For the last 200 years technology has been the tool with which humans have caused climate change. Recently that has begun to change. This is primarily for two reasons.
First, sustainability has become a much more prevalent issue. The United Nations Climate Chance Conference in 2015, in which 195 countries signed an agreement acknowledging the need for greater sustainability, was a watershed moment in this regard. A sustainable conscientiousness has prompted measures like the plastic bag tax in the UK in towns and encouraged places like Burlington, Vermont, whose university boasts an MBA entirely based on sustainability, to meet all its electricity needs with renewable energy.
Second, access to technology has never been easier. There are an estimated 2 billion smartphones in the world and active internet users have almost doubled since 2010 from 2 billion to 4 billion. This translates into huge potential for technology to shape how people perceive and interact with sustainable practices. This trend is reinforced by the huge surge in people writing their ownprograms, and contributing to open source projects. Because more people that are able to build software are more aware about sustainability they want to contribute and offer their own solutions to the world.
What are some examples of technologies improving sustainability?
Where 3D printing’s true merits lie are in its complete lack of waste. Every part is manufactured using exactly the right amount of material which means the tax a 3D printing project takes on resources is minimal. In a few cases it is cheaper and faster as in the case of a California-based company that recently revealed they were able to 3D print the structure for a house in under 24 hours at a cost of $10,000. Waste is not just a huge contributor to climate change it also affects a business’ bottom line; it highlights an inefficiency in the production cycle and costs time and money to recycle or dispose. While 3D printing is currently not commercially viable on a large scale it soon will be — good news for sustainability.
The Internet of Things, a network of smart internet-enabled devices that interact with domestic products, promises a more sustainable future — for two reasons. First, it allows a user much greater control of the energy they consume. Now that someone can adjust the temperature or turn the hot water on from a phone it is easier to use only the energy needed, which has the additional benefit of cheaper energy bills.
Second, all smart devices collect reams of data about how and where energy is spent. This is incredibly useful as it provides feedback for our energy habits and where to minimise waste. However, when applied to large agricultural or commercial examples it becomes much easier to use Big Data algorithms that can directly inform sustainability policy and ultimately reduce costs in the long run.
A huge contributor to carbon emissions is the food supply chain. This is largely due to high transportation costs, vast amounts of food waste and the all-year availability of seasonal foods that consumers demand. One food tech startup that is trying to improve these conditions is Farmdrop. Their model is simple: choose the food you want on their app or website and then choose a time slot for delivery. They liaise with local food producers who harvest the food on the day which is then delivered to your home in zero emission electric vans. Their aim is to drastically reduce London’s carbon footprint by sourcing food as locally as possible and support local food producers, which get a much larger share of the profits in comparison to selling to supermarkets. Farmdrop, and manyotherfood tech companies, are taking advantage of side effect of a greater interest in sustainability: a new market where consumers favour environmental products over traditional alternatives.
What are the trends? In summary it boils down to efficiency and ease. Technology has allowed business to drastically increase efficiency and by extension lower costs, whether that is in the case of using less material, less storing of food or heavy goods vehicles taking better routes by using GPS maps. Efficiency lies at the heart of how we should be improving sustainability because it is effective and practical.
Additionally, technology has removed many of the barriers preventing users from actively checking how they can live more sustainably. The explosion in information sharing of new technologies and best practices is a driving factor in the advancement of this idea.
Let’s hope it can sustain itself.