You've been delivering solutions for years. You became truly passionate about it. But if you've still not been seen to be championing innovation, then you have really badly spoiled your basic business buzzword bingo ballot card. You are inelligible to network and we all feel embarrassed for you. Don't feel you can redeem yourself with some last-minute authentic storytelling as we escort you off the premises – you're writing cheques your PowerPoint can't cash. Because we use contactless now and your brain is in the cloud – this isn't the 1970s. You're pathetic, Steve.
But innovation is the thing all business feels sure it must have some of somewhere today. Incubate it. Testbed it. Have your old lean project team work up a culture. So long as you're still at your desk by half eight, you arty sponger. I'm off to take the clients to an enormous lunch and try to sell them a soulless expensive car ad for the telly. Gosh but I miss the 1970s.
So what is it? Innovation. And how does it fit into the UN’s working plan for building an actually sustainable human-planet future – the Global Goals? In my personal look at how we might hope to piece together a complete idea of a practically positive tomorrow, I’ve used the SDGs as they’re sometimes called as a good outline structure to interrogate the challenge Generation Now is really facing – that’s you and me. Whether you’re eight or eighty, it’s dawning on more and more of us that many big problems seem to be converging on us all at once today, as the 21st century approaches its third decade. Can we innovate our way out of them in the end? With some last minute authentic storytelling, perhaps.
In this episode of Unsee The Future, I’m actually going to innovate a little efficiency myself, by combining two of the Goals into one episode. ..Don’t panic. You can cope with some out of the box thinking; we’ve come a long way together already and we’ve tinkered with the format before, to keep things fresh. This is the future, after all.
Because it strikes me that the Goal for Industry, Innovation and Infrastructure is tied rather closely to the Goal for Responsible Consumption and Production. I’d say, complex as the aims swept up under these two titles are, that they are flip sides of the same coin. Our industry is our means of production and our infrastructure delivers what we consume. To me, it’s going to take some significant innovation to retcon the technical complications of our world machine. Because we’ve come to depend on that machine like an iron lung.
But. Instead of attempting to write a Haynes Manual of the Land Rover World Machine, I think it would be sensible to simply lay out the challenge we’re facing as industry planners and consumers alike, and look at a couple of examples of trends in thinking that might show what’s possible. And well done for using the word trends.
Pop the kettle on. But the biscuit budget it rescinded – no more hanging around the tea urn. Barbara’s not interested anyway. Grab your Sharpies. Let’s innovate.
On the one hand, the Global Goals aim to: Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns.
It’s linked to everything this, isn’t it? CO2 emissions, health, waste and pollution, all of it. And they chastise us bluntly:
“Our planet has provided us with an abundance of natural resources. But we have not utilized them responsibly and currently consume far beyond what our planet can provide. We must learn how to use and produce in sustainable ways that will reverse the harm that we have inflicted on the planet.”
They seem to recognise there that a less than universal access to information and financial markets has driven some unhealthy divisions in the shape of global business and the shape of the infrastructure that delivers it. Baking in systemic less than optimal outcomes, you might say. If you’d swallowed your copy of Bizspeak 101.
They actively want to encourage industry it seems – the “inclusive and sustainable” kind, mind, but they want industry across the world to up its share of employment. The business of making stuff. Too many sponging arty types in white colar consultancies not actually making anything, perhaps? Just “blogging” and tending “channels”. I don’t know, but there is the hope to turn a lot of that physical jobs market into work that helping developing nations get much more up to scratch with their internal workings – building stuff to help the countries work much more effectively and sustainably in one stroke.
Keynesian and Green, you might say. Greensian.
But the UN’s hopes tie this big building stuff to research and to technical development, alongside better financial influence for poorer nations and workers, and improved IT skills and a general diversification of economies. One or two of the richest nations on Earth are sweating about this last bit.
Where to start.
