With 400 parts per million (ppm) of CO2 in the Earth’s atmosphere, there’s new pressure to build a more positive economy. At the same time, two trends – the combination of digital natives directing new models of consumption and the do-it-yourself revolution – offer the perfect opportunity to disrupt and repair broken systems.
Let’s start with broken energy, which has played a big part in taking us to the 400ppm landmark. The larger utilities are now struggling in an increasing number of markets to deal with the deployment of climate policies and the widening availability of DIY energy. We’re seeing an explosion of new micro-renewables providers and community-owned or crowd-funded clean energy schemes, often enabled by digital channels. People are more able to arrange and invest in their own access to heat and power for their home than ever before.
In Australia, for example, on top of the carbon tax, we are seeing what is reported to be the ‘unstoppable’ roll out of rooftop solar. This has created tension between the utilities, who are lobbying against increasing home installations, and consumer groups – one of whom has set up a ‘Solar Citizens’ campaign to protect the interests of solar owners.
A similar battleground in the UK is on the horizon. B&Q intends to pinch customers from British Gas and other utilities. It is expanding its DIY offering to provide micro-renewables as part of the firm’s Net Positive plan, and also reaching out to customers via new digital platforms. Alongside this, there are now over 40 community-owned energy schemes in the UK, and crowd-funding schemes are taking off. Abundance Generation and the Trillion Fund recently gained approval from the Financial Services Authority to link individual investors and renewable energy projects.
Our current system of congested and high-polluting mobility is also set to change. Younger online users, aka digital natives, have new and different aspirations: instead of owning their vehicle of choice, they just want to use it. So, as car sales reach a plateau in the west, we see the rise of Zipcar, which provides prompt online access to car sharing. It has transformed the car rental market, leading to its acquisition by Avis. Hertz now also provides on-demand car-sharing services. Car sharers tend to walk, ride bikes and take public transport more often than they drive, and the combined impact of this is the equivalent of taking up to 14 cars off the roads. Buzzcar is another emerging venture set to accelerate peer-to-peer car sharing services. Even established car manufacturers, such as BMW, are looking beyond car sales towards new kinds of mobility solutions, one of which is a car sharing service – DriveNow.
The same trends are starting to impact manufacturing. Chris Anderson, Editor of Wired Magazine and writer of ‘Makers, the New Industrial Revolution’, describes a future of makers at home and in the community taking on the design and production of goods. He thinks it will change the face of manufacturing to the extent that the internet revolutionised the flow of information.
Among the examples he cites is the success of TechShop in the US. TechShop provides ‘maker spaces’ – workshops where people can pay a membership fee of just $125 a month and train to use any kind of manufacturing equipment from welding machinery to 3D printers. This was the domain of big business, but now entrepreneurs can develop their own ideas, prototypes and projects.
Financial backing is also more widely available, through crowd-funding digital sites such as Kickstarter. One start-up that received strong support through Kickstarter was B-Square, for a modular, solar-powered electronics system that can be built up into a mini power plant for the home. The investment enabled B-square to take the venture forward, and also to adopt an open hardware approach that means customers can tailor the product to their needs. This is a glimpse into the future of people-powered manufacturing.
Disruptive innovation will transform whole industries and systems: that is inevitable. But we have to seize the opportunity to ensure such innovation repairs what’s broken and brings all-round positive benefits to society. WWF continues to support the increasing Net Positive movement within the private sector, where businesses are moving beyond damage control to playing a role in enhancing society’s natural assets. As part of this, we encourage firms to make disruptive innovation a part of their Net Positive plans so that they are better prepared for the future, while also steering innovation in the right direction.
Dax Lovegrove is Head of Business Sustainability & Innovation at WWF-UK.
Photo: iStockphoto / Thinkstock