VERGE Boston: Confessions of a first-time attendee

VERGE Boston: Confessions of a first-time attendee

I was excited to attend the VERGE conference in Boston. Having attended a number of energy and sustainability conferences in my time, I think that the move to the VERGE format is smart. The typical energy and sustainability conference (while packed with passionate believers) lacks the presence of three main constituent groups: finance, technology and corporate America. VERGE successfully blends the green devotees with technology pundits, corporate execs and finance houses. The scrolling screen in the plenary hall showed a proliferation of job titles of those attending that included the term "chief," so VERGE appears to have found that sweet spot.

Joel Makower, chairman and executive editor of the GreenBiz Group, kicked off the event saying that "embracing sustainability supports risk management." I knew then that I was in the right place given our work on Savanna, a modeling and analysis tool to enable risk and resiliency optimization in the face of a changing plant. Mark Bernado of GE Intelligent Platforms put a finer edge on things when he talked about the power and benefits of predictive analytics that are especially relevant when it comes to accelerating sustainability and managing for complex enterprise risks.

It was interesting to note that the conference’s premier sponsor was Shell. The keynote interview on the second day was with Suman Bery, chief economist for Shell International. This was interesting given his background as director general of the National Council of Applied Economic Research, New Delhi, one of India's leading independent policy research institutions. Bery heads up a team that manages the scenario mapping discipline at Shell, which models challenging scenarios to enable emerging economies to grow while creating a more resilient society. Bery pointed out the food/energy/water stress nexus that was being constrained by a changing climate. He told the assembled audience of around 200 people and a further 1,000 viewers online that Shell realizes that dealing with this stress nexus will govern a firm's license to operate in the world over the next 30 to 50 years. I heard the term "license to operate" several times at the conference.

During one of panel sessions Adel Ebeid, chief innovation officer for the City of Philadelphia, talked about their desire to mine public sentiment as it pertained to local government and city policies and initiatives. So it was pretty interesting when Brian Swett, chief of environment and energy for the City of Boston, announced the unveiling of, an online collaborative platform to enable people to take simple steps that will make Boston a better, greener place to live and work and reduce Boston’s greenhouse gas emissions 25 percent by 2020 and 80 percent by 2050.

Matthew Nordan, vice president at the VC firm Venrock, gave a fascinating presentation, "What neuroscience tells us about radical efficiency." Nordan focuses on breakthrough energy, environmental and materials technologies from the firm’s Cambridge, Mass., office. He posed the question, "Why do we as a society consume so relentlessly?" He pointed out that extremely wealthy men who have amassed billions of dollars still continue to work and earn, and there appears to be no limit to what qualifies as enough.

Nordan compared energy output from coal burning at 400 Watts/m2 to nuclear at 800 W/m2, saying that solar (at 40W/m2) has a long way to go to satisfy our need for increased power delivery. He narrowed in on a concept that focuses on consuming better — where impacts are lessened while wants are satisfied. Nordan said he believes that radical technological innovation will deliver the power density solutions that society needs to fuel our growth. This aligned with something John Schulz, director of Sustainability Operations at AT&T, said later that day. While Schulz applauded the alternative fuel efforts to mitigate greenhouse gases, he said that advanced IT and technology could mitigate an equal amount of 9 gigatons of CO2 by 2020.

Photo of the Boston Convention Center (location of VERGE conference) by Goodwin Ogbuehi/GreenBiz Group

I enjoyed hearing the thoughts of Andrew McAfee, leadership & information technology strategist for the MIT Sloan School of Management. McAfee co-authored the book “Race Against the Machine.” He spoke to us remotely via an iPad-equipped robot that rolled quietly out on to the stage to enable his presentation. McAfee studies the ways that IT affects businesses, business as a whole and society.

The one thing that bent the curve of human development was the industrial revolution, which overcame the limitations of our muscles, McAfee said. He told us that this current technology wave would be the next revolution that will overcome the limitations of our minds. Before he rolled back off the stage, McAfee said he was optimistic that we could solve the challenges ahead of us. That was comforting.

My favorite speaker at VERGE was a retired U.S. Marine Corps colonel, Mark “Puck” Mykleby. Mykleby had a discussion with Makower that explored how regional clusters could advance "full-spectrum" sustainability — energy, water, food, education and transportation systems that promote environmental, social, and economic well being as a national strategic imperative. Mykleby retired from the Marine Corps in July 2011 and is now a senior fellow at the New America Foundation, where he promotes grand strategy and sustainability. 

His grand strategy, as he calls it, specifically addresses activating the public, private and civil sectors to collaborate on long-term regional investment strategies focused on smart growth, regenerative agriculture and resource productivity. Mykleby pulled no punches in his interview, accusing Washington of putting out strategies that focus simply on threat and risk instead of opportunity and calling for a shift from "containment to sustainability." 

The retired colonel told us that "the economics of sustainability are so stinkin’ sound." He cited figures that compared returns on the dollar for the typical retail sector at around $0.58 while smart and walkable communities, regenerative agriculture and increases in resource productivity are all north of a dollar in return. He felt that corporate America, the communities and government must engage and strive together towards a sustainable future. He made an excellent point when he referenced that the Latin translation for the word “compete” is in fact competere, which means “to strive together.”

Mykleby shared some examples and highlighted the problems around typical mortgages, asking that the incentive framework be altered to incentivize location-efficient mortgages instead. He also mentioned current structures that promote unhealthy foods and obesity instead of local and healthy foods.

The quote of the day came from John Cleveland, president for the Innovation Network for Communities: "Mother Nature will not reduce our CO2 emissions surgically. She will do it for us, across the board!"

