Parabolic Trough Collector (image courtesy of energy.gov)

Beyond Tomorrow

A story about optimism and how, in spite of the daunting challenges ahead, we all get to win.

In 1912 Frank Shuman, an American inventor, working with Charles Vernon Boys, a British physicist, patented and built a full-scale, solar powered steam engine called the “Sun Boiler”. Shuman used a parabolic trough, where reflective mirrors shaped in a parabola concentrate the sun’s energy on water held in collector boxes, to generate the steam that powered the engine.

Steam engines, and indeed the first and second industrial revolutions, had been largely fuelled by burning wood and coal. By 1912 oil and gas were relatively new to the party. However, Shuman and Boys weren’t the first to experiment with solar powered steam engines. That honour goes to the French inventor, Augustin Mouchot, who built one circa 1860.

Shuman went on to build the world’s first solar thermal power station in Egypt. Completing work in 1913, Shuman used parabolic trough collectors to power a 45–52 Kilowatt engine that pumped more than 22,000 litres of water per minute from the Nile River to transform arid desert into agricultural land.

“We have proved the commercial profit of sun power in the tropics and have more particularly proved that after our stores of oil and coal are exhausted the human race can receive unlimited power from the rays of the sun.”

— Frank Shuman, New York Times, July 2, 1916

The sun beams down enough energy to supply the entire world’s electricity needs more than six times over if only we knew how to harness it. In the 19th century we saw the genesis of an idea that had the potential to generate an almost inexhaustible amount of free clean energy and drinking water for everyone on the planet.

Just. Imagine. That.

One can only speculate what our global society would look like today had we gone down that road over 150 years ago. Perhaps our airplanes would be running on hydrogen and electric cars would be old news. Our air would be cleaner and maybe there would have been less conflict over scarcity when we lived with abundance. One might dream.

So what happened?

World War I, the Spanish Flu, the Great Depression, the discovery of enormous oil fields and World War II discouraged advancement in solar energy and established an industrial economy reliant on fossil fuels. The technological progress that this powered brought products, services and comforts that previous generations could barely imagine. But as we’ve discovered, this has come at a cost that wasn’t built into the purchase price and it’s our kids who are left picking up the tab.

This story isn’t about solar power vs fossil fuels however. Surely, we already know which we prefer and how we might have made different decisions if we lived in a groundhog century. This story is about the choices we make and their unintended consequences. It’s a story of optimism about what we could do together and how, in spite of the daunting challenges ahead, we all get to win.

Imagine if, after WW2, we had turned our ingenious minds to design an economic model based on abundance rather than scarcity. Would we now be powering our homes, factories and transportation systems by releasing the energy of the sun by extracting and burning the fossils of plants that had captured that energy? What if, as a result of this new economic model, energy was free and available to everyone?

Fanciful? I’m not so sure. After all, motivated by the crisis of the Cold War, we put a man on the moon with the computational power of a pocket calculator — albeit with an enormous amount of kerosene mixed with liquid oxygen.

If we, as a species, want to thrive beyond this century we will have to think differently to change. Part of that will be how we organise ourselves socially, politically, technologically and economically. It means that we must enter a golden age of creativity and innovation where almost everything; every product, device, packaging, process and service gets reimagined and reinvented.

We’re going to need some moonshot thinking.

Going around in circles.

A vital key to this future is the Circular Economy based on the principles of designing out waste and pollution, keeping products and materials in use, and regenerating natural systems. Our post-war economic model meant that we assumed it was ok to design waste and pollution into our products and services. It turns out that it’s not ok but the good news is that this is a design issue and perversely it’s possible that the same market forces that got us into a mess may get us out of it. Read on.

Generation Z to the rescue.

There are 2.5 billion people aged 9–24 years of age on our planet today, so called “Generation Z”. To put that number into perspective; when I was born in the 1960’s there were just over 3 billion people on the planet in total. Generation Z are about to become the world’s largest consumer group and then they will come to power. Every generation has its calling and this one has a plan to save the planet. Not coincidentally the icons of this generation include the 17 year old environmental activist Greta Thunberg and the 22 year old education activist Malala Yousafzai. Both responsible for spearheading global movements for change.

For me, this inspires optimism, courage and hope for our future rather than the fatalism that it’s already too late. I’m not saying that it’s the sole responsibility of Generation Z to save the planet, I’m acknowledging the influence that they will have on both the generations who follow and the ones who are ahead, including mine. Gen X seeing as you ask ;)

Older generations take note; increased life expectancy and falling fertility rates means that starting in 2073, there are projected to be more people ages 65 and older than under age 15. Take care of your kids because they choose your nursing home.

Market forces?

Forgive my idealism here but corporations chasing Generation Z dollars are going to have to rethink their goods and services because in the Pepsi challenge; the one that doesn’t screw the planet is going to win.

Bank of England governor, Mark Carney, gave a stark warning earlier this year when he told business leaders, “capitalism is part of the solution” to tackling climate change and that, “Companies that don’t adapt will go bankrupt without question.

The Fourth Industrial Revolution

You would had to have lived in a cave to have missed the hype on this. Ongoing technological progress means that we have entered a new industrial revolution characterised by advancements in artificial intelligence, automation, gene-editing, neuro-technological brain enhancements, biomimicry and much more.

Inevitably this revolution will influence the nature and future of work. Technological unemployment will occur as the things that can be measured or are based on rules are automated. This means that the jobs of the future are the ones that machines can’t do. I would argue that with such significant challenges ahead; whether it’s fixing the planet, supporting an ageing demographic or redesigning everything as part of a new circular economy, this revolution could lead to more jobs than fewer.

The technologies behind this revolution give us the opportunity to solve some of our biggest challenges. Simply applying them to an old economic model isn’t enough when they can be used to shift the paradigm from scarcity to abundance. We may well need extremely powerful AI to help us solve our most complex problems however the amount of energy they require is enormous.

The computing power required for today’s most-vaunted machine-learning systems has been doubling every 3.4 months, the correspondingly enormous growth in electricity consumption has environmental consequences. A recent report published in Nature indicated that our devices and data farms currently consume around 1% of our global energy demands and produce more than 2% of global carbon emissions. This is already larger than some small nations. The same report predicts that our computing needs will consume 8% of our global energy demands by 2030. Some predict that there just isn’t enough energy to power an AGI, (Artificial General Intelligence, a machine that can understand or learn any intellectual task that a human being can) that Futurists talk about.

Unless, of course, we generate our electricity using parabolic troughs… 😉

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If you would like to hear this as a keynote talk at your summit or conference please contact Wendy Morris at The London Speakers Bureau

In addition to public speaking and writing I run a Strategic Insight and Leadership Coaching practice that helps organisations, leadership teams and people in leadership roles navigate their future and reach their potential.

For more information please contact me

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