How A “Generational Will” Can Foster A More Sustainable Future – Part 1

How A “Generational Will” Can Foster A More Sustainable Future – Part 1 Image source:

Eventually all living things transform or cease to exist. Our most primal and basic motivation as humans is survival. We have four basic needs: food (including water), shelter (including clothing), sleep, and oxygen. Beyond biological survival, humans also require emotional and psychological support including love.  Yet somewhere in our evolution we’ve overcomplicated the formula for sustaining and living a happy and purposeful life. When it comes down to survival, humans are our own worst enemy.  Although skillful, inventive, and highly resilient, human’s also have an Achilles heel. We are challenged by trust, accountability, and our ability to allow a collective consciousness to supersede individual ego, greed, and discontent.

In the process of pursuing survival, humans make mistakes. We’ve devised and put into place complex life support systems: religious ideologies, defense strategies, infrastructures (transport, energy, and resource), medical and healthcare institutions, and government and governance structures to support our perpetuation of life. But these systems are not fail-or-fool proof. What’s encouraging, however, is that humans are tireless thinkers and tinkerers. We’re at our best when we align our passion and zest for life with a strong purpose.

The invention of light bulbs

Electric light was discovered in the early 1800s by English scientists and inventors including Humphry Davy and Joseph Wilson Swan. But it was not until the late 1800s when, through the ongoing research efforts of Thomas Edison and others, that the principles of electric light were engineered to provide a more constant and longer-lasting glow which resulted in the commercialization of incandescent light bulb. One hundred thirty years later we are still using the basic incandescent light bulb that Edison and his peers worked so hard to develop.

The use of a product, whose principle design and operation remains virtually unchanged for 130 years, is simply incredible. From one point of view, the longevity of the incandescent bulb is a celebration of innovation. But if looked at from the point of view of energy efficiency, lighting quality, and performance, the perpetuation of this product is outlandish and begs the question, “why didn’t we invent a better solution sooner?” Today it’s unheard of to have a consumer product with an efficacy in the marketplace longer than 18-36 months.  Such thinking goes against our current practice of rapid innovation and fundamental business models.

According to the United Nations Environment Program (UNEP), lighting accounts for 15% of global electricity use and 5% of worldwide CO2 emissions (UNEP, 2012). Lighting has a highly consequential impact on energy use and climate change. A global transformation in lighting is now taking place. It is being pushed for by nations that have ruled humanity’s first commercial light bulb a relic of the past, and by lighting innovators who are redesigning and manufacturing more efficient lighting solutions.

For the past ten years governments around the world have begun to put programs in place to address the safe and environmentally responsible disposal of incandescent and other inefficient light bulbs. They have also developed standards and incentive programs to transition consumers to higher-efficiency lighting products (i.e., halogen lamps, CFLs, LEDs, induction lights). A global phase-out on incandescent bulbs began around 2005 when the countries of Venezuela and Brazil put bans into place. In 2009 the European Union, Switzerland, and Australia established their phase-out plans on incandescent bulbs. Countries including the U.S., Canada, Mexico, Malaysia, and South Korea have phase-out plans in place for 2014.

The incandescent light bulb was very much a “discovery based” innovation. Although the basic need this product fulfilled was “providing light,” the invention of the first light bulb was not motivated by a global market, scalability, or specific consumer requirements. In fact, the generation and delivery of electricity to power a product such as the light bulb was only just being conceived. One hundred thirty years ago we did not have an existing or intimate relationship with electricity or electric light. The “discovery” of the light bulb helped spur new industries, and an incredible way for humans to experience life. Our intimacy with the incandescent bulb makes sense. It was our first love. With the flick of a switch magic happened. Why change what works so well?

After decades of building electric power generation, transmission/distribution infrastructure, and electric consuming products, the novelty of electricity has not worn off. Instead, our daily life is now dependent on the safe, reliable, and efficient delivery of electricity. Electricity is now a “common good,” much the way we once valued clean air and water. We love electricity and lighting so much that they are (at least we value them to be) essential to our economy. Imagine if we did not have electricity to power out interests in healthcare, education, emergency response, defense, entertainment, transportation, and agriculture? We could argue that our current interdependence on lighting and electricity is critical to life itself.

As a “discovery based” innovation, the light bulb spawned more than a Century of innovation, infrastructure development, and human-technological relationships that led us to design and implement elaborate systems using electricity. But in the process, we’ve become highly reliant upon our creations, susceptible to their performance, and at risk of their failure. Perhaps with lighting, we’ve loved this innovation too much?

The electric revolution also led us to accelerate “purpose-driven” innovation where we focused our attention on solving human-centric challenges, not just discovering new inventions that did not have immediate social application. Electricity has provided tremendous means to humanity for advancing new scientific discoveries in all disciplines (i.e., medicine, engineering, architecture, transportation, communications, and manufacturing). Likely, many purpose-driven innovations sprouted in laboratories, homes, and businesses lit up by the infamous incandescent bulb.

Can innovation bring damage and consequences at odds with our survival ?

Amidst discovery-and-purpose-driven innovation cycle’s humans also developed capabilities which have led to the development of products that far exceed commercial market needs. Invention and innovation are limited only by our imagination, creativity, and infusion of capital. As a result, humanity has gone to space, explored deep ocean trenches, built supersonic stealth aircraft, and created an interconnected global economy accessible by anyone with a smartphone.

Human’s curiosity with life, science, religion, space, the natural environment, and the unknown drives our will to create, learn, invent, and innovate. But our will to create can come at great expense as well as incur damages and consequences which are at odds with our survival. We spend a great deal of time improving products and systems to combat errors (i.e., inefficiencies, defects, malfunctions, unintended impacts) designed by prior generations. If we were to redesign the electric power grid today, armed with the knowledge we have on the climate impact of fossil fuels, and our technological capability to produce clean, distributed, and reliable energy, the world’s energy infrastructure and associated global impact would look entirely different.

How a generational will can foster a more sustainable future-Part 2