Who Killed “Time Is Money” – part 4: Dinosaurs in the Sun.

Reading time 5 minutes

In 1980 Sharp launched the first solar-powered commercial device: a calculator. Like most, my imagination went wild as I envisaged a world where our gadgets never ran out of power. The future was promising to be an exciting place.

What happened? We are still plugging our gadgets in.

Instead, the most evident change has been the increased use of re-chargeable batteries, their reduced size, and their capacity to provide a lot more power. But overall our power sources and industry has changed little, and not until the early 2000;s when the increasing smog problems in large cities due to coal-power toxic gas and CO2 pollution did serious investment in solar and other clean energy sources begin to contest the dominance of fossil-fuels in a meaningful way. So far the argument for not burning fossil origin fuels has been centered on the emission problem, and to a lesser degree on the extraordinarily damaging extraction. There is however another strong argument for saving it for more important uses (such as inert recyclable plastics necessary for sterile medical applications), or the use of coal (in far more conservative quantities) for nano-technology, electronics and industrial composite materials which has not yet entered the mainstream awareness.

While the rethoric surrounding energy industries and their importance to economies worldwide drowns out the real issues, the reality is extraordinarily simple.

The earth does not have an energy shortage. The shortage, and the inaccessibility is caused entirely by a legacy supply and business model that emerged with the industrial revolution, and being entirely dependent on that technology, it is obsolete and incapable of evolving along with innovation.

What we lack today is not better technology, but transitional models.

As a result the process is showing up to become deeply disruptive, as new technologies that have developed far enough to become overwhelming better propositions have begun to simply wipe out its predecessors, sidestep their systems and rendering them obsolete.

Besides having a considerable economic advantage (requiring little or no subsidies to be cost competitive) there is also the added benefit of speedy deployment, significantly reduced infrastructure, geographic independence, and a extraordinarily small environmental footprint. While this is often treated as an “externality” and not a factored cost within the industry, the overall economy still carries the burden of such damage in other sectors.

But that is today. What about the future?

First of all, I believe that the future will be primarily based on solar energy. Initially we will see this coupled with batteries, but in the long run we will see new technologies based on natural processes such as photosyntesis, organic substances and bacteria. processes, both for small-scale generation as well as storage. Some of the technologies currently in early stages of development include Sediment Microbial Fuel Cells (based on plants and soil) and a variety of bacteria-based systems that produce electricity while desalinating water or purifying wastewater. While these are currently still only a laboratory reality, it is easy to see the multiple benefits of such systems. Increased interest and investment and the prospect of commercially lucrative developments is certain to lead to some disruptive offering, and at the very least make a meaningful contribution to more specialised sectors of energy production.

Another aspect of solar that is non-visible light. Currently solar panels work predominantly with the visible light spectrum, but that is also changing. One of the side-plots to solar currently being developed in Canada is the use of light colours and electro-magentic radiation that is not visible to our human eyes, such as infra-red, ultraviolet and radio waves, which also hit the earth in abundance at night time. That means that while the output would not be the same as from direct sunlight, devices will still be able to generate some electricity at night.

Add to this photo-voltaic paints, films and flexible membranes. Houses, vehicles, and paved surfaces and gadgets would be painted with light sensitive paints (these already exist), or have surfaces covered with flexible transparent adhesive solar/radiation collecting films.

Combined with hyper-efficient batteries (think 100 x or more the current charge capacity) and wireless induction re-chargers, it is not hard to see that a power-points in your house will become obsolete. Most small devices will be nearly or totally energy-self sufficient. There will be no need to pay energy utilities for infrastructure costs – overland wiring will be obsolete and will at some point result in firms who will dismantle and reclaim tremendous amounts of increasingly scarce and precious copper for re-use elsewhere. No overland and streetside power-lines, and more importantly, an entire risk eliminated from the community: electrocution.

Not only will kids be able to safely fly a kite in the neighbourhood, your footpath trees will grow lush and full canopies. This may sound utopian, but only to those unaware of the critical tipping points being passed by the ongoing transformation of the energy industry world-wide. So far two countries have already achieved a 100% clean energy supply, and the number is only going to increase over the coming years, in particular in those places where there is no or only limited existing infrastructure now, such as large parts of India and Africa.

With a few exceptions (cooking, heating and refrigeration are unavoidably energy-intensive) the high voltage grid is history. The most dangerous electrical thing a child may stick his fingers in will be a usb socket, but even that will be a rarity. Most devices will simply have an induction contact plate for recharging.

Again, it is easy to see the profound disruptive capacity of emerging innovations on just two aspects of our every-day lives. It is hard to accept that this is probable, but the reality is that it is in fact almost inevitable. As these technologies get better, and the increasing cost of externalities and problems associated with an altered climate (due to our modification of the atmosphere’s delicate chemical balance) are drawn from the purses of entire countries’ economies, the impetus for transformation will only increase.

