Sunday, May 10, 2009

Green Technology Innovation

Population growth is increasing.  Efforts to raise the standard of living of the many billions of people living in poverty should also continue.  Therefore, the only way to achieve more sustainable development in the face of all that growth is through technology innovation.  More people spending more money on more things will surely use up our finite resources and create unmanageable waste streams.   Only if we can figure out how to house, feed, hydrate, transport, employ, heat, cool and nurture billions of people more efficiently will we be able to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and maintain acceptable quality of life levels.

So, it is important to understand how to promote green technology innovation "at scale."  We need more than a few gizmos and gadgets -- we need continuous technology innovation at a global scale that enables us to (1) substitute information and communication for transportation, (2) quit wasting enormous amounts of energy and find cost-effective ways of re-using materials of all kinds; (3) live satisfying lives at higher densities; (4) substitute renewable energy of all kinds so we can stop relying on dwindling stocks of polluting fossil fuels; (5) preserve water supplies and other important ecological resources while maintaining the full range of nature's services (that will otherwise cost us vast sums to duplicate artificially); (5) rely on local sources of food; (6) build more energy efficient and healthier buildings while preserving historical structures; and (7) do all of the above in ways that increase rather than decrease personal autonomy and enhance our capacity to live and work together. 

I believe the consensus building approach to collective decision-making is the only way we will be able to promote green technology innovation at sufficient scale to achieve a meaningful shift to more sustainable patterns of development. 

Efforts of one group or segment of society to impose its views about sustainability on others who are unwilling will fail.  The costs of contentiousness and the difficulties of enforcement make the imposition of sustainable development policies on grudging segments of society almost impossible.

The good news is that we can achieve green technology innovation at every level -- local, state, national and international -- while reducing costs (and increasing personal benefits). There don't need to be any losers in the long run.  Once this is clear, it should be possible to earn across-the-board support for green technology innovation.   There are three steps involved in getting this idea across.  First, we need to clarify the real costs (to everyone) of continuing to do things in unsustainable ways.  The costs of duplicating nature's services, for example,  when we carelessly undermine normal ecological functions, must be factored into the price of everything we buy and use.  When people see what the "true costs" are of wasteful energy practices, new investments in energy efficiency (that pay back what they cost initially in just a few years) will garner strong support.  Second, we need to make explicit the net present value of everything we do -- both publicly and privately (i.e. what everything costs us in current dollars if we take account of the long-term costs we are imposing on ourselves).  Third, we need to hold everyone accountable for the trade-offs they make when they decide to maximize their short-term self-interest at the expense of everyone else's long-term interest. 

It shouldn't be that hard to do these three things.  In the same way that supermarkets are required to post unit prices and make the contents of each product explicit (i.e., what's the per pound or per liter cost of that product? what percentage of our daily required intake does it provide?) so, too,  everyone selling any product or service should be required to show the "full cost" of what they are selling using a standard system of calculating "sustainable prices."  

In addition, we should all be required to include a simple sustainability statement when we file our taxes.  If we are using more than our fair share of natural resources or emitting more than their fair share of pollution of various kinds, we should have to pay a surcharge. All of this money should be devoted to green technology innovation undertaken by public-private-civil society partnerships.  What we call Public Entrepreneurship Networks (PENS).  See for more information.

The annual budgets of every unit of government should make explicit the discounted present value of their resource utilization patterns so consumers know what they are getting for their tax dollars.

Making all this information explicit would force everyone to make choices more self-consciously. If this were coupled with public policies setting norms of resource utilization and per capita limits on pollution,  and taxing performance outside fair share norms, funds would build up to support green technology innovation.  If innovation were supported only when it was undertaken by public-private-civil society partnerships, the new technologies that emerge would generate returns on investment split between private and public sources. 

Technology innovation follows a familiar pattern - invention, development, and dissemination. Recent theories of technology innovation, however,  show how decentralized and consumer-led modifications at each step can enhance the usefulness and the relevance of new technologies. More open innovation networks produce better results (although openness tends to undermine the return-on-investment to private owners or inventors).  When public entrepreneurship networks (PENS) are the innovators, the continuous streams of benefits that come from easier and wider utilization more than equal the benefits that would otherwise accrue to individual entrepreneurs.  To qualify for these funds, however, consensus needs to be generated among actors from all three sectors.  We see a growing number of examples of PENS-like success stories. (Email me at if you want more information about them.)