Growing spinach in a skyscraper

Frans van Houten
Chief Executive Officer, Co-Chair PACE, Royal Philips
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As humans, we’ve always innovated our way out of problems, from steam engines to city farms, argues Frans van Houten.

What if just 20 buildings dedicated to urban farming could provide the entire city of New York with fruit and vegetables year round? It sounds like a fantasy of the future dreamed up on a Hollywood film set. But with breakthrough technology in LED lighting, when it comes to growing spinach in a skyscraper, the future is already here.

City farming is not only possible, it is the very definition of the kind of meaningful, sustainable innovation we will need to meet the grand challenges of the 21st century: climate change; population growth; ageing population; urbanization; rising demand for energy, food and water; poverty; and access to healthcare. But finding solutions to these challenges will also demand human resilience on a scale we’ve never known, and societies across the world committed to investing their talents and capabilities in ways that can improve the lives of people.

The “greying” of the world’s population is a good example, a grand challenge that will require global action in the next decades. Between now and 2050, the number of people over 60 will increase from 900 million to 2.4 billion. Think what those numbers mean for already overburdened, costly healthcare systems. Imagine the social welfare costs that societies will face in the years ahead.

But there is a positive side to the ageing of the planet if we understand that the productive capacity, the experience and the wisdom of older people can be crucial to meeting the challenges before us. Meaningful innovation can be an important catalyst in encouraging resilience in seniors, keeping them independent and engaged.

Meeting their needs through technology, however, will take reimagining liveable cities with smarter, more energy efficient lighting and creating new approaches to healthcare that promote wellness rather than simply treat illness. It will take effective community and family support and a focus on developing health and well-being innovations that are more intuitive, more effective, more affordable and accessible.

Fortunately, technology is already providing meaningful solutions. Innovative new fall detection technology housed in a pendant, for example, knows when and where a senior has fallen and can alert emergency responders to their location using GPS. Wireless home healthcare monitoring today keeps seniors connected with providers 24/7.

These kinds of breakthrough technologies can help create the resiliency we will need in the decades ahead. Today’s technology gives us smarter tools to drive dramatic change – intelligent energy, circular economic production, patient-focused healthcare, “Open Innovation” and more sustainable agri-solutions, to cite a few examples. But all technologies aren’t created equal.

Sustainable solutions based on innovation can create a more resilient world only if that innovation is focused on the health and well-being of its inhabitants. And it is at that point – where technology and human needs intersect – that we will find meaningful innovation.

A new global survey, “Making Innovation Matter: The People’s View”, commissioned by Philips Electronics, highlights the expectations people have for future innovation that focuses on making a difference in people’s everyday lives. It is at that point – where technology and human needs intersect – that we will find meaningful innovation.

In a new multicountry survey, “Making Innovation Matter: The People’s View”, commissioned by Philips Electronics, we found that there is an appetite for future innovation that goes beyond creating technology for technology’s sake; the focus instead is on innovations that will make a difference in people’s everyday lives. In fact, 74% told us technology had already improved their lives. But we also discovered that people have big expectations when it comes to the power of technology to change the way they live going forward.

Almost three in five people (58%) believe future innovations in medical technology, for example, will mean they will not be affected by serious illness. That’s a big challenge by itself, but almost three-quarters believe technology will improve energy efficiency and fundamentally change their homes in the next decade.

As humans, we’ve always innovated our way out of problems, whether it was the first torch to light a dark cave or the steam engine that sparked a revolution. Innovative technology can create the same kind of human resilience to meet the grand challenges of this century, while spurring economies towards new directions of growth.

The 21st century can be a tribute to the power of human resilience and creativity if, as one global society, we recognize that only meaningful, accessible and sustainable innovation, innovation that improves people’s lives, will take us to the future we need. This requires concerted leadership and action from all of us. Business has a pivotal role to play as innovators and responsible global citizens. We call upon government to create the environment and incentives to stimulate investment in sustainable innovation, remove barriers and accelerate adoption. By joining our powerful forces, we can fast-track the type of meaningful innovation that meets the needs of humans across the world – today and in the future.

Frans van Houten is the Chief Executive Officer of Royal Philips Electronics. He is participating in the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting 2013.

Image: A faba bean sprout. REUTERS/Thomas Peter

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