Chapter 1: The Ultimate Moonshot

Harnessing technology to address planetary emergencies

GTL Team
GTL Team
Jul 2 · 8 min read

This article features an extract of our report The Frontiers of Impact Tech: moonshots worth taking in the 21st century, published in June 2019. Download the full report: http://goodtechlab.io


Fifty years ago, humans set foot on the moon for the first time. Today, the future of our very existence depends on another moonshot — reversing climate change while ensuring people and nature thrive.

The window of opportunity is closing fast, but success is still within our grasp. Science, technology and system entrepreneurship could provide leverage points to help us achieve this ultimate moonshot.


Reversing climate change and the collapse of nature …

Over the last two centuries, living conditions have vastly improved on a global average: extreme poverty and violence have dropped, health and education levels have soared. However, not only this trend has been uneven and recently stalled, but the system we built to deliver this progress is no longer compatible with the planetary boundaries — the environmental limits of the “safe operating space for humanity.” Our impact on the biosphere has exploded so much that a new geological era was named after us: the Anthropocene.

Our rapidly shrinking carbon budget to stay within 1.5C of global warming is equivalent to a decade of current emissions, according to the last IPCC report. Today the effects of 1C of warming are already felt through coral bleaching, invasive species and extreme weather events like the 2018 summer heatwave. At 2C or 3C though, consequences on heat stress, sea level rise, crop yields, and water scarcity will get considerably worse. Up to 300 million climate refugees could be displaced by 2050, and some of the world’s biggest cities could face irreversible damage.

Worse: temperature rise above 1.5C increases the risk of crossing Earth-system tipping points. This would cause a domino effect where feedback loops, from dying forests to melting ice, would greatly amplify human-induced emissions, leading to a “Hothouse Earth” beyond 5C.

In addition to climate change, the loss of natural capital is also moving us past critical planetary boundaries. A million species — one in eight — could disappear in the earth’s sixth mass extinction, according to the new report from IPBES, the “IPCC of biodiversity.” Already 75% of land areas are degraded, threatening the well-being of half the world’s population. A third of arable land has been lost to erosion and pollution, putting at risk our capacity to meet growing food demand. Forests are cleared for animal agriculture. Overfishing and plastic pollution mean by 2050 oceans may contain more plastic than fish. By the same date, coral reefs could disappear along with the quarter of marine life they support.

Global warming and the collapse of biodiversity are two faces of the same coin: an existential threat to the life-support systems on which we depend for food, clean water, and a stable climate.

Only a quantum leap can reverse that trend. In 2017 top climate scientists led by Johan Rockström calculated the roadmap we should follow to achieve the Paris Agreement. Following what they call a Global Carbon Law, emissions should peak by 2020 at the latest, and then halve every decade, while the capacity of carbon sinks doubles.

Moore’s Law predicted in the 1960s that computing power would double every two years, a heuristic which has driven the digital revolution. Now, we must use the Carbon Law as an exponential roadmap to reverse climate change and the loss of natural capital. This trajectory looks technologically feasible and economically attractive but requires no less than what the IPCC calls “rapid, far-reaching and unprecedented changes in all aspects of society.”

We need a radical shift in our relationship to carbon and natural resources. A central piece would be a New Carbon Economy which captures and sequesters more greenhouse gases than it emits. Another would be a Circular Economy which the Ellen MacArthur Foundation describes as “decoupling economic activity from the consumption of finite resources, and designing waste out of the system.”


… While making all humans thrive

However, this shift will only be attractive to citizens, businesses, and governments if it leaves no one behind. A future that is not only resilient but also worth living includes making sure everyone has access to decent shelter, clean water, healthy food, affordable energy, quality education, and healthcare. Furthermore, we need a thriving economy that reduces inequalities, eliminates poverty and makes our cities more liveable.

Here as well, the path is very steep. The world population is expected to rise from 7.5 billion to 10 billion in 2050, of which 70% will live in urban areas. Still, today 844 million people lack even a basic drinking-water service, 1 billion have no electricity, and almost a third of humanity suffers from nutrient deficiencies. Meanwhile, 26 people own as much as the 3.8 billion who make up the poorest half of humanity. These numbers could even worsen if we fail to prevent the collapse of the biosphere.

The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) agreed by the UN in 2015 provide a holistic framework to address these social, economic and environmental challenges. Achieving these “Global Goals” would bring the world much closer to what economist Kate Raworth calls “meeting the needs of all within the means of the planet.”

The good news is that market forces could help us achieve significant progress. According to the Business and Sustainable Development Commission, the SDGs represent at least a $12 Trillion annual market opportunity on just a few economic sectors. Furthermore, the net financial gain of removing 1000 gigatons of carbon from the atmosphere has been estimated to $45 Trillion by Project Drawdown. These may very well be the biggest innovation opportunities in history.

