2016 offers these tastes of hope for the future
Sure, there was plenty of bad news on tap last year. But that can be fuel for change, according to these visionaries from our VERGE events.
After highlighting VERGE leaders' impressions of 2016 and visions for 2017, we present our third and final installment of this year's series focused on the role of technology and systems-thinking in accelerating sustainability solutions.
Here are 15 responses from inspiring and provocative VERGE movers and shakers, answering our third question: "Imagine it's 2030. What technology, trend, policy or other development made the biggest difference?"
Putting on my ambivalent utopian hat: By 2030, the ruse is up. The crash of ecological and economic systems — and the resultant social upheavals — has forced a full reckoning between the economic indicators, the metabolism of the biosphere and the well-being of humanity. Pursuing sustainability through the conservation of resources alone was insufficient to avoid multiple catastrophes.
This forced the creation of industries and economic systems to not only internalize negative "externalities," but also to create positive ones that regenerate the health and capacity of ecosystems worldwide. Humanity and our technologies are no longer seen as separate from nature but as integral components of it. We’ve exited the extractive Anthropocene [epoch] and entered the mutually beneficial Symbiocene.
We have no idea what the world will look like in 2030. We can anticipate that resource efficiency and resource use will be radically different from what we experience today. We will have millions of points of energy created and energy storing technologies that can operate in both a connected grid and in autonomous applications. Waste streams will be dramatically reduced, as distributed 3D printing will upend many manufacturing processes that we see today. Food growing will increasingly take advantage of indoor spaces and excess heat capture, and leverage data in lieu of pesticides to optimize growth and reduce crop loss.
First, the key was putting a price on carbon; that provided market signals that reflected the real costs of energy alternatives, which in turn guided investment, drove innovation and fueled market capture across almost every economic sector. Those who were able to read the signs early and bet on proxy prices before they became "real" prices led the transition, and benefited greatly from it.
Second was the emergence of the blockchain and its descendants, providing complete, end-to-end, supply chain transparency and capture of embedded energy and externalities. These provided visibility into the invisible "wastes" in the global economy, and a pathway to massive profit for those who could see them.
Third was the constellation of distributed energy, storage and management systems, which drove the deep disruption of the utility industry, transforming it from a slow-moving commodities and infrastructure industry to a data, financing and services industry. This was not an easy transition, and was battled over in courts and legislatures for decades, but ultimately it was compelling business logic (supported by "getting the prices right" that won the day). (P.S.: I offer another possible 2030 vision here.)
Polar melting forced the adoption of carbon pricing, among other things — and carbon pricing catalyzed a radical expansion from carbon reduction strategies to carbon productivity strategies, in fields as different as polymer design and the regeneration of soils.
Clean energy technologies are going to be transformative as they plunge in price. But just as important, cheap clean energy and transport are going to make it politically possible to enact new policies.
When it’s cheap to replace our coal and gas power plant fleet with solar and wind, we’ll see an acceleration in how quickly we write down those stranded assets. When it’s cheap to replace fossil cars with EVs, there’s room for cash-for-clunkers programs that accelerate the transition. There’s a virtuous cycle between innovation and policy. The faster we innovate in the tech, the faster new policy options become possible.
By 2030, sustainability has become embedded in common practices for companies and individuals. Transparency is no longer the exception, but the standard. Readily available data allows key sustainability elements to be part of decision-making. Renewable fuel sources are available worldwide, and the daunting challenge of sustainable aviation fuel has been resolved. What had been a global crisis has become a global effort.
The trend that made the biggest difference was the entire investment marketplace making the consideration of ESG factors alongside other financial factors commonplace when making investment decisions.
This happened because a once-fractured market of sustainability reporting consolidated around standard disclosures. As a result of investor pressure, real estate companies across all asset types, not just the typical industry leaders, began really embracing sustainability and that is when we really saw the needle move on energy reductions in existing buildings.
More than ever before, Navy and Marine Corps installations play a critical role in supporting forward operations. In order to enhance our energy security and resiliency, we are developing microgrids on our installations. These combinations of localized energy generation, demand response technology, and battery storage are designed to make sure that if a commercial grid fails because of extreme weather, cyber attack or physical attack, the base commander has the power required to continue operations.
Years from now, when we look back, the development of renewable energy, storage and these microgrids will have played a critical role in strengthening energy security, enabling our presence around the world, and providing sailors and Marines with the support they need to accomplish their critical national security mission.
The movement that we're seeing in clean energy finance will continue to grow. Right now, we're tracking the massive mobilization of capital from three key sectors: the public sector (Mission Innovation, with doubling of R&D funding from 20-plus countries), the private sector (corporate VCs now make up the majority of equity investors in our portfolio companies), and philanthropy, with patient capital coming to the fore (from Breakthrough Energy Ventures to the various investors in our private follow-on fund, EEx Fund One).
This is sorely needed, since by some calculations we're investing $1 trillion, when we need more than 10 times that to stay below 2 degrees Celsius. As we overheard at the GE Ventures CEO Summit: "It's important to know the difference between a good idea and good business. You need to follow the money."
The integration of a DIY culture with small-scale maker technology will put creative innovation into the hands of the public, with consequences that are set to be revolutionary. 3D printing, personal laser cutters and stuff no one has even thought of yet will make the homes and offices of 2030 the coolest, most unique and green places anyone can imagine.
It’s 2030. Looking back, the technology that made the biggest difference was blockchain. More than any other technology, blockchain drove disintermediation leveling the playing field for participants around the world while ushering in new economic models. The global hackathon that resulted connected our world to solve some of the biggest sustainability challenges in a way unimaginable 15 years ago.
The people piece
Imagining 2030 is a blast. The realization of driverless, electrified and shared vehicles will transform mobility. And vehicles will take new forms, with designs benefiting from and reflecting the advantages and synergies of autonomy and electrification. In 2030, we will look back on the most disruptive and exciting period in our lifetime.
I am biased, but obviously mobility as a service (MaaS). Mobility and transport is one of the biggest consumer markets out there, and we are only at the beginning of the transformation of this sector. For example, automation will be a major game changer, but in the end it is only technology. It is the consumer habits and behavior that will determine what the future of automated transport system will look like. To get to the tremendous positive outcomes automation can bring, we need MaaS.
By 2030, the trend of shifting away from individual car ownership will make the biggest impact. Ride sharing, goods delivery services, urbanization and the rise of autonomous vehicles all have massive implications for car ownership. The end of "car culture" will transform the way that our communities and our economy operate, and could drive down (or up!) transportation's growing share of carbon emissions.
The sustainability movement has done a good job of improving quality of life and elevating what affluent, well-educated urbanites expect from the places they live and work. But we’re all in this together, and you can’t urban-plan your way out of an American apocalypse.
We’ve got the technology, capital and know-how to transform the infrastructure of human civilization to sustainability right now, but we’ve lost the North Star vision that will get us all there; and we’ve got to change a lot of hearts and minds to get back on the path.
We’ve got to start asking ourselves "to what end?" again — seeing the world we live in through a longer lens, thinking beyond our own lifespans, transcending the reactionary and taking the long-path to a better world, even if we’re not here to see it. The challenges we have to resolve to get to 2030 on a path that elevates us all — growing economic inequity and climate change among them — are fundamentally human in their causes and in their consequences. The solutions are going to be fundamentally human, too. The biggest difference won’t be in the policies or technology, it will be in us.