The business of business is hard work. No one builds success without graft – and focus. In all our narratives of healthier living and better work/life balances – in our whole creeping awakening to our mental health pandemic – we can’t forget that it takes preparation, vision, slog, resiliance and sheer cojones to make a business work. It’s takes conscious sacrifice. It’s risky, it’s energy-draining. But you do it because you feel you must. Either because fate has shown you the only way out of that stuck job, or because you just can’t ignore the tingle in your water that you have to have tried that endeavour – tried to grapple an opportunity. And, in the end, it is entrepreneurism that changes the world – the sheer, daft commitment to having a go at something new. You might argue, it is the single most planet-shaping core characteristic of the human. We can’t leave ideas alone.
By the time we’ve built those ideas, though, they become entities in themselves. Things outside us. Kinetically-learned experiences we can’t put back into our brains, and which can begin to control our thinking. I feel sure that the maritime habit of referring to ships with the female pronoun is because a ship takes on a characterful presence of its own, when you spend any time around one. “She’s a fine ship” is the admission that the huge bit of steel and rivotting rolling around on the briney has become present in a crew member’s imagination – wedded to them emotionally a bit. And a massive bit of infrastructure like a ship can do a lot to look after you, like a protecting mother figure, if you look after her.
She can also do a lot to drown you if she sinks. And that won’t be her fault. It’ll be her senior staff’s fault.
Industry has challenges on the more massive end of the challenges scale. And it’s a genie so out of the bottle of ideas that the landscape of big manufacturing and oil and gas refinery seems as immoveable as the mountains of Earth themselves. And, of course, it drives the bulk of our climate target problems. So rather than letting the big old tankers of last century’s industrial hopes crack apart and sink in socially, economically and chemically toxic disasters of bad leadership, how can we build new vessels of manufacturing hopes that can stay afloat indefinitely, so we can carefully scuttle the old buckets.
Well firstly, if you simply want to expand your futury portfolio and invest in ‘green industry’, Investopedia highlights what it thinks are the top ten ‘industries’ to dig into your inheritance for. And you might have been able to write the headlines yourself during a coffee at the airport waiting for your chartered jet to refuel – wind energy, water purification, solar energy, fuel cell production, efficiency innovation, pollution control tech, waste reduction products, organics and… less toxic oil companies. For they say, there are some, relatively speaking. While this last one might sound like trying to weave a green silk purse out of an oil refinery spill, Investopedia make a realistic point about trying to improve both better practice in existing multi-nationals and the development of much greener innovation by placing your money very deliberately, Saving the world one investment at a time, as they put it. The mirror of the other great movement to give the more toxic industrial markets their marching orders, divestment, as GoFossil free simply illustrates. Getting rid of your mucky oil and gas shares. Not because they aren’t still making nice profits, but because you’d rather see the money go to encourage something more sustainable.
While renewable energy is an obvious industry to bet on at the moment, some are still a little sceptical about what it will deliver in terms of a real ‘green renaissance’ of new tech green jobs. The FT‘s City Editor, Jonathan Ford is scoffing about their ability to add up to much new biz for UK PLC, for example.
“No one denies that green technologies create employment. Figures from the Renewable Energy Association suggest that 117,000 people are already beavering away in the sector and its supply chain. But job creation alone does not equate to a benefit for the economy” he says, essentially claiming the jobs have little value, in a sector that: “the British public must first sluice with buckets of subsidies, expected to reach £9bn a year by 2020.” He doesn’t quite mention where this figure comes from, and he doesn’t interestingly mention the nearly seven billion in subsidies the fossil fuel sector has had from the UK taxpayer this century, as unearthed by Private Eye and reported on by Unearthed – it’s murky reading. Ford also doesn’t refer to his own paper’s report that worldwide: “Statistical analysis by the International Energy Agency shows there are large transfers from the public purse that encourage the consumption of polluting fuels…” with global subsidies for Oil & Gas totalling $490B in 2014, while straight renewables were handed out $112B in the same year. He does goes on to say that China has stolen the march on the green sector enormously so kinda what’s the point, yeah? Damn that free market economy, as I’m sure the Financial Times would put it.
