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Smarter cities and systemic change: 2015 sustainability predictions

The next year could be momentous — if the puzzle pieces in Big Data, smart cities, renewable energy and mobility come together.

From Google's billion-dollar acquisition of smart energy pioneer Nest to the proliferation of sensors in "smart cities" around the world, 2014 was a big year for innovation in sustainability.

All that adds up to massive opportunities at the intersection of business, the environment and society — the focus of GreenBiz's work with VERGE.

With this in mind, we previously asked speakers from our 2014 VERGE San Francisco event to weigh in on the biggest breakthroughs of the past year. Now, for the second installment of a three-part series on the future of the field, we asked these leaders in sustainable business to give us their best guess for what 2015 will bring.

Here's what the experts had to say on big challenges like bringing technology to bear and hammering out a rational carbon pricing strategy, as well as the necessity of avoiding "sensor overload" and Big Data fatigue.

Be sure to check back for their bets on where the conversation and opportunities for action will be in 2030.

Mark “Puck” Mykleby – Senior Fellow, Smart Strategy Initiative, New America Foundation


My biggest hope isn’t that some new sustainability technology pops up. Rather, my biggest hope is that we begin using existing and emerging technologies sustainably — it's a big difference, in my opinion.

My sense is that technologies that are functionally focused on niche sustainability sectors are obviously helpful and very much needed, but they won’t have impact at scale if they aren’t part of a larger design. However, if we put the same amount of energy — if not more energy — into systems design and policy development that integrates technology, processes, planning, investments, education, etc. in a manner that catalyzes sustainability to become our default setting, well…that just may start turning our ship in a better direction.

Will all that happen in 2015? Hell no. But the best time to start is now.

David Friedberg Climate Corporation

David Friedberg — CEO, The Climate Corporation

My biggest hope for 2015 is that farmers improve nitrogen efficiency, reducing runoff and volatilization.

It's the largest greenhouse gas contributor by a measurable amount in the US.

Rob Threlkeld — Manager, Renewable Energy, Global Environmental Compliance & Sustainability, General Motors

Rob Threlkeld

My biggest hope for 2015 is to see continued cost reductions in renewable energy sources through the use of new technology (ie: drones) for deployment.

This would improve and drive an efficient balance of system design to better understand topography, map where underground utilities lie and aid in soil analysis, which currently requires a more hands on approach.

Matthew Nordan
Matthew Nordan — Co-Founder and Managing Partner, MNL Partners

My biggest hope for 2015 is for a landmark bipartisan political compromise that prices carbon in a revenue-neutral way.

My hopes can stray far from reality…

Susan Shaheen — Co-Director, Transportation Sustainability Research Center and Adjunct Professor, UC Berkeley

Susan Shaheen
While there were major developments in sustainable technology in 2014, greater understanding is needed of its social and environmental impacts.

Our biggest hope for 2015 is to be able to demonstrate through data collection and analysis the potential of innovative mobility services to bring about societal and environmental benefits.

Darrell Smith

Darrell Smith — Director of Facilities and Energy, Microsoft

My biggest hope is for the increased adoption of technologies within buildings, campuses and cities.

Ideally, this will help go after the 40% of the global energy that buildings are currently accountable for.

Michael McCormick — Senior Policy Advisor, California and Washington DC

Michael McCormick

My biggest hope for technology in 2015 is that the seamlessness improves in how technology is woven in to our lives — that the interactivity of technology becomes more organic AND that security improves regarding use, management and sale of user data by private companies.

That includes access to user data, manipulation and sale of data on the black market.The inability to control private information in an age of the Internet of Things could be one of the biggest barriers to widespread adoption of technological breakthroughs that could create a better future and more efficient and effective use of both the natural and built environment.

Brook Porter
Brook Porter — Partner, Kleiner Perkins Caufield & Byers

My biggest hope for 2015 is that we continue to see rapid growth and successful new ventures in the field of sustainability.

We need 50 times more Nests, Teslas and Bloom Energies to move the needle on climate change. Let’s hope we see at least two or three players emerge in 2015.

Tensie Whelan — President, Rainforest Alliance

Tensie Whelan

We’re working on bringing peer-to-peer networks and data-sharing technology to connect rural producers to each other and to companies. That way they’re wired into supply chains and able to upload information as well as download it.

GreenBiz's VERGE 2014 event, for example, had presentations on how harnessing Big Data can help farmers. But most of the 2 million producers we work with around the world are in remote communities with low literacy rates and very little access to digital communication. That means they can’t problem solve and then share what they’ve learned with other farmers and companies don’t get feedback from the farmers on how their sourcing policies are impacting them.

Rainforest Alliance has pilot programs in Guatemala where farmers are using tablets and cell phones to share mostly visual information. For most of them, this is a new world, and it’s got the potential to help farmers increase their own yields and incomes, and speed the dissemination of sustainable practices.

Bina Venkataraman
Bina Venkataraman — Director, Global Policy Initiatives, Broad Institute of MIT & Harvard

I hope 2015 will be the year we see some truly exemplary cities become "smarter."

The ultimate goal is becoming smarter in ways that concretely improve the lives of citizens while also addressing climate change.

Emma Stewart

Emma Stewart — Head of Sustainability Solutions, Autodesk

My hope is that the excitement around the Internet of Things doesn’t lead us to go “sensor-crazy.”

Instead, these conversations should start with the question, “What insights do I need to reduce resource use?” and lead us to instrument accordingly.

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