19 for ’16: Biggest sustainability hopes for 2016

Sustainability thought leaders on their hopes for the year ahead.

Now, for the next installment of our three-part VERGE series, we asked VERGE leaders a second question: "What’s your biggest hope for sustainability technology in 2016?"

Be sure to check back for our final installment featuring 20 provocative predictions for 2030. (The following has been edited for clarity and length.)

Corporates leading by example

Kate Brandt — lead for sustainability, Google

My biggest hope for sustainability in 2016 is the opportunity I see for businesses like Google to make a difference through leading by example.

We plan to continue driving sustainability across our operations by designing our data centers to be as efficient as possible. Compared to five years ago we are now able to get 3.5 times the amount of computing power for the same amount of energy which means serving an active Google user for one month is like only driving a car for one mile. We are also working to create sustainable workplaces by developing tools like Portico, which we hope one day will help others make decisions about healthier materials for their space. We are purchasing and investing in renewable energy in ways that can lead to change in how the industry works.

We are doing this through purchasing more renewable energy than any other corporate buyer in the world (2 GW and growing) and by investing $2.5 billion in innovative, large-scale energy projects. And we are investing in solutions that we hope will make sustainability a reality for many like Project Sunroof and our partnership with with a San Francisco based startup named Aclima, in which we are attaching air-quality sensors to our Street View cars to measured for chemicals that are hazardous to breathe, like nitrogen dioxide and carbon monoxide.

Lindsay Baker — president and co-founder, Building Robotics

I'd love to see 2016 be the year when some of the big incumbent companies in building technology embrace innovation in a big way. We need these guys to commit to actually moving the needle on global carbon impact. I think that can happen in a few ways  the movement to service businesses rather than hardware, and by partnering with more nimble companies to deliver really exciting new technologies faster.

Sustainability as default

Robin Chase — co-founder, Veniam, Zipcar

That we will have more "platforms for participation" created that take the challenges, complexities, and transactional hurdles out of climate-positive services, making them easy to adopt and ready to be scaled broadly. I'm thinking about more smart transportation, more distributed energy, more smart homes, more efficiently used resources.

Adam Lowry — co-founder and chief greenskeeper, Method

The continued decline in the cost of zero-carbon, renewable energy. With oil markets volatile, and oil currently cheap, lower cost renewables will make the fossil versus renewables conversation moot.

Davida Herzl — CEO and co-founder, Aclima

My sincere hope is for a call to action from world leaders and businesses alike at COP21, leading to a watershed moment for policy and sustainability technology in 2016. Many of these technologies offer the greatest economic opportunities we've ever seen. We must move beyond the term "sustainability," and come to understand that the health of our planet is fundamental to everything we do, and everything we are. Only this shared understanding, and solid commitments to action, can enable large-scale implementation.

Tom Werner — CEO, SunPower

When it comes to innovative technology, I’m confident that sustainability will move one step closer to "default status" across industries. Similar to the decades preceding the IT revolution, the past 30 years have been a prelude to major advances in sustainability that will fundamentally change how we design, develop and deliver technology.

At SunPower, sustainability drives efficiencies in all areas of our operations, from manufacturing to customer service. It enables us to reduce materials costs, enhance long-term performance of our technology, and offer customers the highest quality solar technology available on the market today.

We’re entering a new era of sustainability, one where we’re partnering with our customers and integrating data into every decision we make. The result is innovative technology that equally meets our customers’ needs and the needs of the planet.

Scaling low-cost batteries

Danny Kennedy — managing director, California Clean Energy Fund

2016 is the 25th year the world has had lithium ion batteries. My hope is that they exhibit the same persistent cost-down trend that PV and microprocessors did before them — a true technology curve. If so, think of all the gains that have happened in the short couple of decades since Sony first commercialized Li ion batteries for a watch. It has become so low cost, reproducible and energy dense as to revolutionize telephony and computing  the secret to the smartphone is as much the battery as anything else  and is now disrupting vehicles. What else will be blown away once we can store free electricity from the sky wherever and whenever we need to?

 Andrew Beebe — managing director, Obvious Ventures

We need to deliver on the promise of radical reductions in the cost of Lithium Ion batteries. This won’t take a miracle  just a lot of competition.

Ev Williams  co-founder, Twitter, Obvious Ventures, Medium

We need to see the promise of low cost batteries truly emerge with a cost curve similar to solar. And while I know it’s not technology per se, given the incontrovertible evidence (and perhaps tremendous optimism on my part) I am still hopeful that Republicans will finally step up and start work on meaningful carbon legislation.

Water and food solutions

Peter Gleick — president and co-founder, the Pacific Institute

More widespread adoption of tools for cutting both water use and energy use.

Helene York — global director, responsible business, Bon Appetit at Google

My hope for 2016 is centered on Japan, the nation with the highest per capita consumption of seafood and some of the world's most revered culinary traditions. Japan can be a leader and others would follow. In November I spoke at a conference in Tokyo that drew 400 business leaders from a wide variety of fields. Their immediate concern is to define how Japan can meet their stated goal of serving only sustainable seafood at the 2020 Tokyo Olympics.

The concept is new for the nation which owns some of the world's largest fishing vessels and has no regulatory backbone to protect overfished waters. Tuna fishermen descending from many generations of tuna fishermen are forming co-ops to set self-imposed moratoriums during spawning seasons because they see a threat to their livelihoods. (Albacore and mackerel populations have declined 74 percent in 40 years, according to a recent study.) Seaweed has long been part of the Japanese diet but "in addition," not "instead."

