State of Green Business

3 things I learned about convergence at VERGE

Two Steps Forward

3 things I learned about convergence at VERGE

When my colleagues and I at GreenBiz Group first began talking about VERGE, it was all about tech: the convergence of energy, information, building and transportation technologies, and how their mash-up was destined to transform companies, cities, and society, with huge implications for sustainability. And that worldview makes sense: VERGE is about what happens when technologies collide to create a vast playing field for potentially game-changing innovation.

But, as I learned over the past year, and especially over our three-day VERGE DC event last week, all that technology means little without some key ingredients -- namely, visionary people with good ideas working in the spirit of collaboration.

That was my takeaway after listening to more than 80 speakers in three dozen or so sessions talk about convergence -- not to mention the dozens of hallway and mealtime conversations in which I partook. It was, all told, a mind-expanding, inspiring and hopeful experience.

As I said, I came to realize that the technology piece is only the starting point for leveraging the full potential of convergence. There are three other key pieces. Let me break it down:

1. Convergence begins with collaboration. This may seem axiomatic: Pretty much all business involves people working together. In the case of VERGE, it requires doing so in new and often different configurations, sometimes with unlikely or unexpected allies.

At VERGE DC, we had an insightful conversation between the heads of real estate at Google and the U.S. Department of Defense. (Rob Watson, who moderated the conversation, dubbed it the "search and destroy" session.) Google and DOD -- innovative behemoths both -- spend vast sums on energy and are investing heavily in efficiency as well as new technologies to reduce that sum: renewables, microgrids, storage, and more. "We see the convergence of a huge energy demand with 200 years of technological innovation," said deputy undersecretary of defense Dorothy Robyn.

Can these two giants collaborate on energy-saving solutions? They would do well to find ways to share learnings and best practices -- not just with each other but with other large institutional energy buyers.

Collaboration is key to breaking through barriers that sometimes come with convergence. Dan Probst, chairman of Energy and Sustainability Services for Jones Lang LaSalle, talked about the nine years it took to release the final standard for communication protocols for sharing building performance information. "It took a new wave of controls companies to create products that translate data from these towers of Babel into a common language," he said.

Collaboration also can take the form of buyers coming together with sellers, or regulators coming together with their constituencies, or even competitors sharing a common vision. We saw all three come together in one session that featured the chairman of the Federal Energy Regulatory Commission, two regulated utilities, and one of their national customers. Not surprisingly, each had a clear vision of what it would take to make green power and smart grids widespread in the U.S. electricity market. And in our public forum, all were in rabid agreement about what the solutions should be. Whether they'll find common ground offstage and in the marketplace remains to be seen.

2. Convergence begins with ideas. There was no shortage of them in DC last week -- big ideas and smaller ones. The agenda featured more than a dozen One Great Idea sessions -- 10-minute stand-up presentations by innovators that are a signature feature of GreenBiz events. Each of the presenters had a vision of what technology convergence makes possible, and most were in the midst of bringing their visions to life.

A few examples: Jennifer Pahlka, founder of Code for America, on how computer programmers crowdsourcing their apps can revolutionize government, creating a world where even the lowly fire hydrant becomes a transformative object. Author and Stanford professor Jon Koomey on how a new world of ultra-efficient sensors and computers will create radical efficiency in -- well, just about everything. Web and computer visionary Tim O'Reilly on how pooling minds and resources holds great promise for sustainability -- the notion of what he called a "global brain." Gavin Starks on the need for a common platform for "scoring an entire supply chain of a company," a monumental challenge his company is undertaking.

Each of these leverages technology convergence. But more important is that each begins with the power of a great idea by a talented, passionate individual. Any organization seeking to capitalize on technology convergence without such human capital will be destined to failure, or at least frustration. Convergence, it seems, is not (yet) a plug-and-play app.

3. Convergence begins at home. That was a subtle context of the event. That is, it wasn't the primary focus of any particular presentation, speaker, or session -- but it is no less important: that a prerequisite to technology convergence is for disparate departments and operations to work together in new ways. Inside a company, that means IT playing well with Facilities and Fleets. It means Real Estate and HR getting in sync about how technology transforms the workplace. It means different departments of a city or county government sharing data in an open-source fashion. It means cross-functional teams that have never yet collaborated finding common purpose.

Getting siloed departments and business units to play well together is no small feat, but doing so is essential to an organization's ability to succeed in a world of convergence.

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Now that I think about it, there was a fourth key learning: Convergence requires patience. That was driven home during the event's final session, Marc Gunther's scintillating interview with entrepreneur and AOL founder Steve Case. Their conversation centered on Case's passion for the sharing economy -- business models like Zipcar, LivingSocial, and other companies that promote what some call "collaborative consumption."

Case made it crystal clear how long it can take to transform markets. AOL, for example, began in the mid-1980s but didn't take off until 1991, helping to usher in the World Wide Web (which, perhaps ironically, was AOL's undoing). It would be more than two decades before his radical notion of connecting people online would reach its full potential, long after the company had reached its peak. 

"The way I think of this is that we're now ushering the second Internet revolution," Case said. "Now that everyone's connected through multiple devices, connecting more habitually and more mobile-ly, you're now able to have a transformative impact not just on media and communications and financial services, but other core foundational industries in our country," such as energy and health care, two areas of keen interest to Case.

That's an object lesson for convergence. Things take time. They unfold in unexpected ways. And sometimes, you don't really know where you're going until you get there.