Business is the Battery of Society: Reflections On Innovation

Techonomist John Suter shares his key insights from Techonomy 22 and charts a way forward. (Hint: Do not negotiate on climate.)

Late November at the Sonoma Mission Inn, Techonomy held an exciting 3-day conference with a mission to save the world Techonomy 22: Innovation Must Save the World. Cards were exchanged and connections were made amidst serious presentations and serious discussions.

The conference was full of wonderful people – both on stage and off. There was exciting new tech stuff – hydrogen planes with a thousand mile range, new plastics recycling models, new electric cars, new ways to power the grid, new virtual reality headsets, new this, and new that.

Yet there was also a recognition that this will not be enough.  Tech innovation alone will not get us where we need to go. We need an accelerator. During this same week Twitter, Meta, and Amazon laid off 30,000 employees. FTX crashed and burned.  In this last year $700 billion was invested in fossil exploration, up from the year before.  Someone is not getting the memo.

Words, Metaphors, and Mental Models

Words and metaphors help to create the framework of our thinking. “Communication” was central to many discussions and spurred many questions. Do our words get in the way, or do they light a path?  Do they help us formulate better questions?  The collapse of FTX brings us back to the basic question of what is money?  And what’s the role of accountability in maintaining the integrity of money?

What is real, and what is virtual or artificial?  Pushing a tiger will tell you whether or not it is made of paper. But where are the levers to push when the line between real and virtual is blurred?

Will innovation save the planet?  Technical Innovation is essential, but it must be combined with social innovation and financial innovation.

Is computer security as bad as the security companies say it is? Consumer Reports CEO Marta Tellado said that consumer power must shape innovation.

The presentation of the expanding Metaverse seemed to bring on nausea, but maybe it was just me.

Growth Types

Are our current social and economic systems working?  This seemed to be an undercurrent theme of the conference.  Capitalism is the most efficient way to extract the earth’s resources, but what do we do when we reach limits to growth? (For more on this see Sandrine Dixson-Decléve’s earlier Techonomy session.) Democracy and capitalism must solve real problems at all levels. An inability to do this will bring catastrophe beyond what most imagine.

DO NOT NEGOTIATE on Climate and Carbon. 

Analyst Isaac Stone-Fish was correct: We should not base our climate efforts on what the Russians or Chinese are doing.  We must simply do all that we can and support other countries in leapfrogging to renewable and sustainable energy sources.  

It will not be enough to look at your own carbon footprint or even that of your company.  It is easy to forget, but cutting down on carbon must be a primary goal for everyone, at all levels.  If that goal is not accomplished, then nothing else matters.  Beyond the tipping point, there is no return.

A Way Forward

Esther Dyson is aiming her efforts and resources at towns and small cities, presumably because that is where people meet, argue and solve problems.  Her Way to Wellville model is an example of effective, collective action at the local level. But will local action be fast enough? Not if change only comes from the top.

How we structure working groups and scale processes will be important. People must find ways to work together. They can then make progress in any or all directions.  Challenge them to find the courage to look, listen, and talk to each other, not to the top.  They should be the players and actors. Challenge them to make decisions. Look at nature. Plant seeds and water as a way to scale the effort.

We cannot fail in this endeavor. Mitigation only buys a bit more time. Wall Street could be a friend, but will it be?  Government can set the stage but business is the battery of society, able to get people to move and do things that government and other institutions cannot seem to do. We don’t have time to waste.

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Business is the Battery of Society: Reflections On Innovation

Techonomist John Suter shares his key insights from Techonomy 22 and charts a way forward. (Hint: Do not negotiate on climate.)

My Epiphanies at a Climate Innovation Breakfast

Techonomist John Suter shares his key insights from Techonomy 22 and charts a way forward. (Hint: Do not negotiate on climate.)

It’s a Wrap: 9 Ways GE Put Words Into Action at COP27

Techonomist John Suter shares his key insights from Techonomy 22 and charts a way forward. (Hint: Do not negotiate on climate.)

A Highly Volatile World Demands New Solutions to Navigate Risk

Techonomist John Suter shares his key insights from Techonomy 22 and charts a way forward. (Hint: Do not negotiate on climate.)

