The future of sustainability: 5 things I learned at Greenbiz VERGE

In late October, I had the wonderful privilege of attending VERGE, a GreenBiz conference in San Francisco.

The four-day conference brought together the sometimes contradictory, but mostly congruent, worlds of technology and sustainability. Here are the 5 themes that were prevalent over the course of the week:

#1 Technology is our best solution to global sustainability problems…

Over three days, I saw dozens of examples of cutting edge technology that is helping government, communities, and business dramatically reduce their energy use (and, as a result, their carbon footprint). Some were well established in today’s marketplace, like Autodesk, whose suite of software platforms provide a wide variety of sustainability planning and design features for products, buildings, and land areas. Others are still in the early stages of market penetration, like Strawberry Energy, which sells stand-alone, solar-powered mobile device chargers for public spaces.

#2 … Except when it’s not.

That said, there were lots of times that presenters and participants challenged the notion that technology can save us from the problems of unsustainability. In the agriculture tracks, I heard repeated questions from audience members about how social sustainability issues—such as labor rights—play into sustainability strategies for agriculture and food companies. While the focus of the conference was on ways that technology can help us achieve sustainability goals, there were recurrent and appreciated pleas throughout the week not to forget the people around the world without access to high-tech luxuries.

#3 There is no consensus yet about the future of the sharing economy.

There was a lot of talk throughout the conference about the so-called sharing economy. While I didn’t take a poll, there seemed to be a pretty even split between those who believe the sharing economy will be a major disruptor of business-as-usual and those who believe it will continue to be a fringe player. Regardless of one’s take on the idea, there was definite enthusiasm for several business ideas pitched at the conference. My personal favorite was Munirent, a platform on which municipalities can rent out equipment that isn’t being used, and rent equipment that they need from adjacent towns. It’s a win-win concept – good for the environment, good for city managers, and good for taxpayers.

#4 Logistics is at the heart of next-gen sustainability solutions.

Whether it’s moving people or products, the topic of transportation and logistics permeated almost all of the VERGE sessions. I heard about the promise of unmanned aerial vehicles (drones), EPA programs for reporting and reducing freight-related tailpipe emissions, tools for making cars smarter (or irrelevant), and companies aimed at making parking less of a nightmare.

Given the global trends towards distributed manufacturing, real-time and immediate delivery demands, and increased climate change regulation, the evidence is clear: businesses must place sustainability logistics in the inner circle of their sustainability plans.

#5 Big data is a sustainability paradox.

The theme of big data ran through most of the VERGE presentations—and for good reason. Access to more data and better data has been, and will continue to be, essential in tailoring smart sustainability solutions in an increasingly complex world. At the same time, there was a general feeling that big data has taken on a life of its own. That it isn’t always being used appropriately. Whether the data is too expensive (such as the exorbitant prices that some municipalities charge for details on private parcels of land), or whether the assumptions for using the data are flawed (or hidden), or whether there is simply a lack of technical prowess in managing and analyzing the data—it is clear that the full value of big data has not yet been realized. One step in the right direction is the amazing work begin done in sustainability visualization – representatives from both Autodesk and The Elumenati provided jaw-dropping visualizations of big sustainability data. (Sadly, I could find neither presentation on the web, but a similar presentation from Autodesk is embedded below.)

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Overall, the Greenbiz VERGE conference was a smashing success, and I walked away with a headful of new ideas, interesting perspectives, and an education in the latest sustainability technology. Even now, two weeks later, I am still thrilled and somewhat mind-boggled to think of the ways that technology will help us better manage natural resources, connect and share ideas, and improve product and building design. I look forward to sharing these findings with my clients and continuing to see how the technology, and the people behind them, evolves in the coming years. Now, if I could just quickly figure out how to put what I gleaned from the conference into a data visualization, I could have saved you some reading time!

Jennifer Woofter is the founder and president of Strategic Sustainability Consulting , a boutique firm specializing in helping rapidly growing mid-size businesses integrate sustainability into their business model. She tweets at @jenniferwoofter .