Market News

 August 25, 2009
Moore's Law and the Environment - An Opportunity

 Everything’s getting faster these days-you’ve heard it before. Two mega-trends in particular are merging: rapidly accelerating technological change and rapidly evolving environmental issues and pressures. Lucky for us, the first change is going to save our butts from the second. Fast-evolving, smart IT will play a critical role in helping us navigate and profit from environmental challenges. The two trends together are combining to make for enduring change in how business is done, a movement to a permanently higher plane of green and tech-driven activity.

A recent Wall Street Journal op-ed, "Ten-Year Century," makes the well-known case that the pace of transformation in society is accelerating. More has changed, the authors say, in this decade than in the previous century. To be specific,

Changes that used to take generations-economic cycles, cultural shifts, mass migrations, changes in the structures of families and institutions-now unfurl in a span of years... Game-changing consumer products and services (iPod, smart phones, YouTube, Twitter, blogs) that historically might have appeared once every five or more years roll out within months.

The "Laws" of Technology that the authors highlight-Moore’s and Metcalfe’s-perfectly describe how quickly both computational power and networking capacity are growing (double the computing power on every chip every 18 months, for example). It’s a "law" in the world of technology that things are steadily getting faster.

But this op-ed and other "tech is changing the world so fast" stories-and I’m a sucker for them-miss the another big shift that’s moving just as fast: the degradation of the natural world and the resulting pressure to green society and business.

The forces driving the greening of business-from natural world pressures to business customers asking tough questions about your environmental impacts-are evolving incredibly quickly. First, we’re witnessing changes in the physical world that scientists and geologists normally expect to take decades, if not millennia.

Scientists are very surprised by the increasing pace of change in environmental deterioration, particularly in our climate. As science writer Sharon Begley points out in Newsweek, statements from experts such as, "that really shocked us," "we had no idea how bad it was," and "reality is well ahead of the climate models" keep coming up repeatedly. The scientific consensus on environmental issues has also moved quickly, from careful support for the thesis of human-induced climate change to vast, overwhelming, somewhat nervous agreement in less than 10 years. How sure will our scientific leaders be in 10 more?

Second-and this is the good news-the business world too is changing its ways at a remarkable pace, especially when you consider the size of the companies in motion. Leaders are drastically reducing energy use and greenhouse gas emissions, innovating even in seemingly static parts of the business like fleet and distribution. We hear every day how much Wal-Mart is changing itself (taking an already lean company and improving fleet efficiency by 30% in three years) and forcing change on others (making somewhat-radical new demands on suppliers that will change how they do business).

We can be forgiven for finding the technological, environmental, and business changes awe-inspiring, daunting, and "deer-in-headlights"-freeze-inducing. During a time of fast change, it’s also tempting to go into ostrich mode, just chalk it all up to a temporary frenzy, and hope that if you shut your eyes tight it will all go away. But is today’s pressure on business and society to go green a "bubble," just another rise in environmental interest like the ones we saw come and go in the early 90s and early 70s? You can guess where I come down on this.

Part of my reasoning is that the business opportunities in solving environmental challenges are so large, why would interest wane? We can already see that the technological changes of today will serve us well in the search for solutions to our biggest environmental challenges today and tomorrow. Imagine the scale of industry transformation and the profit-potential in just three areas:

  • New energy-efficiency and generation technologies to save money and to power our lives
  • Satellite imaging, "remote sensing," nanotechnologies, and data collection methods to track environmental impacts from forests to factories
  • Business analytics tools and software to identify risks and opportunities up and down the value chain.

And so, as with the certainty of the "Ten-Year Century" futurists about the increasing pace of technological change, I believe that the acceleration of the greening of business is real and its impact will be permanent, not transitory. The growing revolution in how business is done will likely dwarf the original industrial revolution in its impact on how we live. We’re moving quickly to a new way of designing, making, shipping, selling, using, and disposing of all goods and services. And given the pace of change, it’s a spectacularly bad idea to wait out the recession to take action (a case I make in my new book, Green Recovery).

Given the power of high-tech fixes to deal with the somewhat terrifying pace of environmental change, I say let’s not just cope with technological change or even embrace it, but let’s do everything we can to accelerate it. It may be our only hope.

Andrew Winston is the co-author of the best-seller Green to Gold and the author of Green Recovery He is dedicated to helping companies use environmental strategy to grow and create enduring value for their communities, customers, employees, and shareholders. 

This article was originally published on August 18, 2009 in Harvard Business Publishing and is reprinted here with the kind permission of the author and Harvard Business Publishing.

For More Information: Harvard Business Publishing