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From Technology To Transformation

Existing technology is already unlocking safer, smarter, greener solutions for powering our economy, transporting our goods, caring for our sick and feeding our growing population.

How can we accelerate the deployment and commercialisation of sustainable technologies, while ensuring they are introduced safely into society? Here's an introduction to our work on unlocking the transformative potential of technology.

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A nighttime satellite image of lit-up population centres across Europe, extending into Russia and the Middle East

Barriers

The future is here - it's just not evenly distributed. 

History shows that the technologies that have transformed our shipping, energy, food and health sectors have taken decades to move from invention to scale.

For example, the first modern computer was invented in the 1930s, but early growth was slow. In 1943 the president of IBM is famously reported to have said, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” Yet today, there is one personal computer in use for every five people on the planet. And the next generation of computing is here: personal computers are already being displaced by tablets and smartphones, which have the processing power of desktop computers ten years ago.

In part, this slowness can be explained by technology’s natural life-cycle. Before new technologies enter the market, they must be developed, tested and qualified. Investors must gain enough confidence to finance research and development and consumers must gain enough confidence to use them. It takes time to build trust in the quality and safety of new technologies.

But a number of barriers can slow this process further – barriers that seem to be particularly formidable for sustainable technologies. Incumbent infrastructure – whether physical, regulatory, economic or societal – is one of the biggest impediments to change. For example, the centralized grids that form the backbone of our electricity system are ill-equipped to handle variable renewable sources such as wind and solar power.

Most power markets do not incentivise cleaner, more distributed generation. And most consumers have limited visibility and agency over their energy use, making it hard for them to make greener choices even if they could save money.

Offshore wind turbines, ships and islands

Technology & Trust

Today, the requirements for earning social acceptance of technology are changing – just as the need for technological transformation is most urgent.

Governments, investors and industry groups are no longer the only constituents that must be confident in a new technology. Perceptions and trust are becoming crowd-sourced, with consumers turning to new, decentralised sources of information to determine whether a new technology fits with their vision for the future. We must understand not only technologies themselves, but the broader risks they both pose and face.

Countless technologies have been invented that enable us to generate power, fuel vehicles, grow food and provide healthcare in a better way, and many are entering the market. A safe and sustainable future is technically possible. Whether we reach it or not depends not just on technologies themselves, but how effectively we are able to introduce them at scale, manage their risks and build trust – all in a way that generates economic, social and environmental value.

Business people at a function

Transformative Technology Roundtable

On 4-5 June 2013 we held a roundtable in Berkeley, CA. Representatives of diverse industries, sectors and disciplines met to discuss the changing relationship of technology and society. They explored the barriers and enablers to the deployment of technology for a safe and sustainable future. Here are some key comments that came out of the roundtable:

“Even well-intended regulation cannot force innovation and implementation.” 

 – Paul Willems, BP

“Policy is the creator of markets, so we need to get it right.” 

 – Joshua Bar-Lev, First Solar

“Focusing on technology alone can be like a set of blinders.” 

 – Julie Albright, University of Southern California

“What is needed is a way to dramatically and rapidly short-circuit the process from traditional research and development into deployment.” 

 – Dan Kammen, UC Berkeley

Contact us for more information