The Emergence of VERGE in the UK

The Emergence of VERGE in the UK

GreenBiz Group's VERGE Conference came to London this morning in the second of three discussion sessions focused on the convergence of vehicles, energy, buildings and IT, and the promise that intersection holds for the future of business and sustainability.

The virtual conference began in Shanghai at 9 a.m. local time today and concludes with a six-hour event tomorrow in San Francisco (you can register for the free webcast event here).

The Royal Society, the world's oldest scientific academy and a center for talks on discovery and innovation for more than 350 years, was the setting for VERGE in London. Senior Writer Marc Gunther moderated the conversations initiated by four "firestarters" who each tackled a pillar of VERGE. Executives from Marks & Spencer and Autodesk also were on hand to talk about how VERGE applies to their firms.Click on image to view VERGE coverage.

Here are highlights from the three-hour session:


Bernie Bulkin, venture partner and senior advisor at VantagePoint and chair of the UK Office for Renewable Energy Deployment, spoke on energy and decarbonization of transportation. The most important takeaway from his presentation was about the critical need to apply systems thinking to concepts such as VERGE and sustainability strategies, which VERGE can accelerate.

But he also pointed out the challenges posed by systems thinking when it comes to policy and politicians, and used the situation of electric vehicles as an example. "To me, the danger on policy choice on electric vehicles is that it requires a maximum amount of systems thinking," Bulkin said. "How we make our transport choices, our electricity choices and even our heat choices come together in systems thinking and one of the characteristics about politicians that I've learned working with government over the years is that they hate systems thinking. Systems thinking is the way to avoiding unintended consequences; it's the way to avoid dealing with symptoms instead of solutions."  


Peter Madden, chief executive at Forum for the Future, outlined the five points about the sustainability promise of IT and three key ways to fulfill that promise. He also offered a few cautionary remarks:

The Sustainabilty Promise of IT
IT enables:
1. Measurement and efficient management
2. Dematerialization
3. Managing complexity
4. Joining up
5. Collaboration and participation

To fulfill the promise there needs to be:
1. Supportive policy, regulation and pricing
2. Place-based initiatives
3. Systems innovation

"So, there's huge potential, but we have to be aware of the downsides," Madden said, warning that people must "beware of rebound and displacement that can make things worse." They also need to be aware of the things that can counter potential ill effects.

Using HP's use of teleconferencing technology as an example, Madden said the company at first saw people traveled more, but when policy was paired with technology the firm saw travel shrink.


Jim Fletcher, chief architect for Smarter Buildings at IBM, pointed to his company's partnerships with Johnson Controls, Siemens and Schneider Electric to maximize data collection and analytics to make buildings more energy and resource efficient and more intelligent.GreenBiz Senior Writer Marc Gunther

Key things to remember, he said, are that the ultimate goal is to eliminate "suboptimal decision-making"  and that "data without analytics is just data."

"Buldings are starting to talk to us ... and we like to joke that the buildings are talking to us, but no one is listening," Fletcher said.

In truth, he said, the technology exists for robust data collection, organization and analysis that make it easier for facility managers to achieve better building performance, predict when problems might occur and deal with emergencies more swiftly. IBM and its partners have put such technology to work in buildings and in water, traffic and other infrastructure systems, he noted.

Vehicles and Transportation

Keith McCabe, principal consultant at Atkins and chair of the Information Technology and Services Carbon Working Group in the United Kingdom, talked about the "whys, how and wherefores" of transportation.

"There is a a strong need for a rethink on transport," said McCabe, noting that he believes travel, trade and the movement of goods are "inherently good things." The movement of goods and people is essential for a healthy economy, he continued, saying "there's a very strong link between how the economy responds and the generation of emissions."

The challenge is "getting our heads around that problem ... and that is something the VERGE concept can help us with," said McCabe, who like Madden underscored the importance of the systems thinking approach described by Bulkin to arrive at solutions.

Putting VERGE Concepts to Work

Mike Barry, head of sustainable business for retailer Marks & Spencer, and Adam Matthews, business development manager for Autodesk in the UK, talked about how their companies are applying VERGE concepts.

GreenBiz readers are familiar with Marks & Spencer's groundbreaking Plan A sustainability strategy, which the company introduced in 2007, as well as Autodesk's design software, which makes it easier to achieve more energy efficient buildings and products with a lighter impact on the environment.

For example, systems thinking underlies Marks & Spencer's Plan A, a framework of 180 commitments that the firm is using to drive principles of business sustainability through its operations. The approach means M&S and its employees are looking at products, supply chain, logistics, facilities, energy consumption, waste generation and more to achieve its sustainability goals. Marks & Spencer is reaping the benefits of that approach and saved some £70 million (about $100 million) last year thanks to Plan A, Barry said.

In a recent article, GreenBiz Executive Editor Joel Makower detailed how Autodesk is working to push sustainable design in its lines of business.

Today, Matthews offered VERGE attendees a virtual walkthrough of his company's software suite for buildings to show how it can be used to visualize and simulate the siting of structures, designs for new construction or renovations, and use of materials, equipment and management systems to see how buildings will perform. Designers also can use Autodesk software to layer on climate data specific to their location in the process for a deeper look at building performance.

The Importance of People

VERGE at the Royal Society in London.Throughout the information-packed session, attendees repeatedly touched on the importance of people in the VERGE equation:

"Buildings don't actually use energy, the people in them do" said architect Shashi Narayanan, leader of the sustainable design practice at HOK International in London. They turn on lights, they run the air conditioner and use computers.  So how do we get energy conservation and efficiency into the "everyday ethos" of people, he asked.

"Normally, what we do when we want to change what people do is to give them something cheaper and easier," McCabe observed later.

People can be a wellspring of solutions, said Madden of Forum for the Future, speaking of user-generated innovation. People have access to data and connectivity, they increasingly drive vehicles hooked to location and communication networks, they occupy buildings and, as Narayanan pointed out, they consume energy. "It will be interesting to see how they put things together," said Madden. Adding a thought about technologies, he said: "If we don't give people (greater) access to them, we just widen the digital divide."

As the London discussion came to a close, Stephanie Draper, Forum for the Future's director of system innovation, said just touching on the role people play isn't enough.

"I think it's important to remember that in taking a systems approach, really factoring in the people element and the cultural element is going to be critical," Draper said. "So VERGE is really vehicles, energy, technology, transport for people -- or plus people."

The webcast of the VERGE conference's London segment is being archived and will be available on for three months. Access is free with registration.

Image Credit -- Photo of London CC licensed by Flickr user bru76.