My Epiphanies at a Climate Innovation Breakfast

As the internet industry implodes, a session helped me realize that a newly-forming climate industry will replace it. Climate tech and climate-conscious companies will become the leading force in business and markets, a new force for wealth-creation.

I had a series of epiphanies at a breakfast session on “The Climate Innovation Opportunity” I moderated the other day at our Techonomy 2022 conference in Sonoma. Around the table in front of plates of eggs and toast were more than a few of the country’s leading thinkers about climate tech, climate investing, and climate action. Listening to them was powerful.

At that very moment, the internet industry, which I have been obsessively covering since its infancy, was more or less imploding. Meta and Amazon were each laying off more than 10,000 employees; Meta’s stock was down 75% in a year; an activist investor was, for the first time ever, demanding Alphabet/Google cut costs; and Elon Musk appeared to be willfully dismantling Twitter. I brought to the breakfast a conviction that a financial era was ending. While the net giants would all remain major profitable companies, no longer would they lead the world’s financial markets upwards, as they had for over a decade, creating the world’s first trillion-dollar companies in the process.

So as I sat there waiting for the breakfast to begin, I was ready for more than a discussion. I was ready to learn what would constitute the next era for business. Of course I didn’t realize it. That’s not what I thought the session was going to be about. But it was.

A few conclusions I came to from the discussion that morning:

  • Global heating will become more pronounced and more obvious with every passing day from now on. And society’s primary task in coming years will be to adapt and respond to it.
  • The next giant value-creation opportunity for business, investors, and the general public will be climate tech and climate action. The companies that invent the tools to take us to a carbon-free era, and those that remake their current businesses to thrive in an era of sustainability–will be where the money will be made in coming decades.
  • It is irrational to deny this inevitability. This has to be true. Otherwise we are finished, as a thriving global human society.
  • Business, not government, will lead the way to a carbon-free future. Unlike government, business and financial markets can evolve quickly and absorb innovation as it occurs.
  • A climate industry is on the horizon. It will be just as clear-cut as today’s internet industry.
  • The only way to defeat climate denial is with profit and wealth creation. You can’t deny a dollar. And the dollars will come to those who invest in climate solutions. The denialists, whether companies or individuals, will lose, and it will, soon enough, hurt them.
  • Climate capital can build the next economic era. If we do have a recession in the next year or so, climate investment and action will bring us out of it.
  • Markets will be driven in coming years by the companies that invent and deploy technologies and systems to combat global heating. The investors who get on board with those companies will be the ones who get the richest, just as was the case with early investors in Amazon, Apple, Facebook, Google, and Microsoft.
  • Systems thinking will be essential to lead us to the most powerful climate solutions, and while nobody is very good at it, business will do better than government.

None of this means net companies won’t profit, or that tech will not be the central tool that gets us to the verdant valley of climate success. After all, we live in a digital society now, and it will be digital tools that take us into this potentially-glorious future of climate consciousness.

In fact, the companies that now lead in the cloud-computing era will likely thrive as a more monitored and managed world emerges. We can’t improve what we can’t measure, and data–stored, analyzed, and deployed–will be what drives us into the new era. Artificial intelligence will help climate action, climate business, and climate profit.

But it is a new era, just when we needed one. The old era, when investors thought Facebook would forever go to the moon is over.

Coda:

The day before the breakfast, two conference plenary sessions had helped me arrive at my epiphanies:

  • Mike Schroepfer, longtime CTO of Facebook and Meta and now marshaling his wealth as a determined climate investor through his firm Additional Ventures, spoke with me on stage about his conviction that now, for the first time, software and other advances make it possible to “hyperscale” physical infrastructure for climate. We will, he says, be able to create the systems for an energy-efficient economy much faster than most have realized.
  • And immediately after Schroepfer, we heard from Paul Hohenberger of TerraPraxis. Here was a proof point for Schroepfer’s thesis (and evidence of the radical potential for growth in a carbon-conscious age). TerraPraxis is a nonprofit that develops and deploys systems–based on sophisticated software and data–to enable coal plants to quickly transition away from coal to newer more efficient heat and energy-production sources. Next generation nuclear is expected to be the primary method, but geothermal and other options can also be incorporated. The point is to have processes in place that factor in all the various systems entailed in a coal plants and its connection to the existing grid, so that a templated approach can be applied quickly to thousands of plants over a very short period. Microsoft is a huge backer of TerraPraxis.

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Business is the Battery of Society: Reflections On Innovation

As the internet industry implodes, a session helped me realize that a newly-forming climate industry will replace it. Climate tech and climate-conscious companies will become the leading force in business and markets, a new force...

My Epiphanies at a Climate Innovation Breakfast

As the internet industry implodes, a session helped me realize that a newly-forming climate industry will replace it. Climate tech and climate-conscious companies will become the leading force in business and markets, a new force...

It’s a Wrap: 9 Ways GE Put Words Into Action at COP27

As the internet industry implodes, a session helped me realize that a newly-forming climate industry will replace it. Climate tech and climate-conscious companies will become the leading force in business and markets, a new force...

A Highly Volatile World Demands New Solutions to Navigate Risk

As the internet industry implodes, a session helped me realize that a newly-forming climate industry will replace it. Climate tech and climate-conscious companies will become the leading force in business and markets, a new force...

It’s a Wrap: 9 Ways GE Put Words Into Action at COP27

We are in a critical decade of action that will support the energy transition to drive decarbonization. More than 100 heads of state and over 35,000 participants came together in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, for two weeks in November at COP27. As GE Chief Sustainability Officer Roger Martella put it, “GE took seriously Egypt’s focus on COP27 as the Implementation Summit.”

We are in a critical decade of action that will support the energy transition to drive decarbonization. More than 100 heads of state and over 35,000 participants came together in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, for two weeks in November at COP27, which was dubbed the “implementation COP.”

“GE took seriously Egypt’s focus on COP27 as the Implementation Summit,” said GE Chief Sustainability Officer Roger Martella. “We wanted to prioritize action over words in Sharm El-Sheikh. We wanted to fulfill our three proof points for COP27 at once: emphasizing the importance of emerging economies; demonstrating the feasibility of breakthrough technologies; and strengthening public-private partnerships.” You can hear Martella talk about COP27 on this episode of GE Gas Power’s Cutting Carbon podcast.

Here are nine highlights from GE’s time at COP27.

Demonstrating Breakthrough Technologies

In a first for Africa, a GE LM6000 aeroderivative gas turbine ran on a hydrogen/natural gas fuel blend during parts of COP27. The demonstration, with Egyptian Electricity Holding Company, Hassan Allam Construction, and PGESCO, showed investments in safety, infrastructure, logistics, and operations associated with introducing new technologies like hydrogen. Learnings from this success will be studied and shared by the Electric Power Research Institute (EPRI), through the Low-Carbon Resources Initiative, to inform future hydrogen-blending power projects around the world. “The world can see what is possible when you bring big dreams, strong resolve, and committed partners together,” said Egyptian Minister of Electricity and Renewable Energy H.E. Dr. Mohamed Shaker El-Markabi.

GE, with the Egyptian Natural Gas Holding Company and Seasplit Technologies, signed a memorandum of understanding for the industrial decarbonization of the Gulf of Suez. They will evaluate the technical and economic feasibility of developing 1.5 gigawatts of offshore wind power in the Gulf of Suez and explore how local petroleum companies could participate in the project. In another first for Africa and the Middle East, the electricity generated is expected to power the operations of offshore oil and gas facilities. “This ambitious, visionary announcement sets the path towards leveraging these resources to eventually transform the Gulf of Suez to a net-zero industrial zone,” said Seasplit Technologies CEO Eng. Hussein Mesharafa.

Liquefied natural gas (LNG) from Egypt is playing an important role in supplying reliable, responsible, and sustainable energy to Europe, but a large amount of methane emissions accompany its production. At the Egyptian LNG export terminal, GE will be one of the companies assessing the implementation of a zero-flaring system to address this problem. The project is part of a program between the Egyptian Ministry of Petroleum and Mineral Resources and the Coalition for Decarbonization, a multi-company effort led by Bechtel and joined by GE Digital.

Partnerships

GE is prioritizing diverse public-private partnerships — across governments, industry, and NGOs — to ensure the necessary success for climate and sustainability commitments. Roger Martella appeared at the U.S. Center’s COP27 opening ceremony to unveil the Corporate Coalition for Innovation and Technology toward Net Zero (CCITNZ). The initiative involving six companies — GE, Bechtel, GM, Honeywell, Invenergy, and Johnson Controls — is “an accelerator for industries across sectors and geographies” that will focus on developing breakthrough technologies and promoting long-term sustainable development. The coalition aims to strengthen public-private partnerships so that the sum of their efforts can be greater than the parts, said Martella.

GE and the International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA) signed a framework agreement to collaborate on a plan to support climate change and energy security. This will involve exploring ways to support decarbonization efforts through onshore and offshore wind, bio energy with CCUS (carbon capture, usage and storage), hydro, green hydrogen, energy storage, electrification, grid modernization, and more. “Together with forward-looking multinationals such as GE, we hope to accelerate progress and fuel global ambitions to achieve net-zero,” said IRENA Director-General Francesco La Camera.

The healthcare sector accounts for 8.5% of U.S. emissions, directly from healthcare facilities and indirectly from the supply chain. Climate change, in turn, can impact people’s health and increase injuries, illnesses, and deaths. That’s why GE Healthcare signed on to the pledge by the Department of Health and Human Services and the White House to decarbonize the healthcare sector and make healthcare facilities more resilient to climate change. GE Healthcare’s work will build on three pillars: facility footprint reductions, fleet electrification, and renewable energy. “The connection between a healthy planet and healthy lives is clear,” said GE Healthcare ESG Program Leader Kelvin Sanborn.

Thought Leadership

As part of the Atlantic Council’s “Partner Perspectives”, GE leaders shared their insights for achieving climate and energy resiliency goals. First was Roger Martella, who wrote that companies should seize this moment to collaborate with governments, NGOs, and one another in industrialized and emerging markets.

Countries in the developing world need financial assistance from the developed nations if they are to deliver a more just and equitable energy transition today and for future generations. So wrote GE Energy Financial Services President and CEO Susan Flanagan. It’s about solving the energy trilemma: helping the people of emerging nations obtain access to sustainable, reliable, and affordable energy.

Finally, GE Digital CEO Scott Reese wrote the energy transition will not happen without software, which will play a key role in reducing energy waste now, ensuring a resilient grid, and accelerating the transition to zero- and low-carbon energy resources. “Software’s superpower is the ability to marry human ingenuity with data, artificial intelligence and machine learning, digital modeling, computing power, and analytics engines to arrive at optimal solutions faster and with more confidence,” he said.

The 28th Conference of Parties takes place next November in Dubai. In the next 12 months, GE will continue to work with Egypt to fulfill our commitments and honor that country’s leadership while planning to demonstrate further proof points on lowering emissions today and developing breakthrough technologies to accelerate a lower-carbon future.

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My Epiphanies at a Climate Innovation Breakfast

We are in a critical decade of action that will support the energy transition to drive decarbonization. More than 100 heads of state and over 35,000 participants came together in Sharm El-Sheikh, Egypt, for two...

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A Highly Volatile World Demands New Solutions to Navigate Risk

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How to Catalyze Rapid Climate Action? With ‘Radical Collaboration’

Organizations can accelerate progress to net zero using a systems approach in which industry, finance, and developed and developing nations work together to decarbonize global economies

If companies are to be major players in efforts to achieve net zero emissions by 2050 while positioning their businesses to thrive in the low-carbon transition, they should move beyond go-it-alone approaches that only focus on their own operations or even their own value chain. Instead, organizations should consider adopting a “systems thinking” mindset and work across industries and countries to speed the transition to a low-carbon economy, said Jules Kortenhorst, former CEO of energy transition research organization RMI, at a panel session of the Techonomy Health + Wealth of Our Planet conference during Climate Week NYC. “If we’re going to act in time to prevent the worst impacts of climate change, it’s going to take radical collaboration among companies, governments, finance, and customers in a way we’ve rarely seen in the global economy, including in high-emission industries like steel, petrochemicals, shipping, and aviation.”

During the panel session, “Disrupting Climate Change with Systems Thinking,” Kortenhorst; Bridget Fawcett, global co-head of Sustainability & Corporate Transitions, Banking, Capital Markets and Advisory at Citi; and Scott Corwin, chief strategy and commercialization officer of the Deloitte U.S. Sustainability, Climate & Equity practice discussed how a systems approach can drive global stakeholder participation to fast-track the clean energy transition, finance’s critical role, and the importance of working with developing nations to support their low-carbon transformation.

What do you mean by systems change, and why is it important for combatting climate change?

Scott Corwin: In systems thinking, companies and industries take a holistic approach to transformation, focused on how a system’s parts are intertwined and work together within the context of a larger whole. Applied to speeding the low-carbon transformation of the economy, instead of trying to transform it in a serial or linear manner, or by concentrating on one area to create change, organizations simultaneously look for tipping points in major economic systems, including energy, transportation, food, and heavy industry, to help transform them at the scale and speed needed to achieve net zero emissions by 2050.

In an earlier panel, we heard a statistic that about 50% of companies have made a statement about their net zero pledges, but only 2% globally actually have a plan. Looking at the sheer magnitude and pace of transformation that’s needed to achieve the targets of the Paris Accord, that is likely  not enough. I believe A nonlinear, disruptive approach to massively transform these systems  can help change the trajectory of organic markets like renewable energy. It has taken us over 20 years to make solar and wind economically viable. We don’t have 20 more years to develop  scaled markets for green hydrogen, direct air capture, sustainable fuel, and carbon capture and storage. Done right, a systems approach brings together companies along the entire value chain—upstream and downstream—to drive those markets and leverage them to transform our economic systems.

How do we overcome challenges to system-led climate action? For instance, how do we get competitors to move together on clean energy transformation, when so many companies are hesitant to get out in front because it may be disadvantageous to their income statement and their balance sheet?

Bridget Fawcett: We’ve seen systems thinking executed effectively with COVID and how all the different players around the world—governments, corporates, non-governmental organizations—came together to develop a vaccine to fight this disease. Similarly with climate change, we have a common  existential threat to everyone. That is a motivating factor for different parties to think and act differently at scale. And Jules, I was struck by your comment when we were in Glasgow last year for COP26, the UN climate conference, that this was the first time you saw all the systems—actors from the private sector as well as government and nongovernmental organizations—convening to help solve this global problem.

Kortenhorst: I agree that we have coalesced around this common narrative about the urgent need to fight climate change, and it’s a fundamental requirement for us to take the next step, but it’s not enough. We need to work together and to do it with urgency. We need to bring together technology providers and industry participants, along with their fuel suppliers, regulators, and financiers. We also need to mobilize to bring in their customers. And I believe that only if we bring all these stakeholders together can we shift markets at the speed and scale that’s necessary to get us to 2030 and 2050 net zero goals. As an example, think about whether you’d pay $100 extra for your next automobile if it were made without embedded carbon in its steel. I think most everyone would agree that’s a good idea. The problem is that your pricing signal does not land at the desk of steel manufacturers, who are trying to sell their steel at the lowest price in the market, because that’s the only way they can convince automakers to buy it.

So, we have to stitch the value chains together and radically collaborate across these chains to make that happen, to tip the markets by delivering those pricing signals directly to the manufacturers and energy producers. That is critically important, especially with all the money at stake now in the United States with the Inflation Reduction Act of 2022.

What role does finance play in implementing a systems-thinking-led approach to rapidly achieve low-carbon transformation across economic systems simultaneously?

Fawcett: The financial service sector is helping corporations and governments execute the change they need. But we’re also going through a transition ourselves. For example, Citi and many other banks have joined the Net Zero Banking Alliance, organized by the Glasgow Financial Alliance for Net Zero (GFANZ), a financial services coalition that was formed last year in the run-up to COP26. All members have committed to becoming net zero banks and, importantly, we will report progress on these goals and will produce a report card every year showing how we’re deploying capital towards the low-carbon transition. GFANZ is now over 550-strong globally and controls about $150 trillion of assets. That means GFANZ bank members control and deploy a significant portion of bank financing globally.

If we can align that capital to support and enable low-carbon business models, that will help create a tipping point greater than anything we’ve seen. I think the financial services sector can play more of a differentiated, disruptive role than it ever has historically, in part because of this systems thinking effort with the development of GFANZ. To make that happen, we need financial services organizations to outline very specifically what their lending requirements are for energy and power and other high emissions sectors. At Citi, for example, we are executing on our commitment by asking every one of our clients: What is your transition plan? What is your pathway? What are your metrics? What are your capital expenditure requirements, and how are you allocating those to achieve a low carbon business model?

How can systems thinking be applied to help finance a pivot to clean energy in the developing world, where greenhouse gas emissions are expected to rise as those economies continue to grow? 

Fawcett: We must be mindful that developing countries are in different stages of development with different energy and social needs. Developing markets should be allowed to grow, and I believe they should have more leeway to transition to clean energy than the developed markets. But there does need to be more investment and innovation to help those economies become part of the clean energy transition, and we are seeing pockets of it in certain countries.

Many of them do have longer net zero commitments, whether it’s 2060 or 2070, but in China for instance, their solar and wind investments far outpace that of any other country. India is positioning itself to champion the global energy transition. Those ambitions need to be financed, and a lot of the financing is for new, innovative technologies to help us get there.

Kortenhorst: To Bridget’s point, the economics of the energy transition are now so overwhelming around the world that we should not be thinking about this as something we’re going to do in the developed world and then one day convince developing countries to do it, too. For example, we recently analyzed the economics of power generation in one of the countries negotiating with the G7 on retiring their coal fleet. It became clear that it’s possible to  build wind and solar there much more cost effectively than new coal. In fact, that country could shut down its existing coal plants, replace them with new wind and solar, and have a positive impact on reducing emissions rates while also making the country better off economically.

We need innovative financing to make these transitions work, because many countries may be hampered by a limited ability to borrow. We are seeing that happen with the Just Energy Transition Partnership (JETP) between South Africa and G7 members Germany, France, the United Kingdom, the United States, and the European Union, which provides $8.5 billion to transition South Africa’s energy system from coal to lower-emission technologies. This movement is now happening around the world: The G7 recently announced it is launching a JTEP with India, Indonesia, Vietnam, and Senegal this year.

I believe we are going to see more of these collaborative efforts between developed and developing countries to help fight climate change, and the faster they come together, the faster we reduce the cost of renewable energy. Then, I believe, we will see the positive systems feedback loops kicking in to really accelerate the transition.

This article is part of an ongoing series of interviews with executives. The executives’ participation in this article are solely for educational purposes based on their knowledge of the subject and the views expressed by them are solely their own. This article should not be deemed or construed to be for the purpose of soliciting business for any of the companies mentioned, nor does Deloitte advocate or endorse the services or products provided by these companies.

This publication contains general information only and Deloitte is not, by means of this publication, rendering accounting, business, financial, investment, legal, tax, or other professional advice or services. This publication is not a substitute for such professional advice or services, nor should it be used as a basis for any decision or action that may affect your business. Before making any decision or taking any action that may affect your business, you should consult a qualified professional advisor.

Deloitte shall not be responsible for any loss sustained by any person who relies on this publication.

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Deloitte refers to one or more of Deloitte Touche Tohmatsu Limited, a UK private company limited by guarantee (“DTTL”), its network of member firms, and their related entities. DTTL and each of its member firms are legally separate and independent entities. DTTL (also referred to as “Deloitte Global”) does not provide services to clients. In the United States, Deloitte refers to one or more of the US member firms of DTTL, their related entities that operate using the “Deloitte” name in the United States and their respective affiliates. Certain services may not be available to attest clients under the rules and regulations of public accounting. Please see www.deloitte.com/about to learn more about our global network of member firms.

