Day 1 highlights: Why the future of VERGE is in the cards

Editor's note: To read highlights about VERGE Day Two, click here.

The first thing you need to know about yesterday -- Day One of VERGE SF -- is that for part of the morning, the hashtag #VergeCon was trending on Twitter. If that isn't a sign of having "arrived," I'm not sure what is.

Seriously, there was something fundamentally different about this VERGE event than anything before it. There are the numbers -- more than 500 attendees in the room, and several thousand participating in the virtual event. There's power in such numbers, as energy builds on energy in a synergistic way, creating an echo chamber of shared experience and understanding.

But it's more than that. This year, we've had to do less explaining of what it means to have a technology convergence. My colleague Eric Faurot and I spent almost no time during the show's opening giving a short course (as we had in the past) on what happens when buildings and vehicles, embedded with information and communications technology, spew vast amounts of data. And how all that data, judiciously utilized, enables us to monitor, control and optimize our world to the point of engendering radical efficiency.

That, it seems, is increasingly understood. Big data, smart buildings, connected vehicles and empowered consumers are a given.

That's a terrific starting point for a conversation. Or, hundreds of them, as we saw on Monday.

Photo of the "Future of Energy Innovation" panel at VERGE SF, Nov. 12, 2012 by Kristine Wong

We kicked off the dialogue with Facebook's energy czar Bill Wiehl. Turns out Wiehl -- who is leading the company's data center strategy and more -- has more than just saving gigawatts on his mind. He's also thinking about how the social network can be used to encourage positive change among its billion members, given evidence that shows change can be motivated by the actions of family and friends.

"One role of social media is to surface that kind of largely invisible behavior and make it more of the behavioral norm," he said.

Brewster McCracken, of the demonstration Pecan St. Project in Austin, Tex., drew parallels between the expansion of the smart grid to the expansion of cable, broadband internet and mobile applications. In order to drive innovation, he said, third parties need access to new technology to drive innovation. That's what his project has done with the smart grid -- and it's showing the potential for the future.

And the potential for smart buildings' contributions to sustainability were highlighted via the case study of the San Francisco Public Utilities Commission (PUC) building, which has forged new ground by securing the permission to treat its own wastewater, using advanced wetland technology as a "Living Machine," harvesting its daylight and creating a self-healing building that is projected to last for 100 years.

PUC Project Director Shelby Campbell and building architect Michael Rossetto (of KMD Architects) shared not just the building's green achievements -- but also the challenges it took to make the vision a reality.

"If the leaders don’t do it, then it won’t become commonplace and these strategies won’t be tried and reach the marketplace," Campbell said. "Developers have to have cost certainty and certainty on returns. This building represents so much of what the future of buildings is going to be.”

The day also included a healthy and vigorous exchange about the efficacy of the LEED rating system.

At an afternoon breakout session, IBM's Dave Bartlett challenged the impact of LEED certification, and green building movement leader Rob Watson responded in kind.

"It's not LEED's fault; it's the fault of the design team," Watson said. "Don't get me started on the sorry state of modelling."

There's a palpable sense that something different is taking place here -- that this is not your grandfather's sustainability conference (if only Grandpa had been so enlightened).

The conversation has changed. You don't hear companies here talking about reputation, or doing the right thing, or "being responsible." There are few utterances of eco-efficiency or closing the loop. The conversation is now about platforms, systems and flows. It's about risk and resiliency. It's about smart, predictive systems. It's even about the human face of Big Data, as  presenter Kathrin Winkler made clear.

The highlight of Monday was the morning's closing, led by Chris Luebkeman, the director of global foresight and innovation at Arup --- essentially, the resident futurist at a global design and engineering firm. He led the audience in an hourlong version of an exercise called Drivers of Change in which participants each receive a card that suggests some future state -- natural resource shortages, empowered consumers, rising oceans and more. Participants were asked to put their cards together with others at their tables to tell a story or address a challenge.

It was magic. The seemingly randomness of the cards and the people drew the group into conversations that were difficult to stop.

It's also very clear that people are craving ways to connect the dots, to get outside of their comfort zones, to see what others are seeing. And in so doing, to connect the stories they're telling with the larger story -- for themselves, their communities, their companies and their future.

It was exactly what we hoped would happen: a convergence of technologies, yes, but of visions, passions and skill sets. That's exactly what we need to accelerate change at the speed and scale required.

Welcome to VERGE, Day Two. During today's revelations, connections between new ideas -- and meeting participants -- are sure to be developed, and there will likely be many, many more of both to come.

Reporting contributed by Liz Enochs, Hannah Miller, Aaron Tilley, Derek Top and Kristine Wong

See the Storify pieces created by our reporters from the following sessions: