Welcome to the Future: Technology and the Sustainability Challenge
- Jamais Cascio, Distinguished Fellow, Institute for the Future
- Barri Gurau, Energy Initiatives Lead, Corporate Engineering & Technology, Lockheed Martin
- Sarah Krasley, Senior Manufacturing Program Manager, Sustainability Solutions, Autodesk
- Marshall Chase, Associate Director, Advisory Services, BSR (Moderator)
New technologies are already revolutionizing the ways in which we live, work, and relate. We can contribute to a better future by preparing for their evolution.
Technology is not about gadgets, but rather about the way that people use them. We must consider the social implications of new technologies, the many ways that people might use them beyond the designers’ original intent.
We do not need to wait. Considering potential future uses of technologies in the design phase can head off foreseeable abuses.
“We need to think about innovation in context. New technology is not inherently positive and beneficial. It depends on the context in which it is used, and it depends on its users.” —Marshall Chase, BSR
“Planning for the future is like receiving a vaccination. Just as getting vaccinated helps you to produce the antibodies that will protect you from future disease, planning for possible futures prepares your organization to react to a disruption when it happens.” —Jamais Cascio, Institute for the Future
“Just last week we launched something called the Spark Innovation fund for 3D printing. There is US$100 million out there for people with an idea on how to make more environmentally responsible materials, or make 3D printing run with less electricity … So, we want to see innovation in that area. But as sustainability practitioners … we need to consider what is going to happen when manufacturing decentralizes and our quality departments go away.” —Sarah Krasley, Autodesk
Jamais Cascio from Institute for the Future began the session by describing five areas where emerging technologies will change the way that we interact with technology more broadly over the next 20 years, and their disruptive potential:
1. Knowing things: We can already track our movements through our smartwatches and wristbands, which will deepen insight into our individual behaviors and healthcare needs. The disruptive possibilities lie in cognitive enhancements, where pharmaceutical products, implants, and microbes are employed to make us smarter.
2. Making things: 3-D printers offer a future in which we can manufacture in our homes. Cascio predicted that we will be able to capture carbon from the atmosphere and make tangible products from it, as well as use it for energy and data storage.
3. Doing things: Robots will evolve, but will they be our assistants or instead take our place?
4. Powering things: The existing power infrastructure will be replaced by decentralized options, possibly leading to a future where the physical world is tapped for power generation. Imagine a world where roads are covered with pressure-sensitive material that generates power when cars drive on it, and where every surface material on a car can help recharge its battery.
5. Greening things: Revolutionary technologies will help us heal the environment at a systems level. For example, we are already developing technology to bring back extinct species, such as the carrier pigeon. With nature-supporting technology, when we are ready to restore a particular ecosystem, we will be able to put these critical pieces back in place.
Next, Barri Gurau of Lockheed Martin spoke about the importance of developing technology that can be enhanced and built upon for the future. She spoke about her company’s efforts to stay on top of evolving energy needs by developing next-generation batteries that can store over the long term excess energy produced by renewable sources, such as solar, and dispatching that energy when the sun is not shining, thus eliminating gaps in supply. These technologies must evolve in tandem and at a price point that is equal to or less than the alternative—grid energy.
Gurau also spoke about the potential for additive manufacturing and advanced materials to transform our capabilities at work and home. Three-dimensional printing has allowed Lockheed Martin to become more agile and closer to its customers, while saving time, energy, and materials.
Then, Sarah Krasley of Autodesk spoke about how data in and of itself can be the backbone of future corporate sustainability efforts. While reviewing the areas where Autodesk could have the greatest sustainability-focused impacts, Krasley’s team discovered that by integrating a simple dashboard on sustainability data into their design software they could empower the company’s customer base of engineers and architects to think about sustainability when designing technologies. According to Krasley, “Most engineers don’t have access to data and analysis at the moments when it is really crucial.”
Reflecting on this insight, she highlighted two technologies where data can intensely affect transparency, decision-making, and design. During a volunteer sabbatical that she took with HERproject in Bangladesh, Krasley was introduced to Labor Link, a simple survey tool for factory workers, that allows them to report on labor conditions, among other concerns, via their mobile phones, with implications for increasing companies’ transparency into the issues and the needs of their supply chains. Next, Krasley spoke about how her company wants to encourage recycling by prompting designers to think about repair and disassembly in the early stages of product design.
Participants then broke into groups to discuss the sustainability opportunities of the technologies presented during the panel and any concerns that arise when thinking about their evolution. Along with the prospect of an ever-greater stream of data becoming available to companies and governments from customer use of emerging technologies, the audience expressed concern about how employers, governments, and criminal groups may use that data for the wrong purposes, and they expressed a desire for greater data-protection systems and consumer-privacy assurances to accompany these new technologies. Furthermore, they spoke about the challenges of regulating a new technology, calling out, for example, the frightening potential of someone using a 3-D printer to create a fully functional handgun at home.
The speakers ended on a positive note, reflecting on the opportunities the energy industry faces when all customers more fully understand their power and energy use through smart meters, and can make more informed choices about how and when they use particular technological devices.
November 4, 2014