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20 for '30: Imagining sustainability in 2030

What lies ahead! From Building Robotics and El Paso to Google and NASA, thought leaders look ahead.

After looking at the surprising sustainability breakthroughs in 2015 and hopes for 2016, we present our third and final installment of a series focused on the unprecedented opportunities for progress at the nexus of business, the environment and society.

Here are 20 responses from inspiring, provocative VERGE movers and shakers answering our third question: "Imagine it’s 2030 and we got it all right. What technology, trend, policy or other development made the biggest difference?"

As the saying goes, we always overestimate the change that will occur in the next two years and underestimate the change that will occur in the next 10.

The following has been edited for clarity and length.

Systems thinking

Amory Lovins — chairman and chief scientist, Rocky Mountain Institute

Led by the U.S. and China, the world in the late "twenteens" started recognizing, learning and scaling integrative design, which greatly sped energy savings and avoided much costly supply. By optimizing buildings, factories and vehicles as whole systems, not as a pile of components, integrative design often made very large energy savings cost less than small or no savings, turning diminishing returns into expanding returns. Just using such design to optimize friction in the world’s pipe and duct systems turned out to save half the world’s coal-fired electricity, with lower capital cost in newbuild and paybacks averaging under a year in retrofits. Yet even as late as 2015, no official study or industry forecast had even recognized such possibilities. What took us so long?

Davida Herzl — CEO and co-founder, Aclima

In 15 years, our collective wellbeing will be driven by cooperative advantage, not competitive advantage. We will see a world where everything and everyone is connected, and where we take a systems-view approach to resource management. Humankind will embrace active stewardship of the air, water, land and wildlife, and have the systems in place to measure and manage these vital resources. A real-time understanding of the interwoven relationship between our actions and our environment will be fundamental. Technological advancements, like environmental sensor networks, will provide a constant data layer and a new collective consciousness regarding the connection between ourselves and the planet.


Frank Pennisi — VP and general manager, Honeywell Connected Buildings

Looking ahead, I believe that we’ll get it right when we adopt a more holistic view of buildings, combined with the people that use them. A building doesn’t have to be a static structure — a dead asset. Instead, it’s constantly changing and must respond to the needs of its occupants while providing a healthy and resilient environment. The ultimate scenario is a time when we universally realize the value of truly driving technology connectivity within a building, as well as deepening the connection a building has with its occupants — all necessary for driving toward broader sustainability goals. This type of holistic approach will be absolutely necessary for meeting important sustainability initiatives, like driving toward carbon neutrality by 2030.

Top-down change

Kate Brandt — lead for sustainability, Google

In 2030 I hope we look back to the 2015 Conference of the Parties in Paris as the policy turning point that set us on a path to combating climate change. And that although everything wasn’t solved in Paris, this was the turning point that led to meaningful change involving a complex mix of policy, technology and international cooperation.


Robin Chase — co-founder, Veniam, Zipcar

A price on carbon.



Adam Lowry — co-founder and chief greenskeeper, Method

Starting with COP21 (Paris), the world moved toward a global price on carbon in 2015. 15 years later, the path is clear and the world is nearing zero net carbon emissions.



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

A combination of improved technology, better understanding by policy makers and implementation of effective new policy that fundamentally transforms our carbon economy into one that protects, rather than destroys, our global climate.



Technology catalysts

Cady Coleman — astronaut, NASA

By 2030, we will like to see that the technologies developed for a sustainable mission to Mars are also used to on Earth to help us live in synergy with our planet. For example: LED lighting and crop science that grows food for our crew will be used for vertical farming in urban areas. Water management technology developed for a space station also helps minimize water shortage impacts here on Earth. We would also like to see that the word "trash" has been eliminated from our vocabulary. Children and adults routinely recycle, reuse and repurpose all materials, no matter whether they are on Earth, or in space …


Jason Kelly Johnson — founding design partner, Future Cities Lab

It is exciting to think about 2030 from an architectural perspective. Engineered renewable materials that might shape-change to collect energy, transmit light and data. Sensor-laden spaces or an entire building that might respond to real-time use or environmental data, or use artificial intelligence to anticipate future uses.


Danny Kennedy — managing director, California Clean Energy Fund

PV. Hands down. With it we cut out all the inefficient middle steps (and men) of capturing sunlight in plants, letting them die, burying them for a few hundred million years then digging them up just to burn them to boil water to run a turbine to create electric current. Instead, we will have made a machine ubiquitous that takes sunlight direct from the sky and turns it into electrons. Around it, due to batteries and other storage, we'll have cached electrons when we need to and distribute them just-in-time so that supply of sunshine-based electricity meets demand perfectly.


Andrew Beebe — managing director, Obvious Ventures

Solar energy lead us out of the fossil age. Global climate agreements probably also made it all happen fast enough to save humanity.



Tom Werner — CEO, SunPower

By 2030 we will see the mainstreaming of renewable energy, both solar and wind, with storage and energy management. With clean, economic renewable energy we will be able to live with an abundance of energy that doesn’t constrain but enables.


