harnessing power solutions to radically efficient buildings — can be more the carrot to regulation's stick. It shows us what is possible and inspires confidence that we can do this.

When it comes to addressing climate change, we should be as impatient about the world being made and built around us as we are about government action. Cities can set energy-performance targets such as San Francisco's goal of 100 percent renewable energy by 2020. Businesses can commit to higher-performing operations, such as Microsoft's companywide carbon neutrality initiative. When city and business leaders demand climate-conscious solutions, designers hear the clear call to action.

Designers embrace constructive constraints; constraints inspire innovation in design. Acknowledging our limited resources and global social issues as constraints, designers across the world are now playing a major role in solving our world's epic challenges. This design-led revolution reimagines products, structures and systems from those that deplete to those better aligned with our population and planetary needs. When it comes to tackling climate change, designers can bring to life the net-zero carbon world we envision by designing for zero.

[Learn more about smart cities at VERGE SF 2014, Oct. 27-30.]

City and business leaders possess the power to advance the revolution. By collaborating with designers, architects and engineers, business and city leaders can have more influence than ever before on the impact of our infrastructure. Answering their call, designers can use tools that simulate carbon impact before anything is built or made. They can analyze energy performance, resulting in buildings that produce more energy than consumed. They can iterate with multiple rapid digital prototypes to develop more efficient infrastructure and involve more stakeholders.

This dynamic can be seen at The Pusat Tenaga Malaysia Zero Energy Office Building, one of the world's first carbon neutral and zero net energy commercial-scale buildings. The structure was designed to consume 85 percent less energy than conventional Malaysian office buildings through an integrated design process approach, responding to the conditions and needs of its specific site. Across the world in Fort Collins, Colo., another new standard is being set with the introduction of the Zero Energy District, or FortZED, where an entire cluster of facilities are designed to be net zero. Throughout the U.S., a growing list of 2,030 districts, representing more than 100 million square feet of commercial buildings in downtown districts, are all working to reduce greenhouse gas emissions.

Scaling from products to buildings to cities and supply chains, designing for zero inspires a new way of thinking across many sectors. When we break down the silos among industries, we can connect and combine individual solutions to create a world where modern life doesn't have to mean planetary destruction.

Incorporating design into decision-making can help prolong our carbon budget and lead society to develop net-zero carbon systems and structures that one day will be commonplace. We need to challenge ourselves to design-for-zero together, today.

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How She Leads: Sara Greenstein, Underwriters Laboratories

By Heather Clancy
Published October 21, 2014
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Tags: Supply Chain, Waste
How She Leads: Sara Greenstein, Underwriters Laboratories

How She Leads is a regular GreenBiz feature spotlighting the careers of women who have moved into influential roles in sustainable business.

Sara Greenstein jokes that her first university economics class had more people than the central Illinois farm town where she was raised. Now, she's a self-described global citizen.

As president of UL's supply chain operations and sustainability business units, and a member of the executive team, Greenstein shepherds the company's mission to "bring safe, sustainable and compliant products to the global marketplace." Among two of its biggest accomplishments: an ongoing quest to accelerate adoption of zero-waste strategies and a mission to support more transparency about what's in products consumed around the world.

Greenstein was instrumental in expanding its footprint in Japan, India and China; and more recently was behind the acquisitions of IDES and Innovadex, since combined into a massive materials information database. She landed at UL after several classic business process strategy assignments with the likes of Boston Consulting Group and Arthur Andersen Business Consulting. In her mind, it was a short-term gig.

"Thirteen years later, I am here and have had a lot of various roles," she told GreenBiz. "Through all of them, I've been able to have an impact on our mission and on our business, which I think is the primary thing that has kept me here."

I spoke with Greenstein about what shapes UL's philosophy, and why "sound science" is important for meaningful progress.

Heather Clancy: Give me a sense of UL's reach and where you believe that it has the most impact? 

Sara Greenstein: We have been active pioneers in terms of leadership standards, product certifications and testing methodologies, and sound science that has fed current environmental practices. As we move forward, we're taking that what I call science-backed, technology-enabled capability and embedding it in the supply chain — all the way back to the raw materials and every other link thereafter, to the end product — to help understand broader social impacts, environmental impacts and human health impacts. 

You can only do that when you've got a framework that includes consensus-based standards, that includes third-party verification of performance and efficacy against those standards, and the technology, connectivity and security that's required to link all those various strains in a very global and complex world. From a UL perspective, our mission — I'm sorry, our reach — will only continue to evolve from where we are today, both organically and inorganically. 

Clancy: How have the acquisitions of IDES and Innovadex expanded UL's services?

Greenstein: We are able to provide the technology across the supply chain so decision makers can force products that are healthy, safe [and] sustainable and either formulate (if it's a material, if it's a chemical or chemically formulated product) or design … a product to meet multiple requirements — compliance requirements, perhaps performance requirements, sustainability requirements, and/or individual brand requirements that are being asked of them. 

