Sustainability and the innovation ecosystem: Bruce Walker Ferguson at TEDxWWF



so about how care a good morning sustainability and innovation a conundrum sustainability is about preserving the world as it is today innovation is about creating new things that change the world can we have both or must we choose between them the answer is important to me personally I'm a third-generation bird watcher my wife and I are avid gardeners we have a strong case of Biophilia what Edmund Wilson calls the love of life he feels it's as much a part of our human nature as our opposable thumbs and I wouldn't disagree but at the same time I'm a professor who teaches innovation entrepreneurship technology management I'm a co-founder of a company that builds and launches spacecraft a co-founder of a company that uses living plants to clean the environment clean soil and water so I have a strong belief that we can create things that make a difference in the world that do good in the world so I'd like to find a way to reconcile sustainability in innovation I think we can do that but we have to take a step back and look at sustainability perhaps in a slightly different way let me illustrate with the story a climatologist a geologist and an astronomer walk into a restaurant the climatologist sits down and opens a menu that closes it quickly and says I'm worried that we're not on a sustainable path the number of species extinctions is increasing sea levels are rising now or soon will the geologist looks at him sadly and says it's much worse than that eventually a new ice age will descend glaciers will come down as far south as Boston we have super volcanoes that occur periodically in the Earth's history another one will lay down lava that will cover an entire continent the astronomer says you haven't considered the worst of it we have dinosaur killer asteroids out there they come down periodically one of those would wipe out every form of animal life larger than a gerbil she says that's not the worst of it when the Sun goes into its red giant phase all of the atmosphere will be blown away all of the oceans will evaporate every single atom of life on this planet will disappear there will be nothing left so life on Earth faces a deadline that has nothing to do with humans this is a rather grim story it'll astray –tz– two things the first is a question and that is how far in the future should we try to be sustainable is ten years enough is a hundred years adequate or should we be planning to keep things sustainable until the next big meteor impact this is an important question I think we can answer it a little bit better in just a second so I'll return to it the other thing this story illustrates is that sustainability is not simply a matter of some things being sustainable and other things being unsustainable that's I think dramatically oversimplified what we need is a spectrum of sustainability and to create that I think it's useful to consider what I'll call an index of sustainability it looks a lot like a Richter scale we take the length of time that something is expected to exist or live we convert that to a base ten logarithmic number just like the Richter scale so if something survives for ten years it has an index of one something that survives for a hundred years ten to the two years has an index of two on this scale some familiar things have very short numbers the sustainability of the petroleum industry if it keeps maintaining production at about its current level for 50 years would have an index of 1.7 the log of 50 the sustainability of the Roman Empire which lasted 680 years would have a sustainability of 2.8 the average biological species which survives about 6 million years before it goes extinct would have a survivability index of 6.8 and from today the survivability of all life on this planet unless we do something is 9.5 now how can we use the scale I compared it to another scale which was created in 1964 by a Soviet astronomer Nikolai Kardashev he ranked civilizations according to how much energy they used so a type one civilization on his scale used all of the energy that a Sun emitted on a single planet a type two civilization used all the energy of that Sun and a type three civilization used all the energy produced by all the stars in a galaxy now this is a vast scale our own civilization fails to meet even the bottom rung of a type one civilization we don't use all the energy that falls on the planet but it's kind of within hailing distance this scale was used to measure the power the reach of a civilization I think we can use the sustainability index to measure the wisdom or maturity of a civilization so if a civilization is really grappling with problems that it faces over the next few years or tens of years that's pretty much a level one civilization a civilization looking farther in the future hundreds of years is level of two and a civilization that is contending with the red giant phase of the Sun or galactic collisions that's a level nine civilization our own civilization is kind of a mish mosh we're worried about things that are happening here and now sometimes we have to worry about things like that but we also in addition to being a level one civilization worried about what will happen in a million years with nuclear waste that's a level six civilization type of concern so we haven't fixed all the problems yet that will allow us to call ourselves a level six civilization we're still in this uncomfortable transition as we get wiser as we get more mature we'll be able to put aside the shorter term worries and focus more on the long term