Koomey: Why Entrepreneurs Offer the Best Hope as Climate Heroes

Koomey: Why Entrepreneurs Offer the Best Hope as Climate Heroes

For the last year, we have been talking at great length about the convergence of technologies that promise to reshape business, people and the planet. The concept of VERGE explores the massive opportunities for business created by innovations in buildings, energy, vehicles and IT (and by the way, we're hosting a three-day VERGE event next month in Washington, D.C. -- be sure to check it out).

Jonathan Koomey, who's long been one of the leading researchers on green IT -- energy efficiency in data centers, among many other topics -- has harnessed his 25 years of work as a research and analyst on energy, climate and IT issues in a new book that explores how those opportunities are ripe for the plucking by entrepreneurs.

Jon Koomey"Cold Cash, Cool Climate: Science-based Advice for Ecological Entrepreneurs," published today by Analytics Press, does what it says on the tin: Offers a look at the size and scope of the climate challenge, from a science-oriented perspective, how climate change will affect businesses, and highlights areas where innovative individuals and companies can tap into the booming demand for efficiency-boosting technologies.

Dr. Koomey and I had a running discussion by email over the last two weeks discussing, among many other things, how the rapidly accelerating pace of innovation means there are reasons for hope in the transition to a cleaner future.

Matthew Wheeland: Why are entrepreneurs the best hope for this scale of carbon reductions -- is the policy realm really so bleak?

Jonathan Koomey: We do need policy action to tackle this problem, but to create the game-changing innovations we'll need, the entrepreneur's role is critical, and that's why I chose to focus on that audience.

I've been studying climate solutions since the mid 1980s, and it's been clear since then that this issue would be an important one for humanity, but aside from scattered corporate leadership and regional action (in Europe, California and a few other places) there's been little progress in making the big shifts that we need to tackle the problem. Over the years I grew frustrated writing detailed technical studies that were only rarely put to use, so I started to turn to what innovative businesses could do to change the debate.

What is also fascinating to me, as someone who's been working with economic forecasting models for a long time, is that the use of these models in analyzing climate policies enshrines rigidities that don't exist in the real economy but are instead an artifact of modeling practice.

Book coverThat means that the policy discussions are hamstrung by modeling exercises that don't actually reflect what is possible when real entrepreneurial innovation gets rolling (I explore these issues in Chapter 3 and 4 of Cold Cash, Cool Climate). That realization made me want to help create the conditions for rapid innovation instead of studying what might be possible in a less dynamic world.

MW: What are some of those primary conditions needed for rapid innovation?

JK: The most important requirement for fostering rapid innovation is getting people to let go of their self-imposed constraints. I talk in the book about one example of such constraints from the recent biography of Steve Jobs, but there are many others.

To sweep away these constraints and clarify your choices, I use the "working forward toward a goal" approach -- determine where you want to go and assess what you need to do to get there, adjusting dynamically as reality dictates. The other important concept is that of whole system integrated design, where you optimize the whole system, not just its parts. Together, these ideas will help you create revolutionary products that deliver both large emission reductions and other compelling benefits.

MW: Where do you see the most promising gains being made already -- either in terms of technologies, global regions or specific companies?

JK: Innovation in modern industrial societies has been driven in the past two centuries by a series of what economists call "general purpose technologies" or GPTs, which have far-ranging effects on the way the economy produces value. The most important of these were the steam engine, the telegraph, the electric power grid, the internal combustion engine, and most recently, information and communications technologies (ICTs).

ICTs are the most flexible and powerful of all GPTs developed thus far. They are also vastly underutilized compared to their potential and will give us unprecedented power to respond appropriately to reality as it develops, rather than relying on crude rules of thumb.

The pace of innovation across virtually all industries is accelerating, which is a direct result of the use these GPTs, and particularly ICT, to improve production and business processes. And it's not just computers that are improving, it's all businesses that use computers to increase efficiency, improve organizational effectiveness, and reduce costs of manufactured products.

One implication of the accelerating rate of change is that in many cases, products introduced today could be made obsolete in a few months or years by innovators starting with a clean slate and taking advantage of the accelerating abilities of ICT to accomplish business tasks ever more effectively. It's also true of institutions, which are rarely optimized to start with and usually remain static until there's a shock to the system.

And the opportunities associated with such radically improved designs are constantly renewed and expanded by technological change. That's why, when I asked my friend Tim Desmond at Dupont whether his Six Sigma team (which is responsible for ferreting out new cost saving opportunities across some of Dupont's divisions) would ever run out of opportunities, he said "No way!"

Changes in technology, prices, and institutional arrangements create opportunities for cost, energy, and emissions savings that just keep on coming.

MW: One of the challenges of innovation on a topic like climate change is the sheer scale and dramatic need for widespread improvements, rather than a few leading lights. Is there reason to hope that there's a climate-saving iPhone out there, something that will quickly and rapidly take root and reshape industries?