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Business is the Battery of Society: Reflections On Innovation

Organizations can accelerate progress to net zero using a systems approach in which industry, finance, and developed and developing nations work together to decarbonize global economies

My Epiphanies at a Climate Innovation Breakfast

Organizations can accelerate progress to net zero using a systems approach in which industry, finance, and developed and developing nations work together to decarbonize global economies

It’s a Wrap: 9 Ways GE Put Words Into Action at COP27

Organizations can accelerate progress to net zero using a systems approach in which industry, finance, and developed and developing nations work together to decarbonize global economies

A Highly Volatile World Demands New Solutions to Navigate Risk

Organizations can accelerate progress to net zero using a systems approach in which industry, finance, and developed and developing nations work together to decarbonize global economies

Climate Tech, Compassion, and the Innovation Crucible: Highlights of TE22

Our recent three-day excursion into the future of innovation at TE22 brought together concerns about democracy, a semi-obsession with global warming, confusion about the metaverse, and predictions of an AI/robotic society. But we found general optimism that yes, there would be tools for all these challenges.

Maria Ressa told us freedom is at stake.

“Online harms turn into real world harms,” said 2021 Nobel Peace Prize laureate Maria Ressa. ”The weaponization of the legal system, or as my lawyers call it ‘lawfare’, is something…I hope doesn’t come to America. But the polarization of politics, the addiction to the technology, all of these things we share around the world.”

Ressa was scheduled to be our opening speaker at the recent Techonomy 2022 conference in Sonoma, California.  But she had to withdraw to attend to urgent filing of a final legal appeal to the Supreme Court of the Philippines in Manila. Ressa, journalist, activist, and thorn in the side of vindictive dictator Rodrigo Duterte, has been on trial on multiple spurious charges. She faces prison time of up to seven years in just this case, even as she also faces numerous other charges in separate cases.

Ressa sent a special video message to the conference, whose theme was “Innovation Must Save the World,”  expressing her grave concerns about the impacts of technology on our emotions, brains, and society. She also said this case will “basically determine whether I still have my freedom.”

Everything is interconnected.

The legendary Dr. Larry Brilliant (who gifted me a primo mask backstage, btw) is uniquely qualified to discuss how public health, the economy, geopolitics, the climate, and indeed everything, are profoundly interconnected. His overarching message: problems of all kinds must be addressed wholistically, cooperatively, and compassionately. Among his many accomplishments Brilliant, alongside a valiant corps of public health workers, decades ago helped lead the fight to eradicate smallpox, as an employee of the World Health Organization.

Brilliant joined David Kirkpatrick on stage at TE22 to discuss the connection between climate change and global health. He said the key thing to remember is that the fundamental causes of climate change are also antecedent causes of Covid–clear-cut rainforests, rising temperatures, changing seasons, famine, drought, and floods. “All of these things at the same time destroy animal habitat and put animals and human in each other’s habitats,” Brilliant said, “and that’s why we’ve gotten over the last ten years a cacophony of these viruses…SARS, MERS, Lyme disease, West Nile, Ebola, and now you have Covid…The major culprit is modernity. The most invasive species is us.”

(For a more detailed account of Brilliant’s inspiring appearance, read Meredith Salisbury’s report.)

Climate tech (like our precious planet) is hot, hot, hot.  

It’s not just wind farms and carbon capture anymore. Every company must become a climate company and every industry is ripe–overdue–for innovation. Among numerous speakers, Techonomy 2022 hosted leaders from biomanufacturing, solar power, sustainable aviation, next-generation nuclear power, electric vehicles, and climate investing. They all said climate tech is the future and is not a choice.

Mike Schroepfer is all in on climate. As the former longtime chief technology officer of Meta, he learned a thing or two about how to scale technology and organizations. (His direct reports at Facebook, now Meta, grew from 150 to 35,000 during his time there.) Now he is applying that knowledge to his new passion:  hyperscaling climate technology.  “If we’re going to solve these problems, we need to build lots of stuff. We’re going to need a lot more solar, wind, batteries…we’re going to need to decarbonize everything, electrify everything. And that’s going to require a lot of scale up…and we’re going to have to do it really quickly.” He believes that “hyperscaling,” heretofore applied by advocates like entrepreneur and investor Reid Hoffman to software businesses, can apply to hardware systems as well. We face the need for a build-out of sustainable infrastructure that is of unprecedented urgency.

The Environmental Defense Fund’s Kristin Tracz shared her optimism about the historic climate funding in the recently-passed U.S. Inflation Reduction Act. That and other recent “Biden bills” are expected to yield major innovations in the fight against climate change. Separately, IDA Ireland’s Maeve Cowley and Dr. Lorraine Byrne of Trinity College’s Advanced Materials and BioEngineering Research center said on stage that enlightened regulation, urgent R&D, and public/private collaborations have led to a thriving sustainable innovation ecosystem in Ireland and in Europe more broadly.