The relatively young NGO community is forming alliances with businesses, chefs and fishing interests, and employing effective conservation technologies, such as fish-aggregating devices (FADs), trying to define what "sustainable seafood" means in a uniquely Japanese way. If they succeed, the world will be on our way to paving a new food path for the future.

Andrew Liu — VP of new ventures, AECOM

I hope there is new scalable technology that can start to chip away at problems with water scarcity..

Equitable tech

Nicole Ferrini — chief resilience officer, City of El Paso

I’d like to see sustainable technology become affordable and equitable in 2016. I think we’re seeing a greater understanding of this emerge, but there is still a sense of elitism (even at a city scale) regarding the implementation of the best, most cutting edge technologies.


Antwi Akom  founder, ISEEED/Streetwize

My hope for sustainability technology in 2016 is that technologies adopt a more equitable and inclusive approach and begin to answer questions like: How do we ensure access for all and not create digital winners and losers?

Moving forward, we need to create a more equitable sustainable tech environment that addresses enormous age, race, and income gaps both in terms of jobs (who is being hired at Silicon Valley sustainable tech companies and beyond) and community driven data (bottom up innovation). My biggest hope for sustainability technology in 2016 is that we begin to better understand the relationship between social equity and climate justice and ask all communities the question: How can sustainable technologies and bottom up innovation help green our ghettos, our barrios, our favelas, and the fastest growing cities in the world?

Our democracy has been hacked and mobile and sustainable tech can help us reclaim our democracy from big money. Television can't do this because it is controlled by special interest. So we need the sustainable tech community to play a leading role in helping us develop bottom up solutions to reclaim our democracy and create a more sustainable world, not just for the 1 percent but for the 100 percent.

Other big hopes

Michael Berkowitz — president, 100 Resilient Cities, Rockefeller Foundation

First, I hope that more technology is created to help cities understand their true challenges and opportunities. Urban solutions shouldn’t be created with just one benefit in mind  they should solve multiple problems in one single intervention. It’s cost-efficient, effective and simply a better way of doing business. But that can only happen if cities are better harnessing their data and capturing feedback from their citizens and their systems.

Second, I hope that the technology developed better reflects the needs of cities. As more of the world’s population moves to urban areas, cities will have an increasing need for technology to help them achieve sustainable and resilient outcomes. Technology providers know this, but too often they assume they know what cities want, rather than asking them, or using all the available evidence. That has to change. Cities are leading the fight against climate change, and can't do it with the help of government alone. Solution providers need to work in conjunction with cities to develop innovations for a more resilient future.

Stefan Heck  co-founder and CEO, Nauto

Biggest hope for 2016: That autonomy will "survive" the first bad experiences as Tesla’s autopilot upgrade deploys globally, as Google cars venture beyond Mountain View and into limited "public/employee" service, and other OEMs like Hyundai, Daimler bring our similar autonomous features. There will be accidents, including serious ones. My biggest hope is people focus on the overall benefits, not the outlier examples of crashes, remembering there are 33,000 fatal crashes today caused by humans, so if autonomous cars prevent 1,000 but cause three new ones a year that is a tradeoff worth making

Nancy Pfund  managing partner, DBL Partners

1. In 2016, corporate VCs, family offices, foundations and pension funds will continue to become more active in clean tech venture capital investing. This set of investors, working with a small but committee group of venture capital firms will be sufficient to finance the growing ecosystem of promising clean tech companies.

2. In 2016, more U.S. cities and states will follow in the footsteps of California, Hawaii, Las Vegas and others by announcing aggressive renewable energy targets.

3. In 2016, commercial and industrial will be the fastest growing sector of energy storage deployments, and will typically be paired with energy storage agreements with utilities, capitalizing on the advantageous nature of dual-customer economics.

4. We expect that Net Energy Metering policies for the vast majority of states will remain materially unchanged throughout 2016. This will be a result of strong and increasing public support for NEM, solar energy contribution percentages remaining in low-to-mid single digits for all states except Hawaii despite continued rapid solar growth, and PUCs recognizing that dramatic changes to NEM policy is not the right economic signal to send to the distribution generation industry, whose interdependence and collaboration with utilities is only just beginning.

5. In 2016, the drive for energy access across the developing world, particularly in Sub-Saharan Africa and Southeast Asia, will primarily be met by distributed renewables, chiefly solar plus energy storage.

Frank Pennisi  VP and general manager, Honeywell Connected Buildings

We’re seeing a lot of technology innovations; some are flashy and come with considerable hype. We need to look past the hype and instill discipline in the development of sound use cases. In so doing, we can avoid a trap that can bring about the demise of both businesses and groundbreaking innovation. One arena that shows considerable promise for 2016 is the very simple notion of introducing a common platform that can connect smart devices already present in buildings while at the same time providing a robust foundation for the next generation of such devices. Inject ubiquitous wireless connectivity into the mix and the possibilities grow exponentially.

Cady Coleman — astronaut, NASA

That NASA and the sustainability community are fully committed to sustainable living. It's a simple and achievable goal.

Stephen Ritz — founder, Green Bronx Machine

My hope is for people and humanity, not technology; for compassion and understanding, not gadgets and gizmos. That said, I love innovation that results in reducing impact and footprint and increases access, equity and opportunities for all.

My biggest hope is that people do not lose their sense of hope, purpose and passion; that everyone everywhere continues their work with a relentless sense of grit, determination, resilience, optimism and a desire to make our lives and leave the world better than we found it — for us to own and steward our destinies and protect our planet. We are finally on the right road  I hope we stay the course and pray that people enjoy the ride.