I recently attended the Verge Conference in San Francisco. Verge, short for convergence, was the brainchild of Joel Makower of GreenBiz, one of the more creative minds in the corporate sustainability space. The idea is that there is a rapid convergence happening between technology, buildings, transportation and energy that is creating tremendous efficiencies and opportunities for innovation. The lines between these seemingly disparate economic drivers are blurring. Started in 2011, the conference brings together thought leaders from a variety of disciplines to discuss how this convergence is playing out and what it means to cities, businesses, governments and individuals.
Here are some of the highlights:
Cities as a Platform
There was a lot of discussion about “smart cities” being at the vanguard of sustainability and with good reason. 50% of the globe’s population lives in cities now and projections show that this number may rise to 75% within 20 – 30 years. They are faced with the challenges of dense populations, water scarcity, aging electrical grids, congested transportation systems and a warming planet. They are big enough entities for their actions to be meaningful, but can also be nimble enough to be seen as laboratories for new ideas and approaches.
The subject of cities moving towards a ‘Distributed Electrical Grid’ with buildings becoming self-sustaining energy sources (via solar, wind, etc.) that the utilities can call upon as needed is one of more interesting concepts. It’s going to disrupt a number of existing preconceptions and business models for companies, utilities and consumers and will require getting all these key stakeholders involved in the discussion and the solution. For example:
● Utilities will need to adapt their model from centrally generating a mass supply of electricity and encouraging the consumption of electrons by any and all customers, to the efficient utilization of electrons by all consumers regardless of who actually supplies those electrons.
● Businesses and building owners will need to start thinking of themselves as producers of energy as well as consumers.
● Individuals will need to change their mind set to start doing things like charge electric cars and run dishwashers during the day when energy is cheapest (because of solar), or point their air conditioning ducts at bookshelves to cool the books down so they act as ice cubes and thereby decrease energy use.
Smart Grid technology, with a myriad of producers as well as consumers of energy, can manage the energy needs of a city much more effectively than our current model. Brewster McCraken, the CEO of the Pecan Street Project in Austin, TX pointed to the large scale pilot project in which an entire neighborhood is utilizing cutting edge smart grid technology and all of the key stakeholders are involved (utilities, building, transportation, technology companies and end users). The learning done through projects like this is opening up the smart grid to innovation and “app development”. Keep your eye on this space as smart grids and smart cities continue to evolve on the cutting edge of the sustainability wave.
Social Media as a Behavioral Driver of Sustainability
In the opening session, Bill Weihl the Manager of Energy Efficiency and Sustainability at Facebook, talked about utilizing Facebook as a platform to ignite behavioral change. Previously the Green Energy Czar at Google, he made the switch to Facebook because of the tremendous potential to utilize social media to accelerate the ‘tipping point’ of sustainability consciousness.
He spoke to the concept of how behavioral change takes place and how, as social animals, we are heavily influenced by our communities. This is exactly the philosophy behind Practically Green, which Bill gave a nod to and which we use at CA. Giving people data is great, but it doesn’t necessarily motivate them to change their behavior (unlike in businesses, but more on that in an upcoming post). However, highlighting ways that their friends are making a difference (like solar or insulation installations) will help bring to the surface largely invisible trends and start to make sustainability the norm.
He also discussed how to integrate the social component into the corporate sustainability effort. His advice: Align your business goals with your sustainability goals, integrate social into your green efforts and you will be much more successful. Remember, business communities are social too; they talk to each other and they compete. Capitalizing on this can pay big dividends (more on this in a few days).
Creating Collisions in A Revitalized Urban Downtown
The highlight of the conference for me was Tony Hsieh, the CEO of Zappos. Already a highly successful entrepreneur prior to founding Zappos, Tony spoke about his current focus of revitalizing downtown Las Vegas with a project he helped inspire called Project Downtown. As they explain it on their website:
We are a group of passionate people committed to helping to transform Downtown Las Vegas into the most community-focused large city in the world. We are doing that by inspiring and empowering people to follow their passions to create a vibrant, connected urban core.
We’ve allocated $350 million to aid in the revitalization of Downtown Las Vegas. We’re investing $100 million in real estate, $100 million in residential development, $50 million in small businesses, $50 million in education, and $50 million in tech startups through the VegasTech Fund.
That is a serious commitment building on the idea that cities need to be much more densely populated to be dynamic and sustainable – in every sense of the word. That starts by eliminating suburban sprawl (which Vegas is notorious for), and to which Zappos was a contributor with three offices spread throughout the outskirts of Vegas. The way they are addressing this is worth noting:
● They bought the old city hall, located in the heart of downtown, and are consolidating all Zappos offices there
● Project Downtown started a Tech Center in the same building, providing seed capital for innovative tech companies and working to woo startups from Silicon Valley to Las Vegas with the promise of a great lifestyle and lower costs
● Everything they do is geared towards creating “collisions”. Unlike the kind with cars, these collisions are about people literally running into each other on the street or in hallways and doorways to increase the likelihood of networking, knowledge sharing and opportunity creation. I think most of us can cite a chance encounter that spurred or crystalized a new idea. They even encourage everyone to only use the front door of the tech center to increase collisions.
● The area is being redeveloped with apartments and condos in a densely populated downtown area. This provides residents with the ability to have a walking lifestyle – with a job, amenities, retail and services all within walking distance of your home.
Overall, Verge was an outstanding conference and will definitely go on my list of “must attends”. With the unique focus on the blurring of lines between the different aspects the economy when it comes to sustainability, there were plenty of valuable insights to go around. Thanks Joel.