Inventions like the HVAC unit and the sewing machine are from this quarter, so what can’t we achieve in the 2020s? We call on 2020s changemakers and innovators to leave us with the fundamental physics, technologies and mainstream business models that will drive clean, sustainable business growth in 2030 and beyond.
There’s more to life than product units and machines. From fuel cells to genetic engineering, the decades ahead will see a profound shift towards a more biomimetic world. Yet the way we provide ourselves with energy, chemicals and raw materials, most notably our food and agricultural systems, has little or no basis in nature.
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Many people may have an image of a food basket on their breakfast table, but most consumers are unaware that we are dependent on much more than a handful of foods; we grow and manufacture up to more than a billion tonnes of food annually, for a population in the region of 7bn. Around half of the UK’s imported food is produced in overseas facilities.
Farmers need efficient and reliable energy to reduce the energy used to power their seed plants and their methods of fertilisation. This is now possible through the integration of smart technologies, like high tech irrigation systems and mobile apps, which map the health of crops and capture the amount of water used throughout the growing season.
Using this data, farmers can plan their harvests and optimise crop yields, significantly reducing the amount of water and other inputs required to produce food.
There are exciting developments in chemical engineering, such as bioremediation, in which scientists remove microorganisms from wastewater, clean the water and then carefully replace them with bacteria that are not related to the targeted waste. Combining research from academia and industry, the resulting products can serve to reduce chemicals used in the production of water, reducing the use of water by 50%, reduce the volume of chemicals used by 90% and save some $2m (£1.3m) a year.
Farmers need efficient and reliable energy to reduce the energy used to power their seed plants and their methods of fertilisation.
What the future holds
Technology breakthroughs will accelerate in the 2020s and extend the same number of products as those we have invented since 1945, but for greater social, environmental and economic impact. The modern energy grid can achieve more than 100% renewable electricity generation in industrial, commercial and retail settings. Smart charging systems will reduce the amount of energy used to park a car by up to 70%, and a company operating in an industrial or commercial setting will benefit from a system that identifies when the energy usage in particular modules is at its peak.
Innovations that stop rapid deforestation – one of the key global threats to biodiversity – can involve the planting of trees, biochar, brackish water drainage and even additive technologies that, when combined with the seeping of water underground, can provide critical oxygen for local animals. We are on course to achieve the sustainable levels of carbon that scientists are calling for by 2030, with all but five% of all source emissions coming from deforestation.
Clever business models will provide the next wave of products that give rise to a new industrial revolution. Diversity among goods makes life easier for consumers and businesses, and makes whole lives more prosperous.
Diverse ecosystems, like the one that is the meadow where I grew up, has many more complex life forms in it, often in coordinated partnerships that keep each other moving. The three local ecosystems of nature – from the forest, to the meadow, to the ocean – will have to become more interconnected in the coming decades. It is essential that we bring together all the models of value production in our planet’s current systems.
Tackling pests, diseases and dealing with waste are among the areas where we will see globalised systems operate and push further down the path to sustainability.
Our goal is to encourage our 2030 generation to think beyond the small groups of people that are already doing pioneering work, to shed light on how future innovations can be commercialised and ultimately spread across the planet.
Paras Khanna is a founding member of the Sustainable Industrial Revolution advisory council and co-founder of The Young Foundation. He also formerly led the UK’s Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs.
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