SDG12.C interestingly implies there are “market distortions” created by fossil-fuel subsidies that “encourage wasteful practices” as it puts it, so they aim to “rationalise” these. (Incidentally, I believe the security question to get into the UN’s global headquarters on the East River is always randomly generated from the complete current structural breakdown of the Global Goals, so if you’re planning to visit you’d better learn the whole thing by heart. There will be a test.)
Subsidising sectors is simply something a government is supposed to do in the national interest. Helping things that the democratically elected representitives of the people think the people will benefit from when the free market can’t be expected naturally adopt. It’s called good management of resources. Attempting to balance business encouragements with health and security long term. That’s the idea. I hear this can be slightly effected by who people’s mates are in government, but perish the thought.
Many new businesses across the world are simply getting on with exploring the possibilities of whole new ways of doing things around green energy, and many would say there would be all manner of opportunity in a government very publically throwing its story of national identity behind the idea. Be real world-leaders and tool up your workforce and markets for the impending future as you do so.
But wholy new business aside, the rub is surely old business. Is there any value-adding place for some sustainable innovation in the markets that make all the big stuff our brave new tomorrow will be built with? Like steel. Wind turbines made out of hemp and flax are they, mate? Well, green industry doesn’t necessarily mean all-vegan canteens. Not yet, anyway.
“It’s not enough to be authentic. We have to be real” said Mark Masters of You Are The Media. “Authenticity is seen by many businesses as the mantra to live by and the stake in the ground for others to see how they behave. In reality it comes across as a tailored begging bowl for acceptance.”
While it’s true that creative media, marketing and ‘digital’ businesses tend to be a little more keenly aware of progressive strategy jargon, the thinking tends to eventually flow diluted down the business river to register somewhere in a cultural water sample at the dockside of general working life. From the haut couture wellspring of fancypants expensive adland trends, to the off-the-peg watercoolers of our industrial estate marketing. And the trend this century has been to start to sound a little more human. Slightly softer. Remembering to smile when you rationalise your optimal forecasting by sacking Gary in Purchasing. That sort of thing.
Now, I’ve said before that I think brand and biz attempts to look a little nicer, like greenwashing or humanwashing – ..not a phrase that will catch on at networking breakfasts, come to think of it – are actually little signs that the wind is changing. I am tempted to stare flintily at the windsock of such things and say quietly: “Yep, a storm is a comin'”. But that doesn’t make it the main weather system of change arriving quite yet. Some endemic things to how we do business have sort of eradiated our minds from our first typing pool job.
But in the era of giant corporatism trying hard to look more ‘human’, it may be that the true transformation of the mega brands – from big businesses adding only dead-eyed financial value to rather fewer people than they like to claim and making a lot of noise polution across all the channels of our living as they do so – y’know, it may be that we are seeing the beginnings of more actually useful thinking from organisations with big clout. They may even have to allow this to survive.
As The Future Laboratory’s Olivia Stancombe says to industry mag, Campaign, “Agencies must become activists, speaking to consumers’ morals and emotions”.
“Consumers are less trusting of traditional media and becoming savvier to the algorithms used to deliver them that “perfect” piece of content, and the industry must acknowledge this and react. Data can only take you so far in identifying who to connect with. More is needed to strike up a truly meaningful connection” she says.
“In tumultuous times, consumers are looking to brands to take an active role in society, as was shown in a recent Unilever study which found that a third of consumers are now choosing to buy from brands they believe are doing social or environmental good.”
Everything starts at home, of course. How you treat your staff may be the real bellweather of who you are as a company. How inclusive is your hiring policy, your office environment, your brand language? Does what you say match up with what you do day to day? And does it resonnate with the humans working for you? I’ve said in my own conversations with different businesses over the years that we’re talking about brand body language – all the things that your business life communicates around your words. And they are always by far the widest bandwidth communication channel, mate. Brands, like besties, are built on behaviours. They’ll always show up what your real values are.
Does sportwear titan Nike’s new Nothing beats a Londoner ad have something genuine to say about social life now in the UK? In post B-word Britain? Maaaybe. It did make me feel a little better about my home country again; a tiny squirt of that comforting old 2012 magic. The longform cut of the TV ad looks like a newer story of us, that tries to employ some recognition.
