The key to a sustainable future
Global futurist and innovation strategist Anders Sörman-Nilsson talks about the ins and outs of creating a more sustainable business. He warns that those who refuse to get onboard, will certainly be left behind.
Most of us engage in sustainability measures we hope will go some way to helping us tread more lightly on our precious planet. All make some difference but are mostly symbolic or make a marginal difference. I believe that in the end we’ll need to rely on superheroes to come and save us. No, I don’t mean a posse of cartoon characters from DC Comics — I’m talking about individuals and businesses developing the next generation of technological innovation focused on sustainability.
Winning the sustainability battle isn’t just about saving more and wasting less. It’s about doing more with less. We need to use the benefit of technological innovation to find exponential gains in every business, every industry, every economy.
Yes, most of us — I wish I could say all of us! — make personal decisions to do the right thing for the environment. At the supermarket, we choose sustainable fish and meat for our families to eat. At home, we put solar panels on our roofs, install efficient light bulbs, take shorter showers, separate our paper from our plastics and recycle whenever possible. Some of us even put our vegetable waste into a composting bin or set up our own worm farm.
We might do similar things at work. Executives now take advantage of video conferencing instead of making excessive (and resource-burning) overseas trips. Event organisers promote recycling and composting and do away with single-use signage and plastic show bags.
But business managers often seem to be in the dark when it comes to working out how they can make their companies more sustainable — in an exponential fashion. The choices many make when it comes to raw materials and energy sources are anything but environmentally or ethically responsible. Without a doubt, businesses have this perception they need to spend much more to be kind to the environment.
I actually think unless businesses start taking action and behave sustainably, their very own existence will be at risk. It’s not just because consumers expect companies they buy from to lift their game. They’re already sending a powerful message that they care where their products come from and how they’re made — from wanting more transparency on the coffee beans we use at home, to McDonald's and their verified sustainable beef initiatives.
Perhaps what will speak loudest to business is the language of money — profit and loss. A widespread adoption of sustainable approaches will be good for the bottom line and the overall health of the global economy.
At the most basic level, sustainable energy is simply becoming more affordable every year. The price of solar power, for instance, is dropping fast.
This won’t surprise anyone familiar with Swanson’s Law. Similar to how Moore’s Law explains the rapid improvement of computing power over time, Swanson’s Law states the price of solar units drops 20 per cent for every doubling of cumulative shipped volume.
US research published last year by Lazard showed we’ve reached the inflection point where it’s more cost-effective to build and operate new alternative energy projects than keep existing conventional generation plants.
And that gap will only widen. Not only is solar becoming more efficient, manufacturers have drastically improved their production processes. Batteries are becoming more efficient and much cheaper to make.
So we know lower energy prices will cut the cost of production. But the biggest impact on what I call our “sustainable futures” will come from technological innovation.
Technology means we now need less items to get more jobs done, which has led to the “servitisation” of physical products. Manufacturers aren’t just selling products — they’re providing valuable services based on their products’ core capabilities.
Just look at the ubiquitous smartphone. It’s not just a phone but a video camera, document scanner, entertainment device, health monitor, spirit level — what can’t it do?
Our tools are not just getting smarter, we don’t need as many of them to improve our efficiency. Hundreds of previously ‘physical products’ are now integrated into the iPhone, and thus defunct as independent physical devices — a huge saving on planetary resources!
Technology is also helping us recycle precious metals and valuable rare-earth materials. Again, think about the smartphone: Apple has developed a device called Daisy that can dismantle 200 iPhones per day to recover materials such as cobalt, tin, aluminium and lithium.
This brings us to the other factor driving innovation-led sustainability: it creates profitable businesses and industries.
One of the best examples right now is Aquna — an impressive aquaculture business in the NSW Riverina region. It takes a vertically-integrated approach to breeding, growing and supplying fully sustainable Murray cod — one of the nicest tasting white-fleshed fish you’ll find anywhere.
Aquna uses the highest sustainability principles in every aspect of production — energy and water sources, feed and stock management, and waste — and uses solar power to provide half of its nursery power. All of its Murray cod are traceable from pond to plate while leaving little impact on the environment from which they came.
So, it isn’t just large enterprise companies with the most to gain by putting sustainability at the centre of their thinking. Small-to-medium-sized businesses can succeed — and win over more customers — by making sustainable choices in their daily operations. Only once businesses start to take advantage of technology and change their entire supply chains to be sustainable will we see a fundamental paradigm shift.
Here are the technologies that will help save the planet
From working alongside global brands to our own expert research, here are the exponential technologies that can help save the planet:
- A sieve that makes the ocean drinkable
Turning ocean water into drinkable water is an extremely costly and energy-consuming process that is likely to harm marine life. However, a new sieve has just been created using graphene oxide that filters out the salt using less energy. This is a milestone product, considering it’s estimated that in less than a decade 14 per cent of people will not have access to sufficient water resources where they live.
- A pollinating drone
A significant amount of our products rely on pollination and need pollinators like bees to make them possible. However, with insects facing extinction, it is vital that we prepare for an alternate solution. Researchers are currently piloting a program where drones replace bees, which has so far proven to be positive. They are also working to create ‘robot bees’, which could work alongside real insects to increase the population and save the ecosystem.
- Impossible burgers
‘Burgers for Biodiversity’ has been created to satisfy the demand for meat at a fraction of the environmental impact. Developed by Impossible Foods, this menu item requires 87 per cent less water, releases 89 per cent fewer greenhouse gases, and spares 96 per cent more land than its meat alternative. This makes it a far more sustainable, scalable, and affordable way to make ‘meat’.
- Epson PaperLab
To address paper waste, Epson has developed a sustainable printing solution that allows large corporations to reuse and recycle their products. PaperLab upcycles used paper through the use of Dry Fibre Technology — which the printing solutions company calls "a way to create paper without using water". PaperLab creates 14 sheets of paper every minute, which is a huge amount for what would otherwise go to waste.
- Solar paint
When applied to surface areas, solar paint captures energy from the sun before converting this into electricity. While it may look like normal paint, billions of pieces of light-sensitive material coat its surface, transforming it into energy-capturing paint. Installing solar paint only requires a technician, which drastically reduces the largest cost of the solar panel installation process. As the planet grows more solar-powered, solutions like solar paint will help us become less reliant on burning “dead dinosaurs” for energy or fuel.
In order to help the planet survive, companies and individuals need to leverage exponential technologies. We need to create and implement scalable, sustainable practices that benefit both the environment and our global economy.