Charting the Future Towards 2032: Why affordable technology can trump the future

Charting the Future Towards 2032 was the theme of our recent 15th Cleantech Forum San Francisco. Some focus was given to the idea of imagining out how things might develop over the next 15 years given our 2017 starting point, itself a result of where the last 15 years has taken us.

This three-part blog series was intended to provide some perspectives to help you get set for the year and the years ahead, drawing on my own keynote at the Forum in January and many recent conversations with key players and thought leaders in our innovation ecosystem. Part One focused on sources of capital for innovation companies. The second part focused on three industries we called out as worth keeping an eye on over the next 15 years. This final part envisages the power of affordable innovative technology having the greatest and enduring impact on the long-term future industrial and energy landscape.

It may seem a strange thing for the head of Cleantech Group (CTG) to say, but by 2032, I am sure our cleantech term will no longer be used or have any relevance or resonance. I hope that day will come much sooner. The sooner, the better.

We should celebrate the prospect of such as it will mean that doing more with less, or at least finding ways to be as least impactful on the environment as possible, has become so mainstream and all pervasive across all industries and geographies that it would just simply be expected of new products and services brought to market. The less efficient, in their resource and economic productivity characteristics, would be punished by the markets, and their commercial value would drop accordingly.

Being sustainable in every meaning of that word will define those who last the course of the great, smart transition toward Industry 4.0.

One of the early signs of this fast arriving future to me is to be found in how more and more technology sets and types are intersecting with the industrial and energy worlds, with more to come. The distinctions between information, bio and clean technologies will become more blurry, as will the distinctions between industries themselves. Could an oil and gas company of the future be a water company, with oil as a by-product, as one Forum speaker challenged us to consider in January? Where could the next 15 years take any possible combination of utilities, telecoms and automotive, for example, as a future business archetype? Will GE have become one of the top 10 software companies, or will bust, not Immelt’s “it,” have played out?

Why is this happening?

Affordability is central, as I argued on stage in January. Quite simply, technologies’ power and capacity to enable the doing of more with less is accelerating, and the power unleashed will feed off each other further as they converge and operate in more and more application use cases. It is no coincidence that the Internet of Things is really starting to happen and pervade today, nearly 20 years after the term was coined. (Hmm, worth remembering for those who called the death of cleantech? Roll on the 2020s.)

Why today, what has changed?  Look what has happened to its capacity (processing power) and its affordability, enabling the rise of IoT companies across the industrial landscape, as illustrated by some of our 2017 Global Cleantech 100 companies:


The same is true in the more physical world.

It has been affordability that has driven ongoing and upwardly mobile deployment levels of LEDs and solar. Batteries and EVs will follow similar paths over the next 15 years, even if we will have to endure the setbacks and disappointments of a few more Aquions on the way.

So what of the political environment – certainly the elephant in the room January 25-27, 2017? It remains so.

Clearly the general messaging from the US administration is not positive towards alternative, advanced energy, but does that mean, given the affordability and the job-creating potential of distributed energy in many states across the US (including many Republican states), dogma will prevail over pragmatic, economic realities? Unlikely. If the US pulls back aggressively in its “hard power” budget from supporting early-stage innovations in clean technology areas, does that mean the rest of the world will? The first seems likely, the second unlikely.

An alternative view, expressed by a number of non-US people at the Forum, simply says what is bad for the US and for world citizens is an opportunity for the rest of the world (which, lest we forget, accounts for more than 80% of global wealth, more than 80% of pollution (as represented by CO2 emissions), more than 95% of the world population – and each of those %’s are growing year on year).

“Ownership” of the industries of the future is at stake and in a hyper-competitive globalized world, the contrarian viewpoint could be that a window of opportunity just opened for China and Japan, for Europe, and for neighboring Canada, out in force at the Forum in January. Mission Innovation, with or without the US, still seems committed to pumping the R&D pipe of next-generation breakthroughs.

Policy is clearly important and in certain industrial areas, with energy chief amongst them, a key lever for accelerating or holding back new innovative solutions.

But there are many other areas where “doing more with less” will not be so dependent upon policy and where technology can indeed trump much before it. Different things emerge on different trajectories and hit affordability at different times, but the prepared are already observing and monitoring the next wave of technologies’ influence on the industrial landscape. AI, machine learning, gene editing, soft robotics, fog computing, 5g, blockchain, and augmented reality are some of the subjects our popular Cutting Edge research series is monitoring – see Blockchain meets Energy and Augmented Reality: All Eyes on Industrial Applications, for example.

Their ability to achieve increasing levels of efficiency and productivity at affordable prices is what will be core to their progress and to the pace of industrial disruption and change.

We will certainly be monitoring these, and other key trends, as CTG charts the emergence of the future towards 2032 and we creatively destruct our founding term. The ultimate triumph.