Updated: Mar 1, 2022
More than a fad, disruptive sustainable innovation is an underlying trend as our societies undergo an immense change at a rapid pace, as our societies are undergoing immense changes at a rapid pace. Climate change, loss of ecosystems and biodiversity, inequitable access to education and capital, persistent poverty, likely water scarcity, food chain discontinuity and many other threats from a combination of events that creates a perfect 'vortex' of risks and challenges, many of which still need to be understood and resolved urgently.
Disruptive Technologies, catalysts of Eco-Innovation
The triumph of New Age Technologies has opened a world of disruptive opportunities beyond traditional delivery models in almost all areas of today's economies. The transformations brought about by the digital age in the last decades of the last century, which were essentially focused on generating financial benefits, have now turned into a true digital revolution that puts the transition to sustainability back at the centre of economic development, New-Age Technologies is proving to be a catalyst for new models of sustainability where public policies and private initiatives can be aligned to create long-term benefits at the same level for rural and urban communities in developed and underdeveloped economies. This fourth industrial revolution, or in other words this accelerated march towards the complete digitalization of economies, provides an ever-increasing number of tools to facilitate the integration of sustainable business models to better respond to new challenges beyond economic issues.
A Holistic Take on Innovation
The COVID-19 pandemic will undoubtedly lead to increased interest in identifying the "silver linings" and lessons to be learned in moving from "greenwashing" to truly sustainable innovation. The trends for change are persistent and require the synchronization of initiatives from the various industries involved and the investment community. One of the key areas of eco-innovation will be at the intersection of cloud computing, energy, food, agriculture, and new forms of finance.
As concerns about food production increase, agricultural research is expanding to include food production in the context of climate resilience and adaptation.
As demand for funding for new economy businesses increases, financial crowdsourcing, crypto-currencies and tokenization will become a major source of borderless capital, easily accessible at lower cost, also for the less bankable.
With increasing energy demand and concerns about climate change and carbon emissions, cooperative energy production will emerge as a solution to supply shortages (e.g., rooftop solar generators installation or rainwater collection and redistribution systems). Technological development brings to life the vision of decentralised, non-polluting, non-emitting energy production sources, close to consumers and using built and natural infrastructure.
The initial process of bringing disruptive innovation technologies or new business models to a working prototype and a credible business plan is a hurdle that few people overcome. The crowdsourcing venture capital model, which directly connects investors and entrepreneurs with innovative projects, is a beneficial innovation to democratize access to capital by supporting innovators in their early efforts and challenges
Key Areas of Disruption to Watch
Today, change is more like a rollercoaster than a smooth line on a grid. But fortunately, non-linear changes can have positive impacts and offer the opportunity to radically alter behaviour and practices to make them more sustainable. Millennials play an important role in this new paradigm. They are the driving force behind the sharing economy and are, in many cases, more interested in access than ownership. For them, profit is a measure that exceeds the standard of economic performance or market efficiency.
Innovations for connected, autonomous, shared, and electric vehicles will all bring great changes in road safety, urban planning, community interaction and exchange of goods. Increased teleworking and car-sharing reduce traffic and improve parking, while infrastructure, regulation, and network and battery innovations are driving electric vehicle production.
2. Agriculture and food
The positive aspects of this change come from two main sources: regenerative technology and the new food culture. Regenerative technology in agriculture, combined with appropriate use of automation, can have dramatic effects on the quantity and nutritional quality of our food, as well as on CO2 emissions. These regenerative techniques include sequestering carbon in the soil, growing different plants together, maintaining a green cover and using insects instead of chemical pesticides. The Internet of Things, remote sensing, artificial intelligence, and a revolution in robotics are combining to make automated, low-input, data-driven agriculture a real possibility. The new food culture emphasized by Millennials is leading to a shift from meat consumption to plant-based diets. This would disrupt agriculture and livestock farming, and greatly improve the environmental impact of our diets.
3. Retail trade
With the spread of online shopping, there is a concentration of sales on platforms, innovations in delivery (such as the use of drones) and greater transparency through rapid price comparison, consumer reviews and targeted marketing. Millennials are driving this sharing economy and are in many cases more interested in access than ownership. They are shifting the model from passive consumers to active, collaborative and highly informed consumers, and from a culture of the "individual" to a culture of the "collective".
4. New livelihoods
The automation of manufacturing and agriculture, replacing low-skilled jobs, may raise serious concerns about the livelihoods of those left behind by digitalization. The workforce concerned, in both developed and developing countries, will need to acquire new skills to find new livelihoods. New technologies can help create solutions to develop quality education platforms, collaborative work that allocates tasks according to skills across the world, which will also encourage entrepreneurship; all of which will help maintain an unconditional basic income, especially for the less well-off.
Blockchain technology holds promise for more transparent monitoring and decentralised innovation, in areas as diverse as supply chain management, accelerating the integration of renewables into the grid, improving the delivery of meals to schoolchildren and a secure and dematerialized (cashless) payment system. Blockchain could also lead to a future of self-organizing networks, for example of small producers all contributing energy to a local grid, which could disrupt our centralized systems of governance.
6. Going local
Globalization is becoming less popular for many reasons, including pollution and climate change. Among the new trends identified are energy cooperatives, water and waste cooperatives, local food systems, bartering, community enterprises and the smart city concept. The smart city aims to tackle climate change through local and networked solutions in communities of cities. In the smart city concept, solutions can also address social inequalities, as they increase undesirable effects on the environment, including climate change.
All sectors of the economy are rich in entrepreneurial opportunities and possibilities for technological innovation to adapt to the most abrupt changes. This new paradigm of non-linear change calls for a responsible application of technology and requires a shift to a higher level of responsibility and commitment.
Thinking 'Disruptive' is already a way of thinking 'Sustainability'
The dictionary defines the word "sustainability" as the ability to endure and the ability to express resilience, the maintenance of things at a certain rate or level of existence. In times of disruption or turmoil, sustainability is a bridge to meet present needs without compromising the ability of future generations to meet theirs. So, in effect, thinking 'sustainability' is already thinking 'disruption'.
The rise of technology in human culture has changed almost every facet of society. Technology is especially useful regarding sustainable development. While these applications of eco-innovative technology hold tremendous promise for a green-growth pathway in developing economies, it must still be reminded that innovative technologies can only be as disruptive as they are accessible.
Impact investing can leverage public and private sector resources to drive technological innovation at the intersection of energy, food, agriculture, finance, housing and education, the main pillars of the 2030 Agenda of the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). More capital should be devoted to innovations that address their environmental and social impacts. While encouraging steps have already been taken, a much greater commitment is needed to stimulate large-scale innovations to solve the key problems of the new millennium.