As sustainability becomes a more mainstream philosophy, it is intersecting with burgeoning and cutting-edge technologies that are transforming the way we interact with our planet, our possessions, our communities, and more. Are these technologies just making it easier for us to live, or are they fundamentally shifting the way our lives work, ushering us into a new era of innovation? Let’s take a look at six emerging technology trends that are reshaping the world for the better.
Virtual reality has been a hot trend for years, even back in the 1980s when we dreamed of watching a movie that felt as though we were there, inside the action. Now technology is hitting hard in the social and sustainability world, and VR is allowing us to experience the moments and feel the feelings of others in ways that we otherwise wouldn’t be able. Feeling and experiencing others’ plight and day-to-day moments from across the world is an exercise in empathy, and empathy leads to action. Charity:Water is using virtual reality films, as CEO Scott Harrison says, to “literally put donors in the moment that water strikes and how people are celebrating the change in their village.” Other organizations, such as Matter Unlimited are using Impact VR to create empathy among large donor bases including the Clinton Global Initiative. When we can see ourselves in another’s shoes, especially those facing difficulties with basic resources that those in the developed world take for granted (i.e. clean water), this helps draw empathy; and when we can effectively wear others’ shoes, we want to help.
By this point, you’ve likely heard of the Internet of Things many times, but you may still be wondering what exactly it can accomplish in terms of helping purpose- and sustainability-minded business models. Connected, smart IoT products are hailed as more proactive, efficient and customer service-oriented. Trackable devices allow manufacturers to efficiently service home appliances remotely and products can inform the user when something is wrong or needs to be replaced or refilled, making these “things” more valuable.
But, on deeper level one of the most promising aspects of IoT in terms of sustainability is the ability to contribute to the circular economy. In the words of subject-matter expert William McDonough, “The circular economy is an economic system that is an innovation engine that puts the ‘re-‘ back into resources. It allows for continuous benefit to be provided to all generations by the reuse of things, of material, energy, water, [etc.]” In short, it’s a system where waste is repurposed and a product is designed so that at the end of its lifecycle, it is turned into something new and usable. Intelligent Assets: Unlocking the circular economy potential, a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, provides the first vision for how a digitally enhanced, prosperous circular economy could look. The report states that smart devices provide an abundance of information that can help maximize the utility of materials and optimize the amount that can be looped back in as part of a circular economy. Objects in the IoT are embedded with chips and sensors, allowing them to be tracked throughout their lifecycles. This enables designers and manufacturers to pinpoint exactly at what point certain components can be taken out of the waste stream and repurposed into something valuable. Design firms and companies are rapidly catching on to these new opportunities; Frog Design specializes in helping companies to innovate and reduce waste based on the new vision of connectivity that the Internet of Things enables. AT&T is also doing great work on the cutting edge of IoT, applying the technology to improve health tracking, smarter cities and more.
Some major corporations like Costco are now starting to analyze water like they would any other important inventory: by measuring it and accounting for it, often in real time. Costco partnered with Apana, an analytics and technology company, to implement software that shows how much water Costco is using and wasting, and they worked to reduce utility bills and present strategies for overcoming their water use issues. As Apana says, carbon is already being integrated into corporate accounting and reporting, but as water becomes a major risk to businesses, implementing technology to measure, manage and account for it across the board should be started.
Battery storage isn’t anything new to most of us, but the way it is now being implemented on a massive scale is quite unique. Providers like Tesla are working closely with enterprises such as Jackson Family Wines to power 4.2 MW of the vineyard’s operations. Battery storage has the ability to smooth out energy spikes from intermittent wind and solar production on-site and can add to a complete energy portfolio.
Exponential technologies are novel technologies that emerge to propel society forward. In 1974 the release of the first personal computer was an exponential technology because it has changed the way we live our lives forever. The same goes for cellular technology and of course, the Internet. Now we’re seeing more and more exponential technologies arising in our lives today: robotics, artificial intelligence, and synthetic biology, just to name a few. According to an article by Christine Arena of Fast Company, “These exponential technologies have an impact that extends beyond the limited notion of commercial success, or even shared value. They allow us to do more, learn more, and earn more than ever before. They transform our usual ways of thinking, behaving, and relating to one another. They empower and enrich the lives of many people, not just an elite few.”
What if we could harness the power of exponential technologies to make them fundamentally sustainable, to design them so that they solve global issues? This is called the Design for Exponential approach, which provides new methods for harnessing emerging technologies and applying them to real global challenges all while building on a foundation of proven innovation tools. Singularity University, a leader in this space, is designing processes to capture the power of exponential technologies to help change the world.
“Hyper transparency” is now catching on as we’re working to unveil what goes on deep in supply chains. Demand from consumers for more transparent products is driving companies to continuously investigate and improve the environmental and social impacts of supply chains. But how are companies tracking and maintaining quality data and accurate analytics? That’s where technology comes in. We’re now witnessing networked supply chain data analytics and insights that can make supply chains “hyper” transparent, with organizations such as Source Intelligence leading the way. And what if you could visually map out an entire supply chain to measure the environmental footprint of all the products on earth? With technology developed by SourceMap, we’re on our way there. The company is helping businesses capture millions of supply chain data points, apply critical metrics and view the data in new and innovative ways, allowing quick action on potential trouble spots in a supply chain.
Technology is changing the world, and it’s doing so quickly. There are many conversations to be had about this important subject, and how it enables brands to activate purpose on numerous levels. Join us at Sustainable Brands ’16 San Diego this June to learn more about all topics covered in this post, meet leading solution providers in these categories, and of course much, much more on a range of other sustainability topics.