The metaverse is still up for debate. 

What is it? What does it look like? What should we call it? What are the use cases for individuals, businesses, and governments? If a “tree” falls in a “forest,” does it make a sound? Will we ever have legs?

Even more than for most nascent but promising technologies, there is excessive confusion and debate about the metaverse. But everyone agrees it will be–for better and/or worse–transformative and consequential.

The debate grew “spicy” at a Techonomy breakfast roundtable on the metaverse hosted by veteran tech journalist Robin Raskin. Unity CEO John Riccitiello said avatars are overhyped and often irrelevant. And Games for Change President Susanna Pollack pointed to the potential for learning and peace.

In response to a question in his main stage interview about the criticism Meta has faced for spending billions on cutesy avatars, Mike Schroepfer said: “All of that money is going towards long term R&D for the actual technological enablers for things I’ve seen in the lab, which is not a cartoon avatar, but someone that looks like a real, 3D person who’s talking to me in real time, who happens to be across the country…And you literally have this experience of ‘Oh my gosh. This is the closest thing I’ve ever had to being here in person without having to travel to see you.’”

(For a detailed account of the debates over the metaverse that prevailed at the conference, see Robin Raskin’s just-published report.)

To make progress in the world, we must also make progress within ourselves.

At the conference’s opening plenary, Esther Dyson, Vivienne Ming, and John Hagel tackled the ticklish topic of how to harness human nature to accelerate innovation. Silicon Valley icon Esther Dyson, who now focuses with her Wellville project on community-based health solutions, says the tech industry itself suffers from addiction. She argues that tech and venture capital’s addiction to big exits and big profits is fostering a culture of short term thinking and a dearth of socially-minded leadership. Author John Hagel says at the core, fear is what holds people back, but that we can learn to tame it and use fear as a tool. Neuroscientist Vivienne Ming’s research counterintuitively found that access to unlimited information, which we all have these days at the tips of our fingers, is sapping creativity and slowing innovation. Her antidote: we must go deeper and keep searching for novel answers. And even when we succumb to things like scrolling Instagram, our welfare and creativity depends on making sure we also ensure we periodically sit back and think deeply.

In a different session that took a similar theme, Autodesk CEO Andrew Anagnost made the case for what he called “innovation without ego.” Too often, posited Anagnost, tech industry CEOs focus more on notoriety and wealth creation than societal stewardship. This leaves leaders always searching, often in vain, for the elusive next big thing. Executives must put stakeholders and long-term vision first, he said.

Keep an eye on advancements in AI and robotics.

Ken Washington, former CTO of Ford and now Amazon’s VP of software engineering, spoke with Worth Magazine’s Dan Costa about how robots can evolve to improve the world. Amazon’s new home robot Astro, for example, is one adorable first step into the coming age of robotics. Amazon envisions home robots that improve safety and security, help people stay connected and eventually assist them with aging in place. And perhaps keep things tidy?

Tekedra Mawakana, CEO of Alphabet’s self-driving car division Waymo, explained the complex challenges her company faces of perfecting driverless vehicles. When lives are at stake, she says, progress must be well-researched and deliberate. But Waymo’s progress is coming along nicely. The company is currently expanding into some neighborhoods in Los Angeles.

Serial entrepreneur Dan Neely and  Nina Schick, author of Deep Fakes: The Coming Infocalypse, discussed the promises and dangers of generative AI, which creates surprisingly-compelling and convincing images, video, and audio in response to spoken or written prompts. With the public now able to whip up AI-generated images at will and whim, Neely launched a new company, Vermilio, at the conference. It aims to help solve challenges of IP ownership and image authenticity posed by the generative AI revolution.

These conversations shouldn’t stop here. Our world is at a critical juncture and all businesses across all industries must innovate to drive climate solutions, health, and equity for all. Join us this spring in Silicon Valley for the second annual Techonomy Climate conference, where we will dive even deeper into the tech we need to save our planet.

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