These are times when change looks more like a rollercoaster than a steady line on a grid. In its 2018 report on the future of sustainability, the London based non-profit Forum for the Future, citing hurricanes and forest fires, notes how unpredictable life has become. But, says the report, "Fortunately, nonlinear change can lead to positive outcomes, too." The report highlights seven dynamic areas that "present rich opportunities to develop radically more sustainable behaviour and practice, through 2018 and towards the 2020s," as well as four areas to watch. I have summarized six out of these 11.

1. Mobility
Innovations for connected, autonomous, shared and electric vehicles will all bring big changes in road safety, urban planning, community interaction and the exchange of goods. Shared cars reduce traffic and improve parking, while infrastructure, regulation and grid and battery innovations are making electric vehicle production take off. Drivers will lose jobs, while technology skills will be in demand. In terms of sustainability, we should see much safer and cleaner mobility. Predominance of electric vehicles may come sooner than we thought: gas stations and electricity grids are enabling charging stations, cost-effective electric trucks are being introduced, and automakers are announcing plans to end production of diesel engines and invest heavily in electric cars.

2. Agriculture
Regenerative 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. Regenerative techniques include carbon sequestration in the soil, cultivating different crops together, keeping plant cover on soil and using insects instead of chemical pesticides. The report says, "The internet of things, remote sensing, artificial intelligence and a revolution in robotics are coming together to make low-input, data-driven automated agriculture at scale a real possibility." Forum for the Future also predicts a shift from meat eating to plant-based diets. This would disrupt agriculture and livestock, and dramatically improve the environmental impacts of our diets.

3. Retail
Clearly old ways of shopping are being disrupted, with online shopping going mainstream, a concentration of platforms (such as Amazon and Alibaba), innovation in delivery (such as the use of drones, or refrigerators that stock themselves), and greater efficiency through quick price comparison, reviews, and targeted marketing. Forum for the Future asks, "Can this be harnessed for sustainability?" Millennials are driving the sharing economy and are in many cases more interested in access than ownership. Rather than wanting to own a car, they'll access one when they need it, and they are happy to rent and share clothing, experiences, and accommodations. In her 2014 Ted Talk on collaborative consumption, Rachel Botsman said, "We are moving from passive consumers to creators, to highly enabled collaborators," and "from a culture of 'me' to a culture of 'we'."

4. New livelihoods
The Forum for the Future report expresses major concern for livelihoods in developing countries, as automation in manufacturing and agriculture replaces jobs. As in the developed world, people in developing nations will need to train in new skills for new livelihoods. Demographics won't help; the report cites a UN prediction that the global population will reach 11.2 billion in 2100, with more than half the world's children living in Africa. The report highlights two examples of solutions: collaborative work platforms that assign tasks to the best workers anywhere in the world, and unconditional basic income (UBI). Early results of pilot UBI projects in India and Kenya are showing increased entrepreneurship.

5. Blockchain
Blockchain technology holds promise for more transparent tracking and decentralized innovation. The report gives examples in supply chain management, in accelerating renewable energy integration into the grid, in improving meal delivery to schoolchildren, and in a payment system for refugees. If blockchain leads to a future of self-organizing networks, for instance of small producers all contributing energy to a local grid, it could disrupt our centralized systems of governance.

6. Going local

Globalization is becoming less popular, with localism, protectionism and regional political identity on the rise. On a less divisive and more positive note, new trends include community energy cooperatives, local food systems, local currencies, locally-made beer, local festivals and community business. Forum for the Future points out that cities are tackling climate change with local solutions, networked together in groups such as C40 Cities and 100 Resilient Cities. In some cases the solutions are system-wide. "Boston's climate change resilience plan focuses on tackling social inequality, acknowledging that [inequality] augments the environmental effects of climate change," the report says.

All of these areas are ripe with entrepreneurial opportunities and room for technological innovation. Clearly nonlinear times call for responsible application of technology, and Forum for the Future is optimistic about the direction humanity can take. We need to step up to this level of responsibility now.

Published on: Mar 1, 2018
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