JK: I don't think you can point to one particular gadget, but you can point to a class of them: mobile sensors, computing, and controls.

I and some colleagues from Intel, Microsoft, and Carnegie Mellon showed in a recent paper that the electrical efficiency of computing (the number of computations that can be completed per kilowatt-hour of electricity) has doubled about every one and a half years since the dawn of the computer age. The existence of laptop computers, cellular phones, and personal digital assistants was enabled by these trends, which presage continuing rapid reductions in the power consumed by battery-powered computing devices, accompanied by new and varied applications for mobile computing, sensors, wireless communications and controls.

The most important future effect of these trends is that the power needed to perform a task requiring a fixed number of computations will fall by half every 1.5 years, enabling mobile devices performing such tasks to become smaller and less power consuming, and making many more mobile computing applications feasible.

These technologies will allow us to better match energy services demanded with energy services supplied, and vastly increase our ability to collect and use data in real-time. They will also help us minimize the energy use and emissions from accomplishing human goals, a technical capability that we sorely need if we are to combat climate change in any serious way. The future environmental implications of these trends are profound and only just now beginning to be understood.

As one of many examples of what is becoming possible using ultra-low-power computing, consider the wireless no-battery sensors created by Joshua R. Smith of Intel and the University of Washington. These sensors scavenge energy from stray television and radio signals, and they use so little power (60 microwatts in this example) that they don't need any other power source. Stray light, motion, or heat can also be converted to meet slightly higher power needs, perhaps measured in milliwatts.

The contours of this exciting design space are only beginning to be explored. Imagine wireless temperature, humidity, or pollution sensors that are powered by ambient energy flows, send information over wireless networks, and are so cheap and small that thousands can be installed where needed.

Imagine sensors scattered throughout a factory so pollutant or materials leaks can be pinpointed rapidly and precisely. Imagine sensors spread over vast areas of glacial ice, measuring motion, temperature, and ambient solar insolation at very fine geographical resolution.

Imagine tiny sensors inside products that tell consumers if temperatures while in transport and storage have been within a safe range.

Imagine a solar-powered outdoor trash can/compactor that notifies the dispatcher when it is full, thus saving truck trips (no need to imagine this one, it's real). In short, these trends in computing will help us lower greenhouse gas emissions and allow vastly more efficient use of resources.

MW: Given the urgent need to address greenhouse gas emissions, among other pressing concerns, what is a realistic timeframe for these becoming reality, and more importantly, business as usual?

JK: Making such a forecast is a fool's errand -- I argue in the book that it's impossible in principle to predict these things.

Instead, we need to try many options, fail fast, and do more of what works and less of what doesn't. It is only by taking this experimental approach in creating the future that we can determine what is possible in the evolutionary, path-dependent world in which we live.

If we don't quite get to the world we desire, then we'll have to deal with the consequences, but if we aim too low, we might miss possibilities that we'd otherwise be able to capture.

MW: Along those lines, despite opening the book by painting a pretty bleak picture of where we're at, climate-wise, you close it out with some reasons for optimism. Can you sum up why the end is not nigh (at least not yet)?

JK: Each major country or group of countries could by themselves destroy the climate, so we cannot avoid the need for binding international commitments, but those cannot come about without real progress in the U.S., which stands today as the biggest roadblock to prompt global action. The Chinese have already indicated, by their substantial investments in renewable energy production, that they are prepared to build the technologies of the future (and to beat us in that game).

If we make a real commitment to meet the constraints of what I call the "Safer Climate case", we can give the Chinese a real run for their money, and that's a race in which the whole planet wins. Once we realize that this isn't a "zero sum game", it opens up possibilities that we haven't thought of before.

The constraints standing between us and vastly reduced greenhouse gas emissions are mostly self-imposed -- they flow from cognitive limitations that make it difficult for us to imagine a future much different from our current path, and in the economic power of those who would be hurt by the transition to a low emissions world.

While the whole world would be better off in the aggregate if we tackle the climate problem, fossil fuel companies (whose revenues in 2010 totaled about $5 trillion, or about 10 percent of global GDP) would lose big [PDF], and their economic power gives them an advantage in framing the debate.

So those industries are doing exactly what the tobacco industry (whose revenues were about 1/10 of the fossil fuel industry in 2010) did when confronted by an existential threat. They are exaggerating the uncertainties, funding fake experts, cherry-picking data, and polluting public debate with half-truths and misleading information. But there's too much at stake to let them get away with it any longer.

What has been clear for a while is that the technology exists for us to move past combustion in most applications, but scaling it up to meet the demands of a modern industrial society won't be easy. Of course, not doing so will be harder still, because of the damages unrestricted climate change will inflict on the earth and on human society. But nothing is preordained: We get to choose the kind of world we live in, so let's choose wisely.

For more information and to buy Cold Cash, Cool Climate, visit Analytics Press.

Author photo courtesy of Grigorieff Photography.