It’ll never sit fully comfortably, though. Big business feeding us emotions. But if this campaign is backed up by social support for the young people it shines a brief follow spot on – an ongoing commitment to the spending of profits on people trying to use sport to broaden their outlook – then good may be done here. It’s about the consistency. Is it here today and gone tomorrow? There’s the emotional rub of any human relationship – and the one we judge them all on. As Mark Masters said, a year on from the carcrash Pepsi ad, in which smilingly diverse peace protesters with quaintly un-potent retro CND logos are brought together with the cops by Kendall Jenner and can of fizzy pop… what has Pepsi done to invest in a longform commitment to helping community justice? Silence. There are Pepsi’s authentic values.
Whilst it is honestly incomprehensible that the big power agencies still see dividends to shareholders as more important than investing in the communities of their often energy-poor customers, maybe we can yet help them crumble this foundational thinking. What if we pressured the public conversation towards running private energy firms as much closer to Not For Profits, turning healthy business success into more and more schemes for helping people? Y’know, like a nationalised bit of infrastructure should? What if the climate of ‘success’ felt much more like this for those operating the firms with big reach.
The debate has resurged in the private sector loving UK recently, with opposition Geography teacher Jeremy Corbyn saying simply “privatise the water industry” and many voices calling for the renationalisation of the railways, so rubbish has been the ticket prices-to trains-ever-turning-up ratio of many dividend-fountaining operators. Well, of course, interestingly, the rail network in Britain is already half nationalised – shhh – with the running of the tracks, signals and major stations having been managed by the government effectively, through Network Rail, since the early naughties. It just sounds less scary to some of Middle England when you don’t mention the word Socialism. And why should you need to? Sustainable business is surely about finding what works best for a given sector. And it’s not always slathering dividend junkies. Taxpayers can sometimes be the smartest investors.
And what if doing this did, yes, involve a conscious running down of a big business? Ah, well that suicidal declaration of do-goodery would kill the confidence in it held by its market, and the value of the company would collapse too quickly to do any good, right? But what if we simply saw this as fairly basic strong leadership – the vital principle of delegating and nurturing and planning and load-spreading yourself out of a job? You’d have surely DONE your job, as an energy executive human being, looking to the future of your planet and your people, no? It’s something for every person responsible for employees’ and customers’ wellbeing to ponder. And I can think of examples business owners who’ve simply done it – closed down one dream to follow a new one.
But this has impact on us out of work as well, of course. We have to be seen to be “understanding sustainable lifestyles” as Goal 12.8 puts it, and begin to consider the idea of sustainable tourism. While that particular notion has been around a while, the implications of it beyond the idea of being nice to people while you’re on holiday – which the World Tourism Organisation slightly embellishes from that – might be that we don’t even do tourism like we did. How do we mix the need to look after communities banking on the souvenir-hunting dollar while not banking on millions of CO2-belching airmiles spent just to go get blitzed in the bars of Benidorm.
Great. Now I can’t even escape the workstation and the beige photocopier without guilt. Thanks. Ironic too because innovation is about to hand your job to a robot. So you’re going to be on holiday a lot.
“The agendas of accelerating sustainable development and eradicating poverty and that of climate change are deeply intertwined.” So says a joint report from The Brookings Institution, The Global Commission on the Economy & Climate and the Grantham Institute. “Growth strategies that fail to tackle poverty and/or climate change will prove to be unsustainable, and vice versa” it says.
“The world is in the midst of a historic structural transformation, with developing countries becoming the major drivers of global savings, investment, and growth, and with it driving the largest wave of urbanization in world history. At the same time, the next 15 years will also be crucial for arresting the growing carbon footprint of the global economy and its im pact on the climate system. A major expansion of investment in modern, clean,and efficient infrastructure will be essential to attaining the growth and sustainable development objectives that the world is setting for itself.”