Here is the ultimate moonshot: within the next decade, we need to start reversing climate change and the loss of natural capital, while achieving the Global Goals and making all humans thrive.

The scale and speed of the required effort have “no documented historical precedent” according to the IPCC. Some compare it to the Apollo Program which put the first human on the moon in 1969, or to how the US economy prepared for World War II. However, today the effort cannot be driven by the will for global dominance, and no superpower can win this battle alone.

Everyone holds part of the key to what is the archetype of a super wicked problem — one that resists simple resolution because of the many parameters involved, complex interdependencies, and incomplete knowledge, among other factors.


Harnessing science and technology for good

Meeting this challenge is not only economically attractive but also technologically feasible. Two technology waves give us reasons for optimism. First, the digital revolution has now matured and is profoundly transforming all industries, from finance to transportation, energy, and agriculture. It has enabled innovative products and business models already addressing the SDGs, from mobile payments to digital education platforms and crowdfunding for renewable energy.

The internet also makes it easier than ever to document, promote and finance proven climate and poverty solutions based on appropriate technology, like clean cookstoves and low-tech water filters.

The second, more profound wave is the rapid advance of emerging technologies, which are converging in what the World Economic Forum calls a Fourth Industrial Revolution. It includes fields like synthetic biology, new materials, robotics, the internet of things, artificial intelligence, blockchains, satellites, additive manufacturing, nanotechnology, and breakthroughs in cleantech and medical devices.

Harnessing science and advanced engineering, pioneer entrepreneurs are building groundbreaking solutions to some of the world’s most pressing problems: from bio-based chemicals to animal-free meat, zero-emissions transportation, secure land registries that empower smallholder farmers in the developing world, and satellite imagery preventing human trafficking.

However, it is crucial to be aware that technology also brings its own set of challenges and risks. What is the future of work when automation displaces most traditional jobs? How do we ensure technology does not increase inequalities even more? Can we reduce the terrible social and environmental cost of electronic products? How can we manage the security, safety and democracy risks in the age of AI and biotech? These are only a few of the hard questions we need to answer. Only then can we maximize positive outcomes and minimize negative ones.

Historian Melvin Kranzberg famously said, “Technology is not good nor bad, nor is it neutral.” If we can adopt the right “impact compass” and a system perspective, maybe it could become a force for good.


The way forward: the frontiers of Impact Tech

There are reasons to be hopeful. Every day we hear about new scientific discoveries and entrepreneurial endeavors addressing some of the world’s wicked problems. We also see pioneers of social impact and sustainability embracing technology to bring their mission to the next level. We believe these purpose-driven “Impact Tech” innovators can be at the forefront of the ultimate moonshot outlined above, if only they can steer technological acceleration in the right direction.

This report has five main chapters. First, we look at the rise of what we called the “Impact Tech” movement, its growth drivers and the different strategies we have observed. Second, we dive into each of the 17 SDGs and identify the scientific and technological trends that can help achieve their sub-targets. Third, we reflect on technology risks and challenges. Fourth, we look at how impact management methods can help innovators adopt the right compass to maximize their positive impact while mitigating the risks and negative footprint of their solutions. Fifth, we provide 12 recommendations to help scale the Impact Tech sector.

This report is the first in a two-part series. The second one will be published later this year and dive into Impact Tech innovation ecosystems. We will map notable international players and analyze how investors, incubators, corporates, foundations, development organizations and more, are inventing new ways to partner with mission-driven tech innovators.

Finally, we should state that our focus on science, technology, and entrepreneurship does not imply a disregard for the potential of non-tech innovation, nor a naive belief in techno-solutionism — the idea that technology alone can fix any problem.

On the contrary: in times of exponential change and unprecedented challenges, there has never been a greater need for thinking in systems and embracing complexity. Policy, behavior change, human-centered design, and regenerative economics are all equally important.


This article features an extract of our report The Frontiers of Impact Tech: moonshots worth taking in the 21st century, published in June 2019. Download the full report: http://goodtechlab.io

Good Tech Lab

We are a research and innovation firm focused on the moonshots of the 21st century — reversing climate change while ensuring people and nature thrive. Read our first report on http://goodtechlab.io

GTL Team

Written by

GTL Team

Exploring the frontiers of technology, entrepreneurship and venture funding, where pioneers tackle the world’s biggest challenges. 🌍

Good Tech Lab

We are a research and innovation firm focused on the moonshots of the 21st century — reversing climate change while ensuring people and nature thrive. Read our first report on http://goodtechlab.io

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