By 2050, the Earth will be populated by nine billion humans. But the current global population (around seven billion) is already pushing resource consumption to its limits — every day we receive more warnings about climate change reaching irreversible levels, ecological damage from over-farming and over-fishing, and sustainability issues in energy technology.
How then, can we manage the needs of a nine billion-strong population in the coming decades and beyond?
Industry leaders in the field of sustainability, circular economy experts, and those in legacy industries like mining and oil and gas came together and discussed how we can each play our part at SFF x SWITCH.
WHO PROVIDES THE SOLUTION? ALL OF US
There is no single industry, technology, or regulatory body that can handle the massive changes we need to make. These run the spectrum, from changing entrenched consumer behaviour, to implementing deep, transformative change in even the most traditional industries.
An example would be the creation of a circular economy. In this concept, Marko Karkkainen, Head of Center, Centre of Excellence – Waste to Value, explained that stakeholders at the very end of the value chain (i.e. the ones receiving waste products) will be able to “climb up the [value] chain a little bit”. That is, one’s residual waste should become another person’s working material.
A simple concept to understand in theory. However, it is challenging in the extreme to implement. This is not for lack of new technologies in recycling, waste management, better materials — the issue comes from the massive task of stakeholder engagement. It takes academics, governments, and businesses working together, to create the circular economy we envision.
In Singapore, the National Environment Agency (NEA) devotes significant time and energy to the different ways of approaching stakeholders. In his role as Chief Technology Officer of NEA, Patrick Pang explained that each stakeholder, in each separate waste stream, has to be addressed on a case-by-case basis.
At present, only about 60 per cent of the country’s waste is currently recycled; the remaining 40 per cent still ends up in the Semakau landfill. To further close this gap, NEA has to collaborate with international researchers and companies in countries like Denmark, the Netherlands, and Japan. For industrial waste, Singapore engages with organisations as diverse as wafer fabrication to oil and gas companies. For food waste, yet another group of stakeholders has to be approached, and so forth.
Incentivising stakeholders to take part in sustainability
Besides educating stakeholders, another important element is incentivising them to be part of the solution. Stakeholders need to see the results of sustainable initiatives being brought to them, and how they improve their day to day lives.
One way to do this is to consider decentralisation. Professor Subhashish Bhattacharya, from North Carolina State University (Electrical and Computer Engineering), raised the example of the Lighting a Billion Lives (LaBL) initiative in India.
Photo credits: Lighting a Billion Lives (LaBL)
LaBL sets up solar charging stations in villages that are not well connected to the main power grid. These charging stations provide solar lamps that can be rented (and which also charge mobile phones).
The overall system is managed by local entrepreneurs, trained by LaBL. They rent the solar lamps at a controlled fee to the villagers. There is even a financing model that allows operators to start such enterprises as their own business.
In agriculture, Armen Harutyunyan, Chair of the UNDP Global Centre for Technology, Innovation and Sustainable Development, shared it is essential to address the concerns that arise from automation. This means helping to realise that technological advancement will complement the work of farmers, rather than replace them; and it will raise yields and productivity, which is also ultimately good for them.
While Singapore’s agricultural sector is small, innovations in this space abound. Sustenir, a local “vertical farm”, famously grows food in “impossible places” (read: high-tech, well-controlled indoor environments that make farming possible in urban Singapore).
Photo credits: Sustenir
Benjamin Swan, CEO of Sustenir, pointed out that they do not compete with local farmers. The agritech company made the decision to forego the growing of bok choi and kai lan (both already farmed locally), and only focused on growing what has to be imported.
Besides forging mutual relations, this also helps the environment as importing one kilogram of lettuce from Australia would emit six kilograms of carbon emissions. One of the most important stakeholders – the end consumer – also benefits. Growing the same vegetables locally also make them 20 per cent cheaper than most imports.
BUT CAN THESE GOALS BE A BUSINESS?
While the word “sustainability” is often taken in an ecological sense, it should also apply business-wise. The best technology can’t help, if no one builds or adopts it because it’s not viable as an ongoing business.
Take for example alternative proteins. Andrew Ive, Managing General Partner at Big Idea Ventures, raised a sobering concern regarding the miracle technology:
Scientists estimate that realistically, it will take another five to ten years for the growth of cell-based meats to be commercially viable. But Ive says, from the business perspective, it is not about whether this can be done (we seem to be well on the way).
The risk is in spending ten years in development, only to find that society isn’t ready to accept it. That is a big risk, but there Andy Kusomo, Director of Science & Technology, Monde Nissin, offered a silver lining: he believes that the customer will be “more and more ready.”
Other areas of sustainability are not spared the same issue. Consider technologies for reusing wastewater: Dr. Andrew Benedek, Chairman & CEO, Anaergia, noted that he has “never heard a pitch” where one can tell an investor they “need to stay with me for ten or 15 years” before they see any money.
And yet, this is precisely what’s needed for some water-related technologies. As such, startups can’t just focus on clever ideas and technology. That is an important part of it, but they also need to run with a competitive advantage in mind. There is no skipping out on business fundamentals like managing costs, and just counting on the big idea to see them through.
SUSTAINABILITY IS A MULTI-FACETED CONCEPT
Sustainability is multispectrum. It goes beyond just developing new technologies. As innovators, investors, or simply consumers, we all have different roles to play in the acceptance of sustainable technology, making it viable business-wise, and being open to new methodologies.