At the World Economic Forum’s (WEF) first Sustainable Development Impact Summit last week in New York, several of the discussions focused on how today's tech revolution – the so called Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR) – can create a better, cleaner and safer world.
The imperative is clear: while society today is the most prosperous and dynamic the world has ever created, our Earth system is under unprecedented stress.
Scientists say our planet has been torqued out of a stable system into uncharted territory. Examples include sobering warnings that 92% of the world's population live in places where air quality is unsafe, according to the World Health Organization, and that we may face a 40% shortfall in the freshwater that we need to support our global economy by 2030.
We frequently hear of studies and warnings on species extinction rates, deforestation, our nitrogen cycle, weather catastrophe losses and more. Amplifying all of the above is climate change and the growing risk as the Earth warms of crossing critical tipping points where major changes to the Earth system are triggered. And the hard truth is that current national commitments under the Paris Agreement are still only halfway to what’s needed to limit global warming to 2C.
With risks to our environment so large and so urgent, transformative change is a must. Which is why, and how, the 4IR for the Earth program will play the 4IR – the world’s most rapid period of innovation ever – to our advantage.
Riding today's tech revolution wave
4IR technologies cut across digital, physical and biological domains; think artificial intelligence (AI), the internet of things (IoT), self-driving vehicles, augmented and virtual reality (AR and VR), and bio-tech including gene editing tools, or nanotechnology.
We really just are at the beginning of the 4IR's beginning. That means we are not too late to do our best to make sure this industrial revolution, unlike its predecessors, is a sustainable one.
While some of the most potentially game-changing and pervasive 4IR solutions have not been invented yet, we have a good idea of some of the 4IR tech-related trends that are looking inevitable over the next 20-30 years. Here’s seven that venture capitalists have front of mind as they look to find the world's most important companies of tomorrow, with examples of the opportunities they present for a sustainable Fourth Industrial Revolution.
1. Proliferation of AI. The convergence of machine learning, big data and hardware advances speeding up computations (graphical processing units – GPUs – and soon deep learning chips) have brought AI from "in vitro" into everyday life. Because of AI, the 4IR is an intelligence and productivity revolution.
We are going to add AI to more and more things every year, and the AI itself is going to get smarter every year. This smartness can optimize material use, optimize energy use and optimize whole human systems – from energy and transport grids, to cities and industrial value chains. We also want AI to think differently from humans, not just think faster, so that together humans and AI can solve our most difficult scientific problems. Think about the power this creates for weather and natural catastrophe prediction, biomimicry science or advanced material science for clean energy generation.
2. Roll out of automation. Automation will replace many of the tasks that we have previously done, but it will also create whole new categories of tasks and services that we will soon realize we can't live without. For the environment, there are many opportunities from cleaner and optimized mobility solutions, to energy and waste efficient robotics in industrial processes. But we will need to make sure the increase in productivity that automation delivers does not have a rebound effect on other areas like vehicle use, road congestion or unsustainable natural resource extraction (e.g. AI-powered drone fishing fleets).
3. Increased tracking and monitoring, from the myriad of smart devices, wearables, sensors, meters and the IoT that links this growing network of billions of devices all up. Location and spatial services are a hot area for tech investors and entrepreneurs. But how can this revolutionize transparency and accountability, real time, around how companies, governments and individuals behave with our water, forests, air, precious minerals, wildlife and oceans?
4. More sharing. Homes, offices, rides, are all examples that have been successfully shared, but what can we share that isn't being shared now? There is going to be a lot more disruption in this space to come. But what are the sharing business models our environment needs most? How do we maximize sharing solutions to minimize consumption-related waste, and life cycle energy, materials and water use?
5. More decentralisation enabled by 4IR technologies including IoT, AI, blockchain and 3D printing. Many decentralised solutions can have significant environmental and well as inclusivity benefits. For example, peer to peer renewable energy grids with intelligent virtual power plants or decentralized manufacturing with 3D printing reducing greenhouse gas emissions from distribution.
6. More collaboration, and on a scale and with a speed we haven't experienced before. We don't have all the tools for this yet but open APIs and open source movements will be key, along with technologies like blockchain that enable transparency and trusted transactions for collaboration. How can we focus this on environmental goals – from problem-solving amongst diverse expert groups, to local community action and environmental movements?
7. More experiences – the internet of information is going to move to one of experiences as augmented, mixed and virtual reality come of age. Those in the industry believe this whole area is a few years away from exploding. Technologists are working on the final ingredients to increase resolution, field of view, improve hand tracking and deeper immersion, as well as solutions for affordability. As the technology improves to enable an increasingly intimate social experience, the business case to fly for face to face meetings erodes and the impact on mobility more broadly could be huge.
Have you read?
The 4IR will be about the marriage of minds and machines. The machines will help us be smarter, more productive, predictive and social. They will not be the answer to our environmental challenges, but they can help us deliver the answer, from changing the dynamic of our cities and how we build things, to mobility, consumption, and how we power and feed society. Our lives will never be the same, but as the new 4IR for the Earth programme aims to show, the good news is that the change can be both positive and sustainable.
The 4IR for the Earth programme is a collaboration between WEF, Stanford University and PwC, and which is also supported by the Mava Foundation. The programme looks to accelerate tech innovation for Earth's most pressing environmental challenges. It will help identify, support and scale new ventures, partnerships and business models that harness tech to transform how the world tackles environmental challenges.