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We need sustainable thinking to be at the heart of the smart technology revolution

Posted by Paul Huggins | 19 February 2015 | Viewpoint
Big data

Viewpoint by Paul Huggins, Associate Director, Carbon Trust Programmes on technology innovation and how smart technologies can create a sustainability revolution.

 

Technology plays an essential role in making our everyday lives easier and more enjoyable, a role we often take for granted. After living with a technology for a period of time it becomes hard to remember life without it. Just imagine how different the world today would be without the smartphone, the washing machine, or the television.

The more we use a technology the less we notice it or feel its impacts. It actually becomes so common that we readily accept it as part of the world around us, in the same way we do the sky, clouds and trees. In this sense technology is the sister of flora and fauna. And most of us are blind to many of technologies that make our lifestyles possible. 

Conceptually, technology can be thought of as a physical representation of an idea. Advances in technology require new and innovative thinking. For most of human history innovation has occurred in fits and starts. Often necessity has been the mother of invention. Occasionally there have been “Eureka!” moments of genius, or circumstances leading to happy accidents. 

In recent years this has changed. Governments, universities and businesses have innovated the process of innovation. This has been supercharged thanks to the digital world, allowing ideas to flow with greater ease and speed, helping to accelerate the development of technologies. This dramatic change to the pace of technology innovation has had some profound implications.

  • Digital lives and the experience economy are driving the development of smart technologies. For many years innovation focused on physical products. Today, thanks to immense improvements in technology, connectivity and logistics there is a move towards innovating an economy based around sharing products, providing managed services, and selling experiences. In urban areas everything from cars to power tools can now be conveniently hired by the hour. Books, music, and movies no longer need to be provided in physical formats and can be accessed on demand. Even the public sector is having to follow the lead of business, as citizens are starting to demand the same level of customer service from healthcare, public transport and local authority services that they would expect from an online retailer or their bank.
  • Design is becoming more dynamic and businesses need to be more agile in order to meet rapidly changing demand. The technology landscape is evolving so rapidly that conventional product development cycles struggle to keep pace with customers and competitors.  Product developers find it difficult to forecast what the “next big thing” will be.  There are simply too many innovative ideas. In order to get to market more quickly, large manufacturers are now selling minimum viable products (MVPs) to their customers. This enables them to rapidly develop and deliver a core product with the minimum features that their customers want.  They can then make customers a part of the innovation process, working to enhance and tailor the product experience to meet specific needs. This helps reduce costs of getting a product to market and enhancing the potential for future innovation.
  • Smart technologies can create a sustainability revolution, but this needs to be put at the heart of the design. Sensors, software and connectivity can be used together to vastly improve the efficiency of products and services, in both manufacturing and operation. In many circumstances this could significantly reduce our consumption of energy, water and materials. However there could be the opposite effect, where improving availability and customer convenience actually increases total resource use, not to mention the environmental impact from manufacturing and powering of trillions of low cost sensors. To ensure that smart is also sustainable, this has to be embedded as a principle across the entire life cycle of a product or service.

We now live in a world where new ideas can become global products or services in just a few short years. Technology does not exist in a stable ecosystem, but is being thrust forward along a rushing torrent of innovation. This will have profound effects on our society, and may prove to be more difficult to control with existing mechanisms such as industry product standards and regulations.

Given the rapid pace of this evolution, we need to make innovation and smart technology a part of the sustainability revolution. This means that we need smarter design, better standards, and product regulations that will ensure that we can achieve our goals.


This article first appeared on GE Lighting’s Illuminated Minds blog.

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