By Anders Ferguson, Partner
Most of us dedicated to sustainability tend to think about it terms of the big issues – climate change, food scarcity, clean water and other global environmental and social issues.
After returning from Generation Investment Management’s most recent conference, my perception about creating sustainable businesses and systems evolved markedly.
The major takeaway is that technology has become a key driver in sustainable change. Much like it is driving so much of the economy these days and seemingly will be long into the future.
At the conference, speaker after speaker outlined how technology was the answer. Most of the discussion about the big issues was in the context of innovative solutions: grid-parity solar, long-lasting batteries, green buildings, smart cities, artificial intelligence, robotics, among others.
Technology is the new driver. I wasn’t expecting that.
Efficiency Drives Sustainability
So much of today’s dialogue about sustainability focuses on improving, even revolutionizing, the existing economic infrastructure of commerce and society.
What does that really mean? It means consuming less of the world’s resources and eliminating the hidden costs of industrial production that harm the Earth’s ecosystem. In short, it’s seizing the opportunity to apply technology to be more efficient and re-engineer the business process of the past century.
I think that’s why Generation, a global leader in fully integrating sustainable research into investment strategy, chose to highlight an unlikely company – Intuit – as a model of sustainability.
Intuit builds software that creates tax and accounting solutions; it is all about efficiency. Ultimately, doing these tasks more efficiently and seamlessly interconnected with its business-ecosystem is good for customers, clients, shareholders, and the environment. And the Intuit example certainly was a nonsequitor to what many investors consider when they think sustainable-impact.
Technology vs. Fossil Fuels
It turns out the highest profile issue in terms of sustainability – climate change – is all about technology, too. It’s crystal clear to me that technology is the fastest way to dismantle the fossil fuel stranglehold of the past century.
To that point, we are witnessing a remarkable, perhaps revolutionary pivot in the world’s energy production that has gone largely unnoticed. Globally, the majority of new electricity is now being produced by the sun.
Over the next 25 years, solar and wind will replace coal, oil and gas as the foundation of our societies. Take a moment to let this reality really sink in. This means fossil fuels are phasing-down, plain and simple.
That’s being driven by the widespread availability of cheap, highly efficient solar panels and wind turbines. Solar panels are the product of sophisticated manufacturing driven by technology. PVs don’t grow in a garden, although scientists are working hard to change this. Advanced biomimickery holds the promise of turning PV panels of glass and rare minerals into biologically sophisticated processes, which may also be far friendlier to the environment.
This paradigm shift in energy production has much broader implications. Once a household is unplugged from the grid, it’s pretty clear what comes next. The dependence on “centralized generating plants” for fossil-fuel electricity dramatically diminishes. And what we know as the current electrical grid is both functionally challenged, and in many places, simply may not work.
If you stop and think about it, battery technology alone – solar energy storage and batteries for electric vehicles – have the potential to create a more sustainable world from the bottom up.
We’re simply talking about batteries – not something far more technically complex like splitting of the atom. Combining the power of the sun with the storage capacity of lithium all of a sudden has the potential to end the use of oil in powering transportation in the coming years.
Mobile phones are yet another technology that generates more efficiency that will promote sustainability. Why travel to the bank or a market to transact business when you can do it right from your phone? In India, $4 smartphones are coming to the market.
A Truly Flat World
At the Generation Conference, it also became clear that the world suddenly went flat.
That was particularly true when we listened to Jesse Moore, CEO of M-KOPA, talking about delivering affordable, solar power, to the villages of Kenya. The same sun that will power Elon Musk’s new Tesla 3 can empower a Kenyan villager to become an entrepreneur on her $4 smartphone or a “Coder” via wireless and affordable solar energy.
Think of the past decades of economic development in the emerging world, that were focused primarily on agricultural development models. Now the displaced coal miner in Kentucky and the Kenyan villager may have the same opportunity to become knowledge workers in our interconnected global tech-economy.
Further, because the villager is never likely to be served by grids delivering phone or electricity, or bricks and mortar companies delivering most goods and services, that $4 smartphone is their computer and communicator to the world.
Ecosystems And Life on Earth
All of this is wonderful and will accelerate the inexorable progress toward sustainability, but a larger question remains: Does the power of technology in recreating sustainability still respect the seemingly mundane and beautifully uber-complex natural magic of our ecosystems?
I hope so, but I’m not entirely certain, which is very concerning.
Images of the climate crisis are with us every day. Collapsing polar ice caps. Confused birds. Mass extinctions. Failing wetlands. These same rainforests, oceans, timberlands, wetlands and agriculture drove our concerns about sustainability and the environment in the first place.
The extraordinary synchronicity of our ecosystems, and all its creatures, unfolded through eons of years of finely-tuned evolution, don’t appear to really drive the brilliant minds of Silicon Valley leaders and its great scientific institutions.
Yes, they are developing distributive technologies and business models around the world. And yes they are amassing multibillion dollar fortunes to further their dreams. But do remarkable investment returns sync with the natural order of ecosystem returns?
Is it because the tech-masters don’t really see or viscerally experience nature? Do they think they can bioengineer or genetically “improve” all life so nature and its ecosystems just matter less? Is our natural world just another 3D reality of our advanced video-gaming?
I did not see enough sensitivity to these issues from the leaders of a technological universe, even though the net effect ultimately advances sustainability.
I know at Veris, our impact investing clients are enthusiastic about supporting and investing in new sustainable food systems. They think organic food and local grass-fed beef are part of sustainable solutions. They want to invest in REDD (Reducing Emissions from Deforestation and Degradation) credits to save the rainforest, as well as complementary and alternative health systems. And, they want a solar future based in new technologies.
But where do our ecosystems factor into the thinking of technologists? I thought Climate Change concerned us because an actual physical property – carbon and heat – was destroying our ecosystem? Does technology solve all of this? Is our food coming from 3D printers and Petri dishes? Is genetic modification so obviously safe and successful that agriculture crops will flourish in a world running out of water?
Ecosystems and technology were the wake-up call for me. Climate change in all ecosystems, economic and health consequences combined with light-speed technology, are clearly critical pivots for a sustainable future. Let us be wise in how they integrate and truly further our lives and planet for seven generations.
Rapid Change Is Upon Us
This isn’t the first time my perception of sustainability has expanded.
In a blog I wrote last year, I made the case that sustainability is a worldview, a mindset, based on mindfulness and interconnectedness. It is not simply the products, technology and services we call “sustainable.” I now see just how powerful technology has become as partner of that worldview.
The continual re-imaging of sustainability is exactly what we need to do.
When we get overly invested in a certain mindset, we miss opportunities. Technology may be the game-changer that we didn’t see coming. Given the rapid pace of innovation, it would be wise to keep an open mind and let insights/solutions, both natural and synthetic, come to us.
This article previously appeared on ImpactAlpha