Paid electricity suppliers, and the entire networks upon which they operate will become a thing of the past.

Why? Because as we inevitably advance towards the de-coupling of income from labour, the provision of energy for the population becomes a necessary investment by governments in order to keep a country operational. On the upside, those costs will be considerably lower than they currently are, primarily because there will be little or no infrastructure build and to maintain.

As mentioned in my previous posts, all the propositions here are based on already known and existing trends and technologies, and because of that it is inherently conservative. To expect less would be naive, and any business that is intending to survive through this period of intense disruption needs to position itself to service a vastly different, but in my opinion much better world.

While I have not directly addressed the elephant in the room – social and economic models – I believe every one of us have a role to play in accelerating these changes rather than resisting them. There will be enough resistance from businesses and industries that are destined to be annihilated in the process, as well as inherently change-averse and conservative public institutions and governments. But there is also a tremendous momentum from the sheer scale, profitability and social good of these emerging opportunities. When these profound transformations are impeded and forced to slow down unnaturally, the greater the cost and damage to economies and individuals becomes, and the risk for social conflict, instability and humanitarian crises increases.

I invite you to imagine with me the day when a vast part of the population can invest their time into passion projects, the wellbeing of others, creative and artistic endeavors and stuff that no-one has imagined yet. A world where poverty is eliminated because nobody needs to work for money, and where healthy, nutritious food, water and basic are abundant and accessible in every corner of the planet. You and I will experience this world. And I look forward to be inspired and amazed by the innovations and inventions of tomorrow as I was as a kid when reading sci-fi novels and looking a books about the future.

Where will you be? What is your part of the dream?

Next week we return to our regular topics around Mindful Living. If you have enjoyed this series I’d love top hear from you. Please share your thoughts in the comments and be part of the conversation.

>>If you missed the previous parts of this series you can read them here [Part 1]  [Part 2]  and  [Part 3].

Who Killed “Time Is Money” – Part 3

Reading time 4 minutes

As we continue our journey into the future and look at what is happening in a decade or two from now, the time around 2025-2035. We are surrounded by people who are working on passion-projects and moving around in self-driving smart vehicles. Even smarter devices that make your iWatch look like a stone-axe are keeping you connected to the internet of things, enabling communication with with your home, your transport devices, collaborators and retailers, enabling making payments and other transactions.

But while robots and smart devices don’t take lunch breaks, we will.

The challenge we face today is that food production in its current form is not able to be increased at the same rate as the world’s population with our current agricultural methods.

One of the first things that we will be confronted with is a very significant decrease in meat consumption.

Meat is by far the most resource-intensive and ecologically “expensive” food to produce.
Combined with the fact that the current consumption levels in the western diet are actually causing an increased in colon cancer and other ailments, and being a contributor towards obesity epidemic. This is not as a result of the meat itself, but as a result of the habitual over-eating and unnaturally large servings of food that are common today.

The second – and far more sinister problem with meats is that the antibiotics required to maintain the health of industrially farmed animals cycle through the food chain, primarily via water. It means we are eating – and accumulating vast uncontrolled quantities of antibiotics that not only mess with our immunity, but cause resistant mutations in pathogens. To make matters worse, the livestock industry requires 6 kg of plant protein to produce 1 kg of meat protein and as a result consumes about seven times as much plant based food than what humans consume (based on US figures – these vary between countries depending on the region’s respective primary source of food).

It is highly likely that plant based foods will form the most significant part of our food intake.

But before you decide to jump the curve and become a vegetarian, it is important to aknowledge that a very similar problem exists with our current methods of industrial agriculture.

While antibiotics are the trojan horse of meat and dairy, pesticides are the equivalent problem in the plant-foods. Our current industrial agriculture methods for plant-based foods are as unsustainable as the ones for animal products. While GMO’s are contentious and are blamed for all sorts of ailments, the reality is that all food we eat today is GMO. The fashionable idea of Paleo diets (derived from “Paleolithic”, the period of very early human life from about 2.6 million years to approximately 10,000 years ago) ignore two important factors: none of the foods that have been agriculturally developed (through selective breeding and domestication, and blending of plant varieties) existed in the paleolithic. Secondly their diets varied greatly between regions and seasons. The early humans were hunter-gatherers, and significant agriculture did not emerge until the very end of the paleolithic. Today we do not (and would not) eat any of the foods they ate, most of those pre-agricultural varietes no longer exist.

One of the greatest indicators is a resurgence of lower-yield organic farming. And while these are producing smaller crop volumes, peripheral problems such as soil depletion and water-table problems are also significantly reduced. One of the most successful technological innovations of recent years is salt-water farming. This is industrial scale greenhouse farming for vegetables that is extraordinarily water-efficient. Already a commercial reality in arid countries including UAE and Australia, methods like these show tremendous promise for sustainable food production.