An interesting feature at the conference was VERGE Accelerate. Attendees listened to the business concept pitches from a group of entrepreneurs who sought to leverage smart, data-driven technologies for buildings, farming, energy, transportation and social engagement. One addressed the real issues of conference goers: Crowd Comfort allowed people in buildings to provide real time feedback via an app on their discomfort level with their immediate environment. With almost all of us bundled up to try to stay warm in the conference hall, it seemed like it had applicable market appeal.

My vote went to startup 7AC on day one. 7AC Technologies has developed an efficient liquid desiccant HVAC system for commercial and industrial buildings to deliver a 50 percent-plus reduction in energy costs over conventional HVAC units. Lufa got my vote on day two. Lufa's vision is to populate cities with rooftop sustainable farms. It’s a genius concept that alleviates much of the supply logistics in metro areas and offers residents locally grown produce. Lufa built the world's first commercial rooftop greenhouse in Montreal.

The breakout sessions each day offered the choice of joining a conversation that appealed to the attendee. Topics covered next-generation buildings, data management approaches, transforming transportation, scaling water optimization, impacts of energy markets, big data and supply chains, shifting the dialog on carbon emissions, smart cities, the economics of energy efficiency and sustainable mobility.

I attended the breakout session "Data Management Approaches for Enterprise Smart Grid and Enterprise Energy Management." This discussed the need that organizations increasingly have to manage energy data across all facilities, while the vendor market for energy management software is confusing and crowded. We heard from Schneider Electric, Groom Energy, Raytheon and the City of Boston. Schneider's resource advisor Jessica Kipper, responsible for promoting their sustainability and energy management technology platform, shared the need for a real dynamic relationship between sustainability and energy efficiency efforts where external and internal stakeholder factors had to be managed effectively using business intelligence tools.

Another interesting breakout session was hosted by Edgar Blanco, research director at MIT’s Center for Transportation and Logistics. His session was called "Big Data, Supply Chains and Megacities.” We discussed the complexities of supply chain logistics in the growing number of megacities (10 million people or more) in the world. There were 78 megacities in 2000, up from just one in the 1900s. Servicing businesses in these cities poses huge challenges for supply chain logistics and data optimization. It was startling to think that while Walmart has 8,500 stores worldwide, Mexico City has to grapple with supply chain logistics for roughly 30,000 changarros or neighborhood stores!

The breakout session the following day gave rise to an interesting discussion with Victor Avelar, director for data center science at Schneider Electric; Christopher Hankin, senior director for the Information Technology Industry Council; and Kathrin Winkler, VP of corporate sustainability at EMC Corporation and active board member for The Green Grid. The session, "Reaping the Rewards of Data Center Efficiency," covered the business challenges of operating costs and environmental impact in the face of exponential growth rates of data. One speaker threw out that over 90 percent of existing data has come about in just the past two years.

There was a lively discussion around the optimization of various metrics such as PUE (power usage effectiveness), WUE (water usage efficiency) and EDE (electronic disposal efficiency) for data centers. I asked the gurus what we might do about code utilization efficiency, and threw out the made-up-on-the-spot acronym CUE. I explained that based on some exploratory work Thetus had done with a very large online corporation, there appeared to be a significant opportunity to optimize for code debt. We have code that should have been killed off long ago but simply sits there in standby mode, consuming energy.

In fact, eBay recently trumpeted an effort called the Digital Service Efficiency, which eBay hailed as the "the miles-per-gallon-measure for technical infrastructure.” In one case, eBay software engineers tweaked code that affected how much memory an application requires, eliminating 400 servers, saving 1 megawatt of energy and $2 million in capital expense. While the gurus didn't follow my train of thought, they did extend an invite to our firm to join their Green Grid effort, which I appreciated.

The "New Economics of Energy" breakout session dealt with the question of financing clean tech in a post-Solyndra world, where government and venture capital backers have become more skittish about investing in promising but unproven technologies. Rockport Capital and Black Coral Capital flanked Joshua Rogers, senior strategy analyst for National Grid. National Grid has business units in Europe and in the U.S. (18 utilities in the Northeast region). 

Chuck McDermott of Rockport said that the VC world was looking for “capital light-infrastructure” ventures, commenting that enterprise software start-ups are "hot right now." I pointed out that energy efficiency start-ups had a hard time cracking the utility market despite it being such a logical place to start. Joshua Rogers agreed that the utility model was "slow" and had to overcome approval hurdles from multiple stakeholder groups on anything innovative.

Afterwards, he and I spoke. We plan to talk further about how enterprise software such as Savanna can help manage risk and optimize opportunities -- similar to my conversation last week with Sempra Energy and San Diego Gas & Electric. So I am glad I attended the session, although we collectively did not come up with the new design solution for the economics of energy.

Overall, it was a fabulous event. I made great connections with firms such as AT&T, Munich Re, Kimberly-Clark, Sodexo, TruCost and National Grid. I appreciated the openness of all the attendees to really connect and network. VERGE's Bizaboo app that allowed attendees to connect with others was a hit!

Makower and his team have landed upon some essential ingredients that make for a winning conference — provocative content, integrating the tech/green/climate/energy/business/finance elements, having the right people show up, merging the real and virtual environments, helpful staff, hosted networking receptions and covering attendees’ wifi access (nice touch!) during the stay at the conference hotel.

After connecting with Elaine Hsieh (program director for VERGE) at the end of the event, I sincerely hope to contribute to a panel on data, analytics, risk and resiliency. I hope to see the VERGE team again in San Francisco later this year to make that happen.