so coming back to the question how far in the future should we look the answer is it depends on our sustainability index as a civilization the wiser we are the more mature we are the more we look at the longer term issues and eventually I hope we'll be worried at how do we sustain life beyond the red giant phase of the universe perhaps our level nine descendants someday will switch out the Sun the way we might today switch out a light bulb but how do we get to that exalted state in a word innovation innovation is what brought much of the developed world from a life expectancy on the order of less than 40 years to a level today approaching 80 over the span of 160 years doubling life expectancy that's doubling sustainability of people in those country that's a tremendous achievement so innovation is one of the answers innovation can be thought of as the way that a civilization increases its sustainability and the sustainability of everything it cares about that's a very deep concept other species can't get there innovation is of many types biological technological political social many of the problems facing us today have little to do with technology we think of a billion people who have no electricity today or the billion people who lack adequate nutrition or the billion people who have too much nutrition those problems require primarily political and social innovation so how do we get that are we worried about consequences for example if we innovate and solve the problem of world hunger doesn't that mean just a lot more people using a lot more resources I think there the answer is we're human beings and to be true to ourselves we have to help everyone on this planet attain a decent standard of living yo Wilson says that's the primary challenge we face in the 21st century to raise everybody everywhere to a decent standard of living while protecting as much of the rest of life as possible unfortunately innovation is a messy and inefficient inefficient process it has costs in nature innovation takes place through natural selection Darwinian evolution red in tooth and claw that's messy in the business world corporate chieftains will sometimes exhort their R&D staffs to only work on the projects that will succeed and not on the other projects but that's like telling betters at a racetrack only bet on the horses that will win it's an appealing strategy but it's much easier said than done so innovation is not only messy and inefficient its unpredictable and that means we have to be very careful about the constraints the limits that we place on innovation because it's so easy to kill an idea early on even great ideas are very vulnerable in their earliest stages and it takes a lot of effort and commitment to bring these in these ideas these new products into a world is just as happy without them initially so we need to make sure that we have the right environment for innovation and that is called the innovation ecosystem and this is the message I want to leave you with today the innovation innovation ecosystem is that complex web of resources and relationships just like a biological ecosystem that hosts that houses individual innovations it is comprised of stakeholders and rules and what we find today unfortunately is that innovation is getting harder the reason is in large part that all of the rules and regulations all of the guidelines all the benchmarks the best practices the review boards all of these things we've set up that make our world cleaner and safer and more predictable also have unintended consequences they can make it harder to innovate they can make it very difficult to navigate through shoals of paperwork or permits or permissions making sure that folks are ok with what you're doing all of that distracts the innovator in that little moment when the idea is springing forth and that's not a good thing so we need to think of ways to make the innovation ecosystem around the world friendlier to innovators to make it easier to innovate and I think that what we should look at doing is creating innovations safe harbours places on the world where innovators can go and innovate very quickly very cheaply these innovations safe harbors could be as small as a garage or they could be as large as a country I think that countries will have definite advantages if they can follow this concept and make it easier to innovate within their borders because innovation is a key not only to sustainability but to national wealth increasingly as we work towards a knowledge-based economy around the world innovation will be central to success so we don't have the luxury of time you've heard that species extinctions are rising that we've passed a milestone in global warming with atmospheric co2 and I've raised some new worries for you today in the long term these rare global catastrophes that are not likely to happen for tens of thousands tens of millions billions of years but many of them could happen next year so the question is should we really assume that we have the time or not do we feel lucky do we feel lucky I think it's not part of our responsibility as humans to assume that we will be lucky and let our descendants worry about these problems so let's get to work let's innovate let's improve the innovation ecosystem let's innovate faster and I think if we create a better future than we will not have to regret the past thank you very much

2 Comments

  1. George Meshveliani said:

    wonderful

    May 23, 2019
    Reply
  2. Mohsenah AL Yami said:

    thank you… useful lecture

    May 23, 2019
    Reply

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