But besides organic grains, fruit and veggies, what will be on your plate?

Chances are that a significant part of your animal protein intake will come from farmed fish, seaweed, algae- and mushroom-derived “vege-meat” products, and “grown meat”. While still in early development, growing meat in the lab is a reality, and one that holds promise to provide meat proteins and nutrients without the enormous overhead of farming animals. But as mentioned earlier, it is likely that those will be a significantly smaller share of you overall food intake, which will be primarily plant-based, using moderate-yield organic methods. Given that a significant portion of the population will have a far greater availability of free time while robots do the boring, dangerous and repetitive work, it is not unimaginable that seasonal community and home gardens will make an important and sustainable contribution to the food mix.

Another area that will change profoundly is food-related waste, and food waste.

Disposable protective packaging will no longer be polluting – as Architect William McDonough proposed in 2002 in his book “Cradle to Cradle”, it will serve secondary purposes such as decompose an release nutrients or act as a composting enhancer. All food waste will be collected for composting either by local or by community level collection, and utilised to regenerate and enhance the soil for agriculture.

Overall food will simply become healthier again, by the simple necessity of an ecologically sustainable and sufficient supply.

This has a profound effect on health and leisure industries. Not only does healthier food mean generally less lifestyle illnesses such as diabetes, it means longer active lifespans, more energetic people with lots of free time eager to engage in meaningful experiences. The demand for experience-based entertainment will be a significant industry, that will in turn require salvaging, restoring and protecting many endangered natural ecosystems. And again, with that comes yet another industry: ecological regeneration and ecosystem restoration, this time driven by a strong economic motivator.

So now we know how we are fed the humans (and started living longer, working less, travelling more, and repairing ecosystems), but what powers the machines, the internet of things?

Last week I promised you the food and the energy of the next two decades. I have decided however to keep things brief, and so I have split this episode into two. I will explore energy next week. This is another area that is overflowing with innovative changes and possibilities worthy of the best science fiction. Except that it is not sci-fi.

The purpose of these posts is to encourage you to imagine a different future.

It is to create a context for you, so that you may wake up tomorrow exited about the future, and eager to be a part of it instead of afraid of it, to contribute and help shape it rather than to be unexpectedly derailed by it.

It’s purpose is to fight the dark and distorted reality portrayed by mainstream media, and reveal one far more certain, and far more exciting: the future as is being created right under our noses, sometimes quietly and sometimes with great fanfare, by innovators, visionaries and entrepreneurs.

Here is a link to Saltwater Farming.

Cradle to Cradle Book, Amazon (no, I am not affiliated in any way – it is still a great book!)

Here are Part 1 and Part 2 of this series.

Please share your thoughts. Agree, add to, disagree or challenge. The share and comments links below are yours to use… I look forward to hearing from you.

Who Killed “Time is Money?” – Part 2 (Who killed the taxi driver?)

Reading time 5 minutes

NOTE:Items underlined have links at the bottom of the article.

Last week I began this four part series by declaring the progressive demise of the “Time is Money” paradigm. As we enter an era when an increasing portion of the population will not be able to rely on a job as a source of income, we are also presented with an extraordinary opportunity: to develop a social and cultural environment where you do what matters to you, not what pays you. Although no single magical solution to how the “decoupling” of income from work has yet been defined, the momentum that automation has is such that a tipping point will force the issue, most likely sooner than people realize.

But while we envisage life in a world where work is optional, what else can we expect?

I will do my best over the remaining three episodes to put context around your future life. This context is not a pipe dream. Nor is it so far in the future that you can afford the luxury of ignoring it. This is a context of a world one or two decades into the future, and virtually everything that I put forward here is already a technical reality. What that really means is that however hard I try to make this a “big visionary thing”, the visionary element is massively undercooked. More on that later.

While I have endeavoured to keep things clustered into topics, some crossover is inevitable. Take your time to read this slowly and carefully. And above all, I’d like to invite you to join in the conversation, and encourage you upfront to share your comments by using the comments link below.

Over the last two years of working with Architecture students, their final projects are always envisioned to be delivered ten years into the future. So I will begin with the topic of transport technology, as many other things cascade from those transformations.

Earlier this year Tesla opened in Australia. Welcome to the electric car. While Elon Musk is changing the transport, portable energy and advanced battery technology around the globe (and now taking those batteries and using them on solar-powered houses), this is only a small stepping stone in our story.

The real game-change will come with self-driving cars.

