The convergence of energy, building, information and transport technologies offers a great opportunity to solve some of our most pressing sustainability challenges, Joel Makower tells Tom Idle
It is at the convergence of building, energy, information and transport technologies that many of our global sustainability challenges will be solved.
It is this concept that helps Joel Makower to get out of bed on the right side of optimism in the morning.
As chairman and executive editor at GreenBiz Group – the organization behind the popular news and information site GreenBiz.com – he has been somewhat frustrated by the lack of progress that has been made having tracked green business issues for the past 20 years as a journalist and commentator.
VERGE is a sustainability conference with a difference – one that places technology at the very center
But his current excitement and hopefulness is fueled by advancements in technology that, when brought together, can really drive “radical efficiencies,” as he puts it.
Collision of technologies
In 2011, Joel and the GreenBiz team launched a series of events to support and enable this convergence of technology players; to find out what happens when four huge technologies collide. They called it VERGE.
“These different technologies mash up and start to create whole new product and services lines – and even new business models. This is what sustainability should be about,” says an excited Joel, speaking over Skype from the GreenBiz HQ in downtown Oakland, California.
“It’s about systems thinking, radical efficiency, innovation, busting through silos, thinking more holistically, improving lives.”
“This cross fertilization hasn’t taken place at other events. So, this not sustainability – or technology – as usual; it’s an exciting coming together of interests, disciplines and communities that haven’t traditionally interacted.”
So, VERGE is a sustainability conference with a difference – one that places technology at the very center. Today, the series visits North America, South America, Europe and China at various points throughout the year; the next one is happening in Boston next month, followed by a French edition, known as Convergence, which takes place in Paris in June.
As Joel says, so much of what sustainability has been about so far is focused on ‘doing less bad’ and little emphasis has been placed on the big opportunities around cost cutting, risk reduction and growth. “VERGE is about the business opportunity at the convergence of these technologies – and what we can do as businesses – and as a society – when those technologies come together.”
Blurring the lines
And, as the lines blur between what constitutes traditional sectors and emerging markets, there’s even more reason to connect up these technologies. For example, glass makers, chemicals firms and car manufacturers now find themselves in the energy industry. The glass company now makes solar cells, the chemical business makes components for wind turbines, and the automobile company makes battery storage systems. “We’re blurring the lines, creating a real need for this cross fertilization to take place.”
Admittedly, there are few examples of this convergence happening. But, as Joel says, “it’s early days”.
And trends and memes thrown up by VERGE – things like smart grids, machine-to-machine technology, smart buildings, connected vehicles, cities of the future, and the shared economy – are still very much in their infancy.
Trends thrown up by VERGE – like smart grids, connected vehicles and the shared economy – are still very much in their infancy
But there are pockets of activity that validate and reinforce opportunities associated with bringing technology players together. Joel points towards Microsoft as an example. The software giant’s headquarters in Redmond, Washington comprises some three million square feet and 118 buildings. “They have wired 13 of those buildings to have half a million sensors and are extracting half a billion pieces of data every day,” he says. “Out of that they have dramatically reduced their energy use – and this is in an area of the country that has some of the cheapest energy prices and some of the mildest climate.
“And it brings together IT, energy and building technologies – and even streams traffic data and information from the weather service, allowing them to create buildings that are predictive in nature and better at addressing the needs of the people that work in them, while dramatically cutting costs.
“Yes, there’s a lot of enlightened self-interest in this; Microsoft is a technology company and it is keen to roll out its learning to other technology companies who might use Microsoft technologies to help make other buildings more efficient.
“But there is an understanding that this is not just about sustainability. It’s also about reducing risk.”
It’s also about finding real solutions.
As Joel says, the VERGE events have opened up a whole new audience for GreenBiz, enabling it to reach beyond its traditional Fortune-1000 crowd of mainstream business and attract more entrepreneurial start-ups.
To support this group of “disruptors”, as Joel calls them, the VERGE Accelerate Pitch Competition sees a select group of hand-picked companies take part in a “beauty pageant” to showcase their products and services to the bigger technology players. “Of course, we haven’t invented these types of events; they’ve been around for years.
“But they usually take place with venture capitalists and funders.”
Last year, Taryn Sullivan pitched her Efficiency Exchange supply chain tool business in front of delegates at VERGE Washington D.C. Shortly after she formed an alliance with Johnson Controls, representatives of which were in the audience that day, and she hasn’t looked back since. “There’s lots of examples like that.”
For all the innovative companies, breakthroughs and trend-setting initiatives, the needle isn’t moving much. At best, we’re treading water
As with our own 2degrees Live events – which are very much about getting delegates getting their hands dirty and finding solutions to their problems – it is these practical examples of success that help set them apart from the rest.
To know that VERGE is making a difference clearly excites Joel.
For the past seven years, the GreenBiz State of Green Business Report has given a useful insight into the current-state-of-play when it comes to businesses grasping the opportunities afforded by the sustainability agenda. And what it proves year on year, says Joel, is that for all the innovative companies, breakthroughs and trend-setting initiatives, the needle isn’t moving much. “At best, we’re treading water,” he says.
But the opportunity for VERGE to “bend the growth curve and get us back on the hockey-stick kind of efficiency that we need to be on” is compelling.
“A report by the Carbon War Room and AT&T came out a couple of months ago, looking at the machine-to-machine technology market. It’s a trillion dollar opportunity and the potential for carbon reduction savings is around nine gigatons by 2020.
“That’s a game changer. And that’s just looking at one technology – one of many in the VERGE universe.”
But how do we bridge that gap between the leading players and the all the rest, I ask. How do we get scale so that we can really affect change? “For 25 years, consumers have been saying they want greener products. But consumers – and businesses – won’t make changes unless the things they are buying are better.
“That usually means products that last longer, are cheaper to run, are healthier, renewable, better for my image – or whatever ‘better’ means for that person.
“And in many examples, ‘better’ happens to be ‘more efficient’.
“Steve Jobs did not invent iTunes because the world was running out of polycarbonates to make CDs. It was a better technology and it just happened to be about dematerialization and have a huge impact on energy and carbon.
“Technologies are not the only thing that can save us, but they can play a big role. There is lots of exciting potential out there and we are just scratching the surface. I’m excited.”
VERGE Boston takes place at the Renaissance Waterfront Boston on 13-14 May 2013. Convergence takes place at the Microsoft France Conference Center in Paris on 26-27 June 2013. For all the details visit GreenBiz.com, where you’ll also find all the latest green business news, analysis and insight.
To get a taste of what to expect from a GreenBiz VERGE event, check out this highlights video from last year's event in Washington D.C.