TECHNICAL INNOVATION: THE FOURTH WAVE OF ENVIRONMENTALISM

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Make Lasting Environmental Impact by Leveraging new Technologies in new ways.

The rate of technological advancements since the recent turn of the 21st century has been unlike anything we’ve seen before. According to Moore’s Law, technological abilities grow exponentially, with computer processing speeds doubling every 18 months. With so much growing potential, and its many forms becoming more and more ubiquitous in our lives, it’s no wonder that in looking for ways to tackle our current environmental challenges, we’ve been looking to innovative technologies to provide the solution.

In looking at our societies’ evolving approach to environmental challenges, majors shifts have been marked by four distinct eras, or waves. We’ll examine our current, fourth, wave and what it means for today’s business approaches.

The First 3 Waves

Let’s start by taking a look back at what’s believed to be the first 3 waves of environmentalism. Marked by President Theodore Roosevelt’s land conservation initiatives, the first took place in the 19th century. The second wave leveraged legislation to hold government and corporation responsible for their roles in contributing to wildlife pollution, seeing its height in the mid-20th century. Then in the late-20th century, we saw a shift in focus to market-based solutions to solve these problems. The common thread between these different approaches is that they leveraged what was available at the time to bring lasting changes.  It is no surprise then that our current wave is centered on the use of innovation, especially through technology, to apply those changes at scale.

The Fourth Wave

Not only does the fourth wave leverage available technology in new ways, it draws on a very important lesson that we’ve learned in our previous wave, that business practices and sustainability practices are not only not at odds with one another but require one another to meet their individual goals.

“In any era, solving environmental problems means making use of the best available tools. In this era, those tools include innovations that can help drive transparency, responsibility, and least-cost action.” Fred Krupp

The 7 Innovation Technologies

While infinite types of technologies will contribute to the fourth wave, the report focused on seven particular ones:

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Mobile Ubiquity

The last wave saw a shift from desktop programs to the cloud, as we continue to untether ourselves from conventional workstations, the fourth wave will continue to highlight the importance of developing solutions for mobile execution.

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Blockchain

While often confused with bitcoin and cryptocurrency, blockchain as a technology is actually a really secure way of transferring and storing data. Making it a great tool for medical and financial data. Still convinced blockchain isn’t going to take off? Walmart just recently won a patent for a system that would house medical records on a blockchain for faster lookups.

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Automation Technologies

We’re seeing technology applied to more quickly and accurately perform repetitive tasks previously performed by humans.

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Sharing Technology

Solving global problems will require adapting a global mindset. Open source practices and collaborative thinking will need to be part of the DNA of business practices.

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Dematerialization

 Finding creative ways to cut down the amount of material that goes into the manufacturing of a product or process.

 

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Data Analytic

We generate 2.5 quintillion bytes of data a day. Our ability to quickly analyze and create practices around what we learn will be a key feature of the fourth wave.

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Sensors

As sensors continue to become more affordable and use cases more adaptable, we’re seeing them leveraged in new ways to help detect, measure and visualize environments.

"When sensors, machine learning, IT, and data analytics are used to shape smart policy, rein in free riders, and reward corporate responsibility, the result will be positive change that helps people and nature prosper.” Fred Krupp

Innovations at Work

While we’ve just scratched the surface on the potential of some of these technologies, companies are already successfully implementing many of them. For example, orbiting 500 miles above the earth’s surface is the Sentinel-5 Precursor satellite. To help us better understand the sources of global warming causing greenhouse gases, it’s measuring hot spots of air pollution around the globe. Adding sensors to Google Street View cars enables them to map out occurrences of methane gas leaks in many major US cities.

Among retail companies, more focus is being put on using automation technologies to increase efficiencies and productivity. Everything from robots to stock shelves, to apps that allow shoppers to ring up their own groceries are being tested for eventual rollout. If in the Seattle area, you can already check out Amazon Go, their smart grocery store that employs computer vision, deep learning algorithms, and sensor fusions to allow shoppers to put the groceries they want into their bags, walk out the store without waiting in line and be charged via the app.

Levi Strauss & Co’s automation efforts are focused on the manufacturing side of the process. They’ve introduced Project F.L.X. (future-led execution), a “new model [that] replaces manual techniques and automates the jeans finishing process, allowing the company to reduce the number of chemical formulations used in finishing from thousands to a few dozen”.  Through the program, they’re able to not only cut down on thousands of chemical formulations but also reduce textile waste.

Executives and the Fourth Wave

A recent report by the Environmental Defense Fund took a deeper look at these seven innovative technologies, and how companies leverage them. They surveyed 500 top-level executives (VP, SVP, and C-suite) of retail, manufacturing, energy, technology and finance industries making over $500 million in revenue.  The goal was to examine the intersection of business strategy, technological innovation and corporate responsibility.

Some key takeaways:

  • Over 70% of business leaders see greater alignment between business and environmental goals.

  • Executives see sensors and data analytics as the most promising innovations.

  • Almost half of executives cite government regulations as drivers to implement Fourth Wave technologies, while more than 40% cite pressure from customers and positive business results.

  • The retail industry scored the highest for constantly trying to find new ways to reduce its environmental impact, 78% of retail executives say their business and environmental goals are more aligned than five years ago, 65% of respondents attributing that to an increase in Fourth Wave technological advancements.

A company’s adoption of environmental practices does not just help to maximize efficiencies, it’s an increasingly growing demand from customers and employees alike. Consumers are holding companies accountable for their impact, of the leaders surveyed, 80% felt that this would continue to increase. 84% of these same leaders said that having sustainability-based business practices helped them attract and retain talent.  This is a trend that’s sure to continue to increase as numerous studies show that purpose driven career choices are becoming the norm among younger generations.

What’s Next

Leveraging technological solutions to today’s environmental issues is not only a moral obligation but also a financial one to a growing number of companies. Long gone are the days when large corporations could argue that corporate responsibility is at odds with revenue goals and shareholder obligations. As EDF President Fred Krupp explains, “The Fourth Wave is not pro-tech for technology’s sake. It’s pro-tech because we see incredible opportunity for people around the world to use technology to scale environmental solutions as never before”.