While most people feel deeply uneasy about handing the steering wheel over to a web-connected and GPS-and-sensor-guided learning computer, the reality is profoundly significant. To begin with it eliminates car accidents almost completely, and the fail-safe systems will mean that even in a failure is unlikely to result in death on injury. That alone is a game-changer for insurance and health. consider that in Australia on average for the last decade, every year just under 1% of the population suffered serious injuries car accidents (and one in 20,000 died). Although this number is low compared to death rates from heart disease etc, it is also completely preventable. But that is just the tip of the iceberg. Forget taxis (sorry Uber-drivers, this will affect you too!). You can have your car drop you off at the entrance of your favourite restaurant, park itself in a machines-only parking rack nearby, and come at your request (via voice request on your  smartphone) collect you and your inebriated party (it knows where you are from your phone request location) and drive you all safely back home. No driving, no taxi queue, this is your car. This also means drivers licenses will be a thing of the past: your teenage kids may have access to safe and reliable transport with tracking and restrictions as may be necessary for personal safety.

It is clear that even before we delve too deeply into the subject, transportation gets a pretty severe upgrade. And it does not stop at personal transportation. Your food gets to the supermarket with self-driving electric – possibly even solar-powered (we’ll come back to this) trucks without drivers that fall asleep at the wheel or are kept awake with a chemical cocktail that makes the most hardened junkie jealous. The trucks go 24-7, day and night, no rest stops needed. Goodbye truckie – a whole industry rendered obsolete. Plug in some automatic inventory tracking, automatic maintenance scheduling etc. and the whole thing starts to look  pretty clever without a human in sight. We can keep digging deeper, but you get the picture. This is significant. This is not sci-fi, it’s here and you can find out more in this Ted talk from Google’s Sebastian Thrun. (link below)

So what else does this self-driving car change? For the first time since the horse-drawn cart we can have cars and people share transit spaces in urban centres. Sensor technology on a car does not just see what a driver sees, it can see 360 degrees without ever blinking. It knows exactly who and what is in front, beside and behind the vehicle, which way and how fast it is moving, and what it is. It can see in the blackest darkness, blizzard, rain or fog. And because it knows where every other car nearby is, it does not need traffic lights. Automated flow controllers (where cars share info with each other) ensure that movement is smooth, steady, efficient, and optimised. Wooha! Optimized? What on earth does that mean? It means that through predictive positioning algorithms cars can cross intersections, move safely through crowded pedestrian spaces, merge with other traffic etc. without stopping. It all happens in a smooth, fluid motion. You could sip your latte in the car and not spill a drop on the moisture-repellent self-cleaning upholstery. Good Bye traffic lights, and Good Bye traffic jams!. This is fun so lets keep going: no speeding tickets as cars behave to location specific restrictions. No more carparks as we know them, you get dropped off and call your car when and where you need it. Even halfway across town if necessary (although you may wish to tell it to meet you at your destination at a set time) I can see this being really handy when doing cross-country bush-walks.

Of course this technology has a profound effect on public transport as well. But by far the most profound impact will be on the shapes of our cities, our road network and supporting infrastructure. Your suburban street could look very different, and as a result new social interaction behaviours become possible.  No designated pedestrian crossings, no traffic lights. Footpaths can have fruit trees where directional signs once stood. Imagine car-sharing and pooling made possible through a simple request on your smartphone “I need to be at the golf club by 3pm” could cue up a selection of available cars, Uber-style. But being driverless means that cars that are passing you on the way to picking up someone from the golf club at 3:15 don’t make an empty journey.

This is just one thread of a whole complex web of possibility. I said earlier that this vision is “undercooked”. As outrageous and over the top you may think it is, it pales in comparison to what will actually be. That is because every single thing I have listed here is already a technological reality, although notnecessarily a commercial one – yet.

What this vision does not include is the stuff that has not been invented yet, or that has not reached a sufficient level of technical viability.

But rest assured, that many of those things that are currently facing hurdles will be resolved. Some game-changers will come from problems being solved in unrelated areas. In the same way as car-battery technology is being used to store your domestic solar charge for night-time use, other things will have a crossover effect, unlocking that which was previously unachievable. Challenges that crowd-source knowledge such as the X-prize are accelerating both the rate of innovations, as well as the nature of them.

It would be extraordinarily naive not to expect other game-changers to turn entire industries on their head, wipe them out and create new opportunities within the next decade. What those industries are and how they will change is up to us to imagine today.

Here are some fun links:

Video of a moving sidewalk at the Paris Exhibition 1900.

Sebastian Thrun TED Talk showing off Google’s driverless car. Hold on to your hat!

 The X-Prize website – lots of cool stuff here!.

Last weeks Post – Part 1.

Next week we will look at food and energy – two closely related areas that are fundamental to an enduring human future.

Please share your thoughts. Agree, add to, disagree or challenge. The share and comments links below are yours to use… I look forward to hearing from you.