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Two Steps Forward

Why VERGE Changes Everything

<p>What happens when four massive technologies collide? We're just beginning to find out.</p>

Back in the late 1990s, it was common to hear people utter the sentence, “The Internet changes everything.” For technoratis, it was a convenient bit of hype, hubris — and hope.

Yet despite the spectacular swan dive of so many poorly conceived, ill-timed, and grossly mismanaged ideas and companies, and despite the crash landing of so many high-flying technologies (WebTV, anyone?), the Internet did change — well, not everything, but pretty much. Today, it’s hard to recall how we bought things, communicated, traveled, worked, researched, entertained ourselves, or kept up to date before the Internet. The hubris turned out to be right.

With that in mind, I’m going to venture that VERGE — our coinage for the convergence of energy, information, building, and vehicle technologies — is going to have a similarly deep and lasting impact. It will change everything. Or, more accurately, it will focus and accelerate the changes already under way.

I’m writing this one week before three high-level VERGE roundtables that my GreenBiz team is convening on June 21 and 22 — in Shanghai, London, and San Francisco. At those events, some amazing people will gather for a series of short, “firestarter” presentations followed by bursts of discussion. You’ll be able to tune in live to all three events, culminating in a free, six-hour virtual event on June 22.

So, perhaps I’m jumping the gun. But having spent much of the past few months talking with some of the world’s leading thinkers in these four technologies, as well as innovators in some of the world’s largest companies, I feel like I’m standing on solid ground. Whether or not the term “VERGE” catches on as shorthand for a vast portfolio of technological innovations, the thinking behind VERGE is en route to becoming mainstream.

Each of the four VERGE technologies is evolving quickly, with its own market, economic, policy, and technological dynamics.

  • Energy technology is becoming decentralized, cleaner, better managed, and easier to store.
  • Information technology is making every device, building, and vehicle smarter, able to connect into a vast Internet of things that can be addressed, monitored, controlled, and optimized.
  • Buildings are becoming more intelligent and efficient, better able to optimize energy and resource use and enhance human comfort and productivity, with the potential of becoming net-positive, from the standpoint of their environmental footprint.
  • Vehicles are getting smarter, too, able to communicate with their drivers, other vehicles, and their surroundings, becoming safer and more efficient while connecting passengers and fleet managers to a broader transportation and energy grid.

The convergence of these technologies has happened organically, the natural result of innovations built upon other innovations. Increasingly, however, there is a larger vision: of a highly interconnected world, where information technology infuses energy systems, buildings, and transportation vehicles and networks, tying them together, making each smarter and, as a result, enabling continuous waves of innovation and radical resource efficiency. Together, this convergence also promises to improve lives, both in developed and emerging economies.

We’re already seeing the early stages of the VERGE vision come to life. Autonomous vehicles that can travel efficiently and safely with little or no driver interaction. Hyper-efficient, zero-energy buildings able to generate and store energy, variously buying or selling power to the grid. Cities embedded with intelligence that move traffic, connect people, reduce emissions, enhance safety, and maximize well-being. Platooning technologies that allow cars to travel at close range at high speed, reducing congestion and emissions.

These are not futuristic pipe dreams. Each is being developed or deployed, funded by governments, venture capitalists, and some of the world’s biggest companies.

Along the way, many of these companies are finding their way into new industry sectors. I’ve written in the past about the countless “new energy companies” — companies ranging from Dupont to Procter & Gamble that are finding themselves selling energy-related products and services. I’ve written about a similar phenomenon in the green building arena, with companies as different as Firestone and Fireman’s Fund developing significant business offerings in that market. So, too, with transportation — companies like Google and Qualcomm that are developing vehicle-related products and services.

Suffice to say, VERGE is a massive business opportunity.

It's also fomenting shifts in how businesses and other institutions operate. If you're involved with buildings, facilities, energy, purchasing, logistics, fleets, or IT — not to mention sustainability — you'll find yourself increasingly buffeted by VERGE innovations. So, too, those who manage and operate cities, schools, and hospitals.

Over time, it will also affect our personal lives — how we shop, work, and travel, for example. Kind of like the Internet has.

VERGE technologies aren't being developed primarily for environmental or sustainability reasons; as I said, they are the result of natural technological evolutions. But their development is being accelerated by the demands of energy and natural resource constraints, crowded mega-cities, emerging economies, and the need to ensure such things as healthy air, public safety, and affordable housing to people around the world.

As a result, VERGE has huge environmental implications. Consider: residential and commercial buildings and transportation together account for about 30 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions, according to the World Resources Institute. Industrial energy and other fuel consumption represent another 20 percent. Altogether, that’s half of all emissions — roughly 15 gigatons of carbon dioxide a year, an amount that’s continuing to rise.

So, VERGE holds the potential to make gigaton reductions in greenhouse gas and other emissions, engender step-change improvements in energy efficiency, accelerate the growth of renewable energy, and bring dramatic advances in materials efficiency.

Much of this will happen slowly, largely below the public's radar. Of course, the same was true of the Internet — its origins can be found in the space race of the 1950s, the U.S. government’s development of ARPANET in the 1960s, the advent of computer networking and PCs in the 1970s, and the invention of Internet Protocols in the 1980s, among many other milestones. It wasn’t until in the late 1990s that the Internet reached a tipping point, with today's "2.0" technologies coming during the 2000s. So, too, with VERGE. Its development will be marked by countless technological developments and societal shifts over the coming decades, many of which will be notable only in retrospect.

Stephan Dolezalek, group leader of the cleantech practice at VantagePoint Capital Partners, who’s been at the forefront of technology developments in Silicon Valley for a quarter century, has been thinking about this convergence for a long time. Dolezalek, who will be participating in our San Francisco roundtable, described VERGE this way: “We know how this movie ends. We’re just not certain of the plot.”

Which is to say: VERGE is happening, whether we want it or not. The challenge, and the opportunity, is to help the plot unfold.

That’s what we're aiming to do on June 21 and 22, and in the weeks and months that follow. I hope you’ll join us.

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