Next week brings a global conversation around a big idea being called VERGE. The notion is that energy, information, building, and vehicle technologies are converging, in ways that will make the planet radically more sustainable. The coinage comes from my friend and colleague Joel Makower, the chairman and executive editor of GreenBiz Group, the producer of Greenbiz.com, where I’m a senior writer.
Like the Internet that makes it possible, VERGE will have a “deep and lasting impact,” Joel says. “It will change everything. Or, more accurately, it will focus and accelerate the changes already under way.”
We’ll be talking about VERGE at three high-level VERGE roundtables on June 21 and June 22 — one in San Francisco led by Joel and another in Shanghai led by Rob Watson, a pioneer in the world of green buildings. I’ll be moderating the conversation in London, joined by executives from such companies as IBM, Cisco, Marks & Spencer, CH2MHill and Autodesk. Sustainability gurus John Elkington and Peter Madden will be there as well. You’ll be able to tune in live to all three events, culminating in a free, six-hour virtual event on June 22.
Each of the four VERGE technologies is evolving quickly, with its own market, economic, policy, and technological dynamics.
- Energy technology is becoming decentralized, cleaner, better managed, and easier to store.
- Information technology is making every device, building, and vehicle smarter, able to connect into a vast Internet of things that can be addressed, monitored, controlled, and optimized.
- Buildings are becoming more intelligent and efficient, better able to optimize energy and resource use and enhance human comfort and productivity, with the potential of becoming net-positive, from the standpoint of their environmental footprint.
- Vehicles are getting smarter, too, able to communicate with their drivers, other vehicles, and their surroundings, becoming safer and more efficient while connecting passengers and fleet managers to a broader transportation and energy grid.
The convergence of these technologies has happened organically, the natural result of innovations built upon other innovations. Increasingly, however, there is a larger vision: of a highly interconnected world, where information technology infuses energy systems, buildings, and transportation vehicles and networks, tying them together, making each smarter and, as a result, enabling continuous waves of innovation and radical resource efficiency. Together, this convergence also promises to improve lives, both in developed and emerging economies.
Some of this will sound familiar, of course. IBM has effectively placed itself at the center of this set issues with its marketing around Smart Cities and Smart Buildings. In a recent article in FORTUNE, Bill Ford, the chairman of Ford Motor, describes his company’s vision of the future of mobility. Cisco executives like to talk about the Internet of things. (See my blogpost, The Internet of parking spaces.)
It may sound like something out of The Jetsons but, as Joel writes, early stages of the VERGE vision are already here:
Autonomous vehicles that can travel efficiently and safely with little or no driver interaction. Hyper-efficient, zero-energy buildings able to generate and store energy, variously buying or selling power to the grid. Cities embedded with intelligence that move traffic, connect people, reduce emissions, enhance safety, and maximize well-being. Platooning technologies that allow cars to travel at close range at high speed, reducing congestion and emissions.
These are not futuristic pipe dreams. Each is being developed or deployed, funded by governments, venture capitalists, and some of the world’s biggest companies.
Along the way, many of these companies are finding their way into new industry sectors. I’ve written in the past about the countless “new energy companies” — companies ranging from Dupont to Procter & Gamble that are finding themselves selling energy-related products and services. I’ve written about a similar phenomenon in the green building arena, with companies as different as Firestone and Fireman’s Fund developing significant business offerings in that market. So, too, with transportation — companies like Google and Qualcomm that are developing vehicle-related products and services.
Suffice to say, VERGE is a massive business opportunity.
Again, much as the Internet did, VERGE is blurring lines between industries, distributing power and threatening entrenched interests. Every company (or person) that puts solar panels on a roof becomes an electricity provider, competing with their local utility. We don’t know yet whether the wired home of the future will be brought to use by home builders, software firms, Home Depot, Best Buy or all of the above. Will there by the equivalent of an Apple in VERGE–a visionary company that makes life easier by solving an array of problems in a delightful way?
Like the Internet, VERGE will be hard to avoid, Joel writes:
If you’re involved with buildings, facilities, energy, purchasing, logistics, fleets, or IT — not to mention sustainability — you’ll find yourself increasingly buffeted by VERGE innovations. So, too, those who manage and operate cities, schools, and hospitals.
Over time, it will also affect our personal lives — how we shop, work, and travel, for example.
VERGE technologies are being accelerated, he goes on to say, by energy and resource constraints, urbanization and rapid growth in the development world where there is more awareness of environmental issues than there was when the U.S. industrialized and become more urban (and suburban). No one has to tell people in Brazil that littering isn’t cool; they know that.
Joel draws other parallels between VERGE and the Internet, among them the fact that the net took decades to develop, and mostly did so before most of us noticed. The same may be true of VERGE.
He quotes Stephan Dolezalek, group leader of the cleantech practice at VantagePoint Capital Partners and a Silicon Valley veteran, as saying that the convergence of IT, energy, buildings and vehicles is inevitable. Says Dolezalek, who will be participating in our San Francisco roundtable: “We know how this movie ends. We’re just not certain of the plot.”
That’s because it’s up to all of us to figure how to get from the world we’ve created — one which is wasteful, unsustainable and evidently on its way towards a climate catastrophe — to a world that is clean, green, healthful and sustainable. As Alan Kay, the iconoclastic computer scientist once put it: “The best way to predict the future is to invent it.”
To learn more, join us next week for GreenBiz’s VERGE virtual conference.