Stefan Heck — CEO, Nauto

The biggest difference in climate will be the bet on solar and the global abandonment of coal plants, which is already under way in developed countries but slower to adopt in India, Pakistan, Africa, etc. The biggest difference in sustainability broadly will be the adoptions in mature economies of autonomous connected electrified and shared (ACES) vehicles that share data in real time with each other driving huge safety, emissions, land use/space savings, eliminate congestion and parking hassles, and enable everyone to access school, work and quality of life. The reason this is a bigger deal in mature economies is that much more of our carbon footprint is in transport (most people in India walk), and that ACES will have huge knock on benefits to economy as highly valuable urban land is freed up, produce commute time is freed up and $300 billion economic losses from leading cause of death and injury for the under-40 population is eliminated.


Lindsay Baker — president and co-founder, Building Robotics

For the buildings sector, the biggest shift is in the increasing digitization and automation of every sector of our lives. What it will mean is that we no longer need as much dedicated space for each sector. If the quality of care is the same in a hospital as it is in the home, most of us would choose to heal at home, for example. This shift will transform our built environment completely into a landscape of spaces that are more tuned to our health and enjoyment, rather than needing to be highly specified to specific tasks. This should mean that we actually need fewer buildings. So for carbon footprint, that's great. For commercial real estate, I believe it will mean higher quality.

People power

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

Trend: Citizens finally getting fed up enough to push climate change to the top of the electoral agenda — everywhere globally. Technology: Extremely low-cost energy storage technology. Policy: Political leaders dropping the partisan nature of climate change and coming together for a carbon tax, or a cap-and-trade solution.


Nicole Ferrini — chief resilience officer, city of El Paso

I don’t think it’s technology, trends or policy that make the biggest difference. What really makes a difference is people. The best strategy in the world is doomed to fail if we can’t educate and engage communities. Human behavior is the keystone for a sustainable world.


Andrew Liu — VP of new ventures, AECOM

If it’s one thing, I think it would be collaboration between the public sector, private sector and regulatory bodies. It has to be OK for private sector to make profits on solutions that benefit everybody.


Stephen Ritz — founder, Green Bronx Machine

Best question of all! Given I am presently focused on the Graduating Class of 2028, the game changer for me is and always will be education. Teachers are the keepers and stewards of dreams and destinies. Behind every successful person in the world, there is a teacher. Every day, in every classroom around the world, there is an opportunity to do something great, to make magic and teach that every moment and every action matters. We need to see children as far more than the sum of their test scores and grow healthy, collaborative, concerned student advocates and innovators as well as employees and market share. Education changes outcomes for this and all future generations; it is the best investment we can make. To learn more and support the work we are doing, click here. SI SE PUEDE!

Rethinking the status quo

Helene York — global director, Responsible Business, Bon Appetit at Google

When I think about the future of food, a much larger percentage of what we will eat should be coming from seawater rather than from farmland compared to what we're eating today. The oceans cover more than 70 percent of the earth's surface and are largely untapped as a food production resource compared to severely overtaxed cereal crop and deforested agricultural lands. The future of food lies in large part with responsible aquaculture (that is, lower trophic species fed with little impact on land or sea resources), sea vegetables (think dozens of varieties of kelp) and mollusks that filter and clean waterways as well as offer protein.

By 2030, I would hope to see global (not just Asian) cultural acceptance of these foods as mainstream options, regulatory support for seafarm production hubs producing water temperature-appropriate species in every ocean, and the retirement of large-scale fishing fleets that have been hoovering the biodiversity of the oceans for 40 years. Many technologies in this space are well-developed but not fully deployed; political and culinary acceptance are trailing technological development in this field, whereas the technologies of the 1970s and '80s (especially sonar targeting of high-value fish) are wrecking havoc on the balance of marine resources. One area that needs applied attention are fish breeds. So much attention has been paid to one company's efforts to introduce GM salmon but breeding smaller impact species that can eat lower on the food chain, are more efficient with feed, have healthy nutrient profiles and taste great is still a work in progress.


Antwi Akom — founder, ISEEED/Streetwize

In 2030 if we got it all right I think the biggest thing we would see that has changed is the metrics we are using to measure success. Currently, the metrics we are using are over-simplified and tend to be overly quantitative in nature. A great example is bike share in Minneapolis. The goal was for Minneapolis was to move bike share into low-income communities. However, when they first measured success it appeared as if they were failing because current measures only measure quantity of usage, not quality of usage — more specifically, currently metrics don't always consider that the density of low income neighborhoods is not as robust as wealthier communities. So at first glance, bike share usage numbers in low-income neighborhoods in Minneapolis showed low numbers. However, upon closer analysis, it was recognized that the neighborhoods had lower populations — which led to lower total numbers of users — however when looking at metrics like the percentage of usership against the total neighborhood population, or frequency of usage per person per week, the numbers were higher or comparable to other Minneapolis neighborhoods. Diving even a layer deeper in to the data — the qualitative experiences of people using bike share in the low-income communities might reveal that individuals who before had no way of traveling to and from a healthy grocery store, but with the introduction of bikeshare in their community now could make multiple grocery trips a week. Using metrics like this on the experience of sustainable tech solutions bring a whole lot more color to data, and allow us to make much more targeted, nuanced and effective investments to achieve sustainability in all communities.

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