Problem is, the report says, we’re currently caught globally in a cycle of low investment and low growth, with insufficient infrastructures rising to the challenge, despite “an enormous available pool of global savings”. They say that, essentially if we’d just wake up, there are: “major opportunities that can be exploited.”
Why? Why don’t we? When it does seem to some eager billionaires like Musk and Diamandis and Gates and others we’ve never heard of that the future could be a brilliant entrepreneurial opportunity. You could say it is because these guys recognise to one degree or another that the real opportunity of the more abundant future, if we’re to pursue it realistically, is one that includes… er, everyone. The current world machine mostly looks after a few. And they’re not likely to be keen to dismantle it all, you might think.
I think a simpler, less conspiratorial angle to view it all from here is simply reticence. Folk don’t like change.
All at once, technological changes seem to threaten our lives and give them some hope. We can’t wait to play with robots for example but aren’t sure whether they will one day rule us. As Shivdeep Dhaliwal says in The Next Web, AI is actually a long way from capable of making human sense of an economy. The kinds of jobs lost to a new generation of bots will be jobs too boring or dangerous for us to sensibly keep doing if we don’t have to. Instead, he says, this change should be: “..seen as an opportunity to upskill human workers so that they can be more productive or better utilized. Ultimately, humans are the driving force of the economy — we consume and we create, robots do not. At least not presently or in the near future.”
Rodney Brookes for MIT Technology Review sums up The seven deadly sins of AI prediction in a super article it’s worth reading, essentially telling us to stay cool, dadio. Hollywood, picturing magic not science, ambiguous use of terms, fear of the exponential… such things creep into our minds with fanciful worries about everything. Brookes says, in the end, just this: “Almost all innovations in robotics and AI take far, far, longer to be really widely deployed than people in the field and outside the field imagine.”
They’re not coming for our jobs. They may well, in the mid term, be a part of how we all get better jobs. AI is a huge part of the unfolding revolution for sure, and it will help unlock all kinds of global infrastructures and industries, but you can take a breath or two before putting your desklamp in your carboard box.
If you want to take a more exciting flick through an Usborne Book of the future-type vision of tomorrow’s jobs, you really should click to Fast Co Design’s reporting of Salt & Pepper Creative’s illustrations of the jobs of tomorrow for the World Economic Forum. They’re delightful. Imagine yourself as a blockchain banking engineer on a jetski, or a national identity conservastionist, digitally capturing heritage for AR posterity, or a superstructure printer, ‘drawing’ finished buildings, or a technology ethicist, deciding from the moral high ground what technology to commission and licence. Yes! This is the kind of spacey old utopianism I can get on board with. Though, in truth, it’s thought-through stuff for the World Economic Forum. Just done with a little theatre.
It’s the renewable energy sector that I suspect is going to most immediately do much to visibly transform not just our workings and playings and comings and goings but our whole way of seeing the world – the thing I am arguing through Unsee The Future that we need above and in everything. A vital new perspective on ourselves and our place in the natural world. And the reason I think it will work is because it combines a few significant new factors in the human world machine.
It’s the affordable development of battery technology that is putting practical oomph under all the capriciously harvested natural energy options, helping us piece together solutions that will ultimately work at all scales. It’s poised to begin transforming the high street with growing electric vehicle sales and it is just beginning to square up to the meaty challenge of industry’s power needs. But it relies on a more fundamentally site-specific approach than imposed power. What is the best way to harness natural resources for clean energy here? Not having to fully depend on constantly piping hazzardous stuff thousands of miles to reach here. And it works because of innovations in digital tech – much better measurability of things. A speedier analysis of what is using what in a plant, or in a home.
The good news for twerpy you and me is potentially a few-fold.
As we saw in EP9, the psychology of this is that you are going to become far more aware of the energy impact of your living. Knowing what pushes your meter up might help you stop using it so much. That effect alone can reduce your bills. What will reduce your bills further is being able to generate your own energy. Imagine if governments decided not to give you personally all that set-up cost but Greensianly set about installing PV and batteries in all homes. Your cost of living would drop significantly.
