The Sustainable Future: Opportunities for Innovation and Technology

The Sustainable Future: Opportunities for Innovation and Technology
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When you hear about sustainability, if you think of it as a way to protect the planet, your thinking isn’t wrong, but it’s more than that. If you think of sustainability’s impacts as primarily negative – adhering to guidelines that limit growth or prevent exploring markets – then you will be left out of a social and economic revolution that is already happening without you.

Sustainability may not be what you think it is. You dismiss it at your peril.

This week there are many notable gatherings taking place around the Earth Day celebrations of April 22nd. I find the MIT Sustainability Summit particularly interesting. Leaders in business, policy, research, labor and the environmental movement are talking, not about the carrying capacity of land or water conservation, though these are important to sustainable ecosystems and economies (note that shared root word). Instead, they are talking investment and research – transitioning to models that take advantage of the new economy, balancing financial viability with sustainability, opening new and untrammeled marketing paths.

How we arrive at a sustainable economy is infinitely exciting terra incognito, but the United Nations provides a map in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), especially SDG #8, which promotes “sustained, inclusive and sustainable economic growth, full and productive employment and decent work for all.” It’s a tenet that “trade, not aid” is key to long-term – sustainable – growth. In 2014, the world’s poorest countries received a quarter of aid funds, only $10 per-capita annually. Supplementing aid – then supplanting it – with sustained economic growth is necessary, but how?

When SDG’s were unveiled in 2015, the UN called for scientific research and evidence to drive progress. Our own report, conducted in collaboration with and issued then, found that sustainability research was booming, growing twice as fast since 2009. We also examined how countries’ scientific capacity was addressing sustainable development, and identified areas of opportunity for research and collaboration.

Tech figures prominently in those opportunities. That may seem counterintuitive but consider the organic impact of mobile technology. Sub-Saharan Africa’s business has been conducted for years on mobile networks. Africa leapfrogged over the stage of landlines – which require massive infrastructure investment. Cheaper, lower impact mobile technology fueled its economy.

Tech-driven, sustainable business solutions can even be found in landfills. Reclaiming waste is becoming common as we look closer to home for sources that create energy, as well as jobs and profits. Aries Clean Energy built the largest downdraft gasification facility in the world in Tennessee last year. The system converts 64 tons of landfill material daily – 8,000 tons annually – to produce 36,000 MW-hrs of electricity over 20 years. Aries also uses a newly patented solution reducing heavy tar content in biomass fuel: filtering synthetic fuel gas through high-carbon biochar, removing impurities via microwave-induced plasma fields. Aries notes sustainability is marked by predictable financial returns and hedging against risks including price increases and future regulation.

Some innovators look for the next sustainable clean-energy technology; others look for ways to mitigate fossil fuel impacts. Crippled by illness-producing air pollution, China is funding a green building revolution driven by surprising innovation. In January, architect Stefano Boerii revealed plans for Nanjing Towers, an air-filtering “vertical forest” designed to soak up pollution and produce clean oxygen. It’s fanciful looking, but green roofs and towers have real benefit. On average, one acre of young trees sequesters 2.5 tons of carbon, absorbed at the rate of 13 pounds per tree annually. At ten years, trees absorb an estimated 48 pounds of CO2, releasing enough oxygen into the atmosphere to support two people for a year.

While aviation’s CO2 global impact from fossil fuel is considerable, innovations are underway, creating a more sustainable industry. A NASA report issued three weeks ago, confirms biofuels result in a 50% to 70% particulate matter reduction in jet exhaust, clearing the way for biofuel use. Another concern: reducing formation of contrails – those white jet-exhaust plumes that crisscross the sky and which impact weather and climate. Bruce Anderson, researcher at NASA's Langley Research Center confirmed soot emissions as major contributors to contrails. He said, “the observed particle reductions we've measured during (the project) should directly translate into reduced ice crystal concentrations in contrails, which in turn should help minimize their impact on Earth's environment."

Research-based innovations that solve for multiple challenges are the kind of elegant solutions that contribute to sustainable economic growth. By creating new industries and jobs, based on new ideas and markets, we establish and foster sustainable growth. These ideas are not limited by geography; in fact, they are locally relevant, come from all over the world and include condensers that produce water from the air in desert countries and refrigerators that keep food fresh without electricity in equatorial countries.

Funding is the key; research is what it unlocks. Behavioral, economic, and technological research reveals new ways to employ people and grow economies and individual businesses along sustainable lines. The only non-surprise: these approaches support a healthier planet on which to live.

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