Category Archives: circular economy

Talk: How digital innovation will have a profound and disruptive effect on society and our environment

This is the text of the talk I gave at Forum for the Future regular energy drinks. My brief was to describe how digital innovation will have a profound and destructive effect on society and our environment in 10 minutes. It’s one part of my sabbatical effort to understand how we can surf the digital revolution. Here goes.

Let’s start with the bold claim. If we are on track for sustainable future in 10 years time it will be because we have figured out how to surf the digital revolution.

Behind this bold claim is the idea that digital technologies are a general-purpose technology. To quote McAffee and Brynjolfsson, they will do for mental power walk the steam engine did from muscle power. We can expect the impacts to be as profound. And the Industrial Revolution had some consequences! We moved from farms to factories, stagecoaches to locomotives, local time to timetables, villagers knowing each other to towns and cities of strangers. All this illustrates how social change and technological revolutions go hand in.

But it is still difficult to grasp what that means for us now. So, let’s imagine again my life in say 2020.

I wake early and my phone has registered disturbed sleep. It tells my yoga app and my health insurer. Over breakfast I reward my son who has had a good end of term report with Amazon’s points. He wants to spend them on the force re-re-awakens.

Citymapper tells me that my commute is disrupted so I don’t work in a local cafe. I paid in ‘Brocks’, the local currency in Brockley South East London that I earned from my solar surplus into the local electricity grid. I commute in on the Elizabeth line what used to be called crossrail.

My first meeting is assessing the work that has come back from researchers. We put a request out to our crowd, and people have sent back their findings. They get paid a little bit for effort but more if we like the insight and decide to use it. Just before lunch my phone tells me an old friend is now by and we have and impromptu get-together.

In the background lots of things happening that I don’t need to take any part in. My home concierge is turning devices on off to get the cheapest energy. Someone borrows our lawnmower and pays in ‘Brocks’. My digital assistant is dealing with my emails; I only see the ones that I’ve taught it I really need to see.

In the evening there are leaving drinks for some back-office staff. I taken either home driven by an unhappy former black cabbie.

All this illustrates a couple of points:

– My life will rely on digital
– People will be paid based on how well they work with robots (to quote Kevin Kelly)
– Individuals with more exposed and, paradoxically, have more power
– It will support an exhilarating energy revolution, Through local small groups and smart buildings
– There will be alternative models: the access economy; the sharing economy; the circular economy; the gig economy; the local economy.
– Life will be faster more automated and more bespoke

There are two great hopes of digital revolution:

– The productivity gains will mean we can meet all material needs.
– Because we can meet nonmaterial means in nonmaterial ways, we will need less stuff to have more fun and we can come back within planetary boundaries

But alongside those hopes come some big fears:

– How will people have worthwhile work?
– How will people get value from data about themselves?
– How will we address the ‘winner-takes-all’ dynamic that is driven faster by the ’network effect’ of digital technologies?
– What will be the institutions in a digitally-enabled world that are worthy of our trust?
– How will we evolve our selves to always-connected, ever-accelerating lives?

More fears can be devised and there is much we cannot know. We can know is the digital will have a profound effect on society and our environment – and so on our lives. Because networks are at it’s heart, digital technologies hold out the promise of us organising like a living system (which I think is crucial to a sustainable future – see here). If we can do that then we could have a society where people can choose how they live within planetary boundaries.

Getting this to happen will be tough. It will require us to come up with new institutions new regulations new values in fact a whole new political. But we must.

Because if we are on track for sustainable future in 10 years time it will be because we haven’t figured out how to surf the digital revolution.

Ellen MacArthur Foundation: catalysing a slow-maturing field

Last week I was the inaugural Schmidt-MacArthur lecture, delivered by Google Executive Chairman Eric Schmidt. He was robust, but even more impressive was the Ellen MacArthur Foundation. They have really catalysed what had been a slowly maturing field – and I think they have a big decision ahead of them. 

The Ellen MacArthur Foundation (EMF) is an independent charity focussed on the circular economy. It’s young – only founded in September 2010 – but has grown quickly in its impact. A lot of that is down to the charismatic founder, Ellen MacArthur, the former round-the-world sailor. The story goes she had an epiphany while on that trip: we can all live within the limits of what we have (as she did on the boat) as long as we have a circular economy.

From what I can see the EMF change model has three parts: a clear mission, 3 areas of intervention and star power.

  1. Clear mission that is holds well the tension between specific and ambitious (“aim of inspiring a generation to re-think, re-design & build a positive future through the vision of a circular economy”)
  2. Three areas of intervention, each of which is multi-faceted and that combine together well:
    • Education, primary, secondary and higher. Illustrative initiative: Schmidt-MacArthur fellowship, “post-graduate students and their academic tutors from a select network of some of the world’s top universities to innovate for a circular economy.”
    • Insights and analysis. Illustrative initiative: McKinsey reports on the straight business case for circular economy.
    • Business Innovation: Illustrative initiative: Circular Economy 100, a global platform bringing together leading companies, emerging innovators and regions to accelerate the transition to a circular economy over a 1000-day (3 year) period.
  3. They use Ellen MacArthur’s star power to convening leading thinkers and companies. The lecture was the climax of the Circular Economy Summit, “the largest ever gathering of thought leaders and practitioners to discuss the transition to a circular economy”.. Through the day there had been sessions from McDonough, Braungart, Stahel, Benyus, and many more. There were 250+ folk there. 

Here’s what I am impressed by:

  • The scale, pulling power and speed to having a global reach. EMF have gone from nought to sixty very fast. EMF has been a massive catalyst in a field that had been maturing slowly for decades.
  • Assembling an innovation ecosystem on circular economy: big incumbents and niche; tapping into universities; creating clusters of advisors (McKinsey were very prominent). There is potential for strong re-inforcing feedback loops between the McKinsey reports (on where the biggest opportunities are), the CE 100 (who aim for those opportunities), and the Fellows (who could do the technical innovation).
  • Top-level collaborationsThey’ve put effort into relationships with top mainstream institutions (eg global top universities and McKinsey). 

I was less impressed by the facilitation and event design – the lecture concluded with a panel of 7 prominent people. That is never going to work. But really, that is a very minor criticism of a successful event.

The interesting thing is what EMF choose to do going forward. I’ll bet a lot of their time has been taken up with making this first year of the Fellowships work, and then getting the Circular Economy Summit to be great. Now they can turn their attention to what’s next.

As I see it, they have a big decision to make about what their role is in the innovation ecosystem they have created:
(a) nurturing and growing only, and letting others to do the nitty-gritty; or
(b) nurturing and growing plus doing the nitty-gritty themselves. 

If they choose (a) then they will have a ‘cleaner’ role, holding the space for others and then bringing the best insights into neat packages (for education) and connecting people together (for innovation). The challenge here will be the value proposition can feel woolly (“I pay you to hold the space? What?”) and people in the organisation can be itching to use insights directly.

Hence why EMF might drift to (b), being an advisor as well as holding the space. The challenge there is why will people share insights if you’re going exploit them?

So far Ellen MacArthur Foundation have been a brilliant accelerator in what had been a slowly-maturing field. So, I have to presume that they will make the next call well – that’s the track record. Whatever decision they make, let’s hope they are successful. We need to push the pedal to the metal on creating a sustainable future, and a circular economy is vital to that.