Then, you would also have a degree of independence from the big power companies. Financially and practically, you wouldn’t need them as much day to day. That sounds rather nice to me. But you’d be thinking more about your place in the national mix too, interestingly – those meters will be telling you what you are giving back.
If you are living in a rural country struggling to catch up to industrial standards, this would be a lifeline. An empowerment in every sense.
And the innovations just in energy tech could make our centralised power generation look arcane to our young children. And just for a dizzying snapshot, take a look at Alternative Energy News’s Future News homepage – spherical sun power amplifiers, electricity generating car tyres, whole forests of 3d printed solar and kinetic power leaves, waste heat conversion, thermo-chemical solar… it’s all looking imminently futury and fun. And that’s before we get to Gravitricity’s ambitions to test a very simply effective large-scale gravity generator. Sadly not a graviton generator – we can’t fly without wings of some kind just yet.
Aside from all the fun looking generation coming our way to piece together a viable web of human power needs, one of the rather more ominous industrial innovations we may simply have to embrace, to tackle the climate crisis, will be carbon capture, says Akshat Rathi for Quartz. As much as many green folk dislike the idea, seeing cloud eating machines as a further symptom of bad scientific attitude fig-leafing unsustainable fossily practices, Rathi says that having looked at the ideas around it for many years, he is convinced we’re going to need to careful attempt to deploy some of the recent more successful attempts to develop the technology.
“I’ve come to a conclusion,” he says. “Carbon capture is both vital and viable. Its mass deployment remains a challenge, but not for the reasons that many environmentalists commonly cite. Clearing up those misunderstandings could offer hope in a world full of doom-and-gloom climate stories.”
As ever, it may well be the how it is used, rather than the whether. How it is deployed in the intelligent mix of attempting to save our current working dynamic with the environment. The context we manage its use in.
Success takes focus. Challenges demand it. But a sustainable way to look at it is surely to encourage a better sense of context. You may or may not have an instinctively entrepreneurial personality, but everyone needs certain human balances to be at their best in any endeavour. Just as anyone can have a crack at a business idea. I suspect the trick is to more consciously embrace the idea of seasons.
Is it a season to sow, or to reap? To invest or to sit tight? To work or to play? To relax or make sacrifices? Dumb fate will cruelly dictate most of this, of course, and getting your mindful self around this most fundamental interaction with our life’s experiences is pretty blooming fundamental indeed. You can’t control the wind. You can’t even see it, but it can blow over houses. And it can turn turbines to put the lights on in houses. Depends how you see it. And how up to seeing it you can admit you are.
There’s a time to bet it all on black. There is a time to REALLY LISTEN TO YOUR LOVED ONES who will benefit or suffer the most from your gambling addictions. And for your household, we can read our world community there.
Personal success is to be measured against one’s own goals. What were you most hoping to do? Or at least, attempting to do? Success is not measured against other people’s percieved success. Never. That way madness lies. And gambling addictions. Encouraging more honest measures of personal success could de-stress the planet’s workforce of industry leaders.
Tackling all this may seem a very long way from the planetary reality of hearing the oil refineries in remote bits of the Amazon jungle fall silent, for example. But it’s interesting to consider the possibility of a world where giant industry no longer feels the need to buy up beautiful bits of natural infrastructure and historic human land to plunder them for burn-it-once energy. And those big industrial companies have roots in all the major industrialised countries of the world. The ones where cultural pressure to encourage more sustainable living is often building most.
In an Instagram GoPro world, it’s getting harder to work hidden. Everything is connected and potentially published. The way to seize the business opportunity of a crisis is to recognise the more richly humanly valuable – and plug all humans into pursuing it. Where defeating the climate crisis is concerned, the truth is, no one is going to hand success to us. It’s never worked that way. The real innovations of the 21st century may be ordinary people helping each other to escape the failures of all our old ideas of success.
Read the World Resources Institute’s thinking on the idea.
How are renewables already disrupting the market – and the energy system?
Dive into AENews’ latest futury techy roundup
Discover Gravitricity’s scale up of a penny-drop idea