Breakthrough Technologies for Sustainability

Technology has since been seen as a ‘miracle drug’ which can fast track humanity towards sustainable development. However, the role of technology for sustainable development is a paradox – we now need the concept of sustainable development because of the environmental pollution and social inequality of the industrial age. Many argue that technology put us in the dire environmental and social conditions we are now in…and many also argue that technology can get us out.

Technology is a powerful tool that enables efficiencies in practically every sector and industry surrounding our ways of life, from agriculture to medical sciences. Breakthroughs have continued to increase these efficiencies time and again. And by this year of 2017, many technologies which seem like science fiction are now generally accepted and being mainstreamed. A lot of these new technologies have significant implications for sustainability in terms of enabling a reduced environmental footprint and improving social inclusion.

Outlined below is a short brief on the role of three of my favorite technologies (which are fast being mainstreamed) in sustainability:

Virtual reality

Virtual reality is a three-dimensional computer generated environment within which people can explore like they would in the ‘real world’. Mainstreaming this virtual reality will mean amazing strides for environmental education. Imagine being immersed in an ocean environment looking at and touching bleached coral reefs; or being in the middle of a growing forest, smelling and touching all the greenery. Given that most of the memories which stay with us are what we smell and see, this medium of education is bound to invoke emotional reactions. And emotion reactions are just what environmental education needs. Apart from this, virtual reality can put conference calls and meetings on steroids; there would be no need to travel those miles to have a meeting when you can be in your home or office and still be able to see, hear and even touch your meeting participants.

Drones

Drones, or Unmanned Aerial Vehicles (UAVs), are not particularly new in the defense industry, but their many applications for everything from logistics to environmental surveys have made these UAVs uber-popular outside of security use cases. The number of companies working on drones is staggering, and so has the research into the technology. Legislation for UAVs are also catching up to the technology, thus making it easier for citizens and businesses to deploy and fly them. So far, drones are being used to monitor natural and man-made environmental disasters (such as forest fires), collect environmental data (e.g. in the artic), monitor solar, wind and hydroelectric installations and identify issues in a timely manner, monitor irrigation for agriculture, provide aerial data that can be used for agriculture, solar, mining, etc., provide internet to remote locations, provide relief materials like food and medical supplies to inaccessible areas, etc.

Internet of things

The internet of things simply means that everything, not just your traditional computer and smart phone, are connected and can receive and transmit data. Connected objects means greater energy efficiency and resource conservation for both homes and cities. Given that buildings and transportation are two of the biggest emitters of GHG in cities, using their energy efficiently will go a long way towards reducing a city’s carbon footprint. In transport, a connected fleet of cars could easily use traffic data to route and re-route for the most efficient course; in buildings, electric sockets could automatically shut down their circuits so that no electricity is lost even if you don’t disconnect your appliances; in manufacturing, equipment with the end-user can notify both the user and the manufacturer when it needs maintenance (this has great implications for the product-as-a-service model for a circular economy); etc. The applications really are endless.

3D printing and electric vehicles

Although these are my favorite technology breakthroughs, it makes sense to keep our eyes on 3D printing and the rise of the electric vehicle! According to the State of 3D Printing 2016, the greatest potential for 3D printing is in accelerating product development – i.e. prototyping. 3D printing provides the opportunity for manufacturers to prototype without wasting resources (e.g. energy, materials, money and labor). Meanwhile, the demand for electric cars have been on the rise as consumers are looking to reduce their fuel costs while decreasing their environmental footprints. The vehicles are even now appealing to the ‘cool’ crowd with companies like Tesla and BMW focusing on fancy designs as much as energy efficiency. Also, an increasingly common feature of smart cities is to install electric charging points, further promoting the use of electric vehicles.

The environmental and social implications of these technologies are still being researched; but as their application in the real world gets more mainstream, their impacts on sustainable development will be more understood. For now though, these impacts are looking positive.