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Technological Innovation: The Key to a Sustainable Future

08 Nov 2019

Most of us engage in sustainability measures we hope will go some way to helping us tread more lightly on our precious planet. All make some difference but are mostly symbolic or make a marginal difference.

I believe in the end we’ll need to rely on superheroes to come and save us. No, I don’t mean a posse of cartoon characters from DC Comics … I’m talking about individuals and businesses developing the next generation of technological innovation focused on sustainability.

Winning the sustainability battle isn’t just about saving more and wasting less. It’s about doing more with less, as Andrew McAfee speaks about in his new book. We need to use the benefit of technological innovation to find exponential gains in every business, every industry, every economy. 

Yes, most of us - I wish I could say all of us! - make personal decisions to do the right thing for the environment. At the supermarket, we choose sustainable fish and meat for our families to eat. At home, we put solar panels on our roofs, install efficient light bulbs, take shorter showers, separate our paper from our plastics and recycle whenever possible. Some of us even put our vegetable waste in a composting bin or set up our own worm farm. 

We might do similar things at work. Executivbookes now take advantage of video conferencing instead of making excessive (and resource-burning) overseas trips. Event organisers promote recycling and composting and do away with single-use signage and plastic show bags.

But business managers often seem to be in the dark when it comes to working out how they can make their companies more sustainable - in an exponential fashion. The choices many make when it comes to raw materials and energy sources are anything but environmentally or ethically responsible. Without a doubt, businesses have this perception they need to spend much more to be kind to the environment.

I actually think unless businesses start taking action and behave sustainably, their very own existence will be at risk. It’s not just because consumers expect companies they buy from to lift their game. They’re already sending a powerful message they care where their products come from and how they’re made. 

Perhaps what will speak loudest to business is the language of money - profit and loss. Widespread adoption of sustainable approaches will be good for the bottom line and the overall health of the global economy.

At the most basic level, sustainable energy is simply becoming more affordable every year. The price of solar power, for instance, is dropping fast.

This won’t surprise anyone familiar with Swanson’s Law. Similar to how Moore’s Law explains the rapid improvement of computing power over time, Swanson’s Law states the price of solar units drops 20 per cent for every doubling of cumulative shipped volume. 

According to the Australian Renewable Energy Agency, the cost of building new large-scale solar energy generation in Australia has fallen from $135 megawatts per hour in 2015 to “somewhere in the $50s” now. US research published last year by Lazard showed we’ve reached the inflection point where it’s more cost-effective to build and operate new alternative energy projects than keep existing conventional generation plants.

And that gap will only widen. Not only is solar becoming more efficient, manufacturers have drastically improved their production processes. Batteries are becoming more efficient and much cheaper to make.

So we know lower energy prices will cut the cost of production. But the biggest impact on what I call our “sustainable futures” will come from technological innovation

Technology means we now need less items to get more jobs done, which has led to the “servitisation” of physical products. Manufacturers aren’t just selling products - they’re providing valuable services based on their products’ core capabilities. 

Just look at the ubiquitous smartphone. It’s not just a phone but a video camera, document scanner, entertainment device, health monitor, spirit level … What can’t it do? Our tools are not just getting smarter, we don’t need as many of them to improve our efficiency. Hundreds of previously ‘physical products’ are now integrated into the iPhone, and thus defunct as independent physical devices - a huge saving on planetary resources!

Technology is also helping us recycle precious metals and valuable rare-earth materials. Again, think about the smartphone: Apple has developed a device called Daisy that can dismantle 200 iPhones per day to recover materials such as cobalt, tin, aluminium and lithium.

This brings us to the other factor driving innovation-led sustainability: it creates profitable businesses and industries.

One of the best examples right now is Aquna - an impressive aquaculture business in the NSW Riverina region. It takes a vertically-integrated approach to breeding, growing and supplying fully sustainable Murray cod - one of the nicest tasting white-fleshed fish you’ll find anywhere.

Aquna uses the highest sustainability principles in every aspect of production - energy and water sources, feed and stock management, and waste - and uses solar power to provide half of its nursery power. All of its Murray cod are traceable from pond to plate while leaving little impact on the environment from which they come.

So it isn’t just large enterprise companies with the most to gain by putting sustainability at the centre of their thinking. Small- to medium-sized businesses can succeed - and win over more customers - by making sustainable choices in their daily operations. 

Only once businesses start to take advantage of technology and change their entire supply chains to be sustainable will we see a fundamental paradigm shift.



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