The potent promise of a converging world

The potent promise of a converging world

Joel Makower

This morning, we launch our fourth annual VERGE conference in San Francisco, with more than 1,000 attendees coming from around the world to hear more than 200 speakers, with thousands more watching the free livestream. It’s the latest in our global event series focused on how technology accelerates sustainability solutions in a climate-constrained world. In case you’ll miss it, here is the message I’ll be delivering as we open the event.

This year’s VERGE conference takes place at a time of unprecedented challenges — and even greater opportunity. As the world continues to wobble, confronting seemingly insurmountable obstacles both locally and globally, there is much reason for optimism. Technology is enabling solutions that were unimaginable not many years ago. For perhaps the first time, we can see a path forward on energy, climate, water, toxics, natural resources and other pressing environmental and social issues.

It’s not that these problems are close to being solved; far from it. One the one hand, there is great cause for concern. Extreme weather, disease, poverty, inequality, congestion, species extinction, political instability (or gridlock) and all the other causes of global and household anxiety continue, in some cases worsening by the year. And the interconnection of these things — how a drought in Syria causes farmers to migrate to jobless cities, leading to unrest, war and political turmoil — is just beginning to be understood. It suggests that the problems are inextricably linked, that solving any one of them requires addressing several at once.

On the other hand, we are quickly gaining the knowhow to mitigate, even solve these things.

Sensors, satellites and cell phones are enabling the poorest farmers in developing countries to grow crops using a fraction of the water and other inputs — and spending a fraction of the time they currently do, freeing them up for other work, education or child care.

Cities are gaining intelligence and experience that enables them to deliver services, from policing to pothole filling, that make them safer and more resilient against shocks from extreme weather, natural disasters, even terrorism.

Manufacturing is entering a new era, driven by next-gen software, printers and open-source data, fostering untold innovation from the grass roots, broadly distributed to a waiting world.

Smart, distributed renewable energy systems are now mainstream, even as energy needs diminish due to increasing efficiency.

Machines we count on — power plants, aircraft engines, cars — are becoming highly efficient and predictive, optimizing efficiency and able to stay in service longer, saving untold downtime, energy and human resources.

It’s not just about technology. In many cases, the answers are age-old, or hiding in plain sight. Carbon farming brings ancient wisdom to modern agriculture, simultaneously sequestering carbon, healing soil and improving yields. Nature’s genius — patterns that show up throughout natural systems — provide models for turning carbon dioxide into plastics, gathering water from the fog, extracting industrial nutrients from waste and other minor miracles.

Millions of the world’s best minds, from students to CEOs, are on the case. And billions of dollars are being deployed, with trillions more on the sidelines.

This is no Pollyannaish, someday view. As companies and cities both large and small are showing, the solutions are here and now.

It won’t be fast or easy. Harnessing this bounty of ideas will take new ways of thinking and partnering, new business models, new ways in which citizens interact with their governing institutions, as well as with one another. It will require widespread dissemination of information and education to far-flung parts of the globe. It will require making them simple and scalable so they achieve the mass adoption that will allow them to fulfill their social, environmental and economic potential.

That is what brings us together at VERGE: executives from some of the world’s largest companies; entrepreneurs from disruptive startups and the investors who back them; energy companies seeking both to transform the electricity grid and to disrupt it; city officials eager to adopt technologies that help their cities become more efficient, livable and resilient; designers and engineers seeking to create not just the next generation of products, but new models for sourcing, manufacturing and distributing them.

Over the next few days we’ll explore many of these themes, learning what it takes to transform and disrupt the status quo in the name of a sustainable world, in all its many facets. We’ll gain a bird’s-eye view of the future, then dig deep into the complexities of solutions — the regulations, financing, business models, technology advances, partnerships and changing mindsets needed for them to succeed.

Ours is a can-do world, full of potential, driven by pragmatism, purpose and profit. There is much to be done, and time isn’t always on our side. But our imagination runs deep, as does our resolve and passion for a simple but powerful truth: There is a great opportunity before us that simply cannot be ignored.

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