[Learn more about sustainable supply chains at VERGE SF 2014, Oct. 27-30.]

Where UL Prospector (the combined IDES and Innovadex platform) comes into play is as a public forum where hundreds of thousands of formulators come every day to get technical information they need when determining what materials to buy to formulate a product. Our supply chain software [offers] a very data-secure environment where suppliers provide very important information in a proprietary fashion that enables them to respond to any compliance requirements that are asked of them by any decision maker further down the supply chain

A retailer or a brand or a end-product manufacturer has requirements that they demand, whether it's because they have to comply with various regulations around the country or the globe, or because of their own internal policies and requirements. We have a connected, secure mechanism by which we feed that information up and down the chain. We layer our environmental and sustainability standards as filters onto that information. The end result is all about safe, healthy, sustainable products and processes to produce those products.  

Clancy: A moment ago, you referred to growth, organic and otherwise. So can we expect any additional acquisitions?

Greenstein: I think the answer is yes. We are at the beginning of a long journey, and to be honest, the strategy that we are deploying is one that is, I believe, going to continue to grow for decades. From my perspective, and this is something that we talk about pretty intensely here at UL Supply Chain, the whole notion of safe in the broadest sense — safe, secure, sustainable supply chains and the science of sustainability — are to the next century what electrical and fire safety were to the last. We are actively investing and charging hard to do what we can do to solve that safety challenge. It's our mission. 

Clancy: Recognizing that you have a pretty big purview, what would you say is your team's most important priority?

Greenstein: I think the most important priority for the next probably six to 12 months will be to drive consensus in the market amongst the diverse stakeholders around a common set of requirements, all of which improve the state of sustainability, if you will. To get everybody working from the same page, recognizing that continuous improvement can only happen once we've got a common set of criteria and standards from which to work. From that, true innovation and improvement can occur. In the absence of that, there are inefficiencies and therefore less productive work underway for everybody, for everybody along the supply chain. The sooner we can gain consensus with real science and experience around a common set of sustainability and regulatory compliance for major markets, the faster progress can be made. 

Clancy: You've spent a lot of time in Japan, India and China, so how has that impacted your perspective? 

Greenstein: I think one of the most enriching things about my journey here at UL has been that I've become a citizen of the globe, right? So I am as comfortable in the business environment in China, Japan, Korea, Taiwan, Singapore, as I am in Germany and Italy and the United States. 

For me, it boils down to what we do here and the reason why we do it, which is to provide safe living and working environments for people around the world. This matters everywhere. At the end of the day, I lead from a place of "I care." I genuinely care about the people who work for me, who work with me, and who we are doing this work for. …

Traveling the world, engaging with clients and colleagues and governments around the world just continues to invigorate why this matters and why we have to have perseverance and succeed here. Because 75 years ago, in the United States, people worried about plugging electronics in. We don’t worry about that here anymore. But we do worry about known carcinogens that our children are absorbing that we are unknowingly causing. If you see a river in China that's totally black because of the chemicals that have leeched into it, or the air there is so thick you can hardly breathe, you absolutely worry.

Being a global citizen of business just reinforces how connected we are, how our basic human needs are all similar, and frankly, why we have a responsibility to address it. 

Clancy: You're going to have more accomplishments in the future, of course, but up to this time, what do you consider to be your most important accomplishment? 

Greenstein: To me, it's my husband and three children. I'll also give you the professional one, but I think for me, having someone who I adore and adores me back kind of helps balance everything. And having three healthy, happy children, I feel blessed and grateful every day for that.

Professionally, I think it's having the opportunity to shape such an impactful business and really have the impact that I think UL has had and is positioned to have, and simultaneously watch the people that work for me grow and develop beyond where I think they probably thought they could. That's what gives me the most satisfaction. 

Clancy: Who has been your most inspirational mentor? 

Greenstein: I'm going to offer the following: I think the most important person who helps me do what I do, the way I do it, is my husband. He serves as everything from sounding board to support to friend and husband. At times, when I am working out what to do or how to do what I know needs to be done, knowing that I have such a strong foundation gives me the extra little push to do what needs to be done. What we do takes courage. There are fewer people who are willing to be brutally honest than I would hope. He's a very steady presence in my life, and I think he has had a big impact in helping me get to where I am. 

Clancy: What advice would you give to someone aspiring to a career similar to yours?

Greenstein: I say first of all listen. I think listening is one of the most life-changing skills — listening to others and listening to yourself. Being able to listen, being willing to ask questions is critical in life and in business. 

And then I would say, be who you are. I've grown up in prominently male-type environments — both in the consulting world and then UL, the engineering firm. … I always encourage people to just be who they are and be less concerned about what they think they should be and be very honest about who they are. Know thyself. If someone is in alignment with who they are and is able to listen to others and themselves, they will succeed because they will be doing something for which they have passion, that they're capable of achieving, and that they enjoy. That is the recipe for success.

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