'Alligators in the Arctic': A call to businesses to innovate for the future

Alex Steffen presenting a Keynote at Power Smart Forum 2015

Power Smart Forum speaker encourages business leaders towards faster innovation, and to help rapidly reduce CO2 emissions

"If the current ways of doing things can't get to zero, they're ripe for disruption, in the classic business school sense."

Speaking at BC Hydro's Power Smart Forum last fall, futurist Alex Steffen brought a simple message. Rapid change is upon us, and we must embrace disruption – fast – if we want to create a positive future. Steffen was invited to comment on the Forum's theme, "Getting to Zero: Innovating for the Future."

"Getting to Zero" refers to the need to rapidly reduce carbon emissions, to avoid the planet's current march towards life-threatening climate change. Steffen, who calls himself an optimist, painted the challenging situation we face. It included:

  • World population peaking at 10.5 or 11 billion people by 2100;
  • Increased urbanization: 250,000 people a day are added to the world's cities, meaning urban population increases by a city the size of Vancouver every three and a half days;
  • Between 400 and 800 million new buildings by 2100. Worldwide, half the buildings that will exist in 2050 have not yet been built;
  • The rise of a global middle class, or "global consuming class": by 2050, five billion people will be able to afford cell phones and washing machines.

Steffen said these trends underscore how we live in an era of what he calls "discontinuity": things are changing so rapidly that the past isn't a good predictor of the future.

"No matter what we do, we're going to end up at zero," said Steffen, showing a graph with two projections of human-related carbon emissions over time. One was a managed declining trend; the other, a continued increase of emissions resulting in a swift crash.

"The consequences simply grow worse the more we wait," he said.

Steffen said global temperature has already raised one degree, and we're on our way to two. Four is catastrophic, probably beyond adaptation; seven degrees is beyond prediction. "The last time it was seven degrees hotter there were alligators in the Arctic. We don't know what that means for us."

Steffen said it is clear that faster action on carbon reduction is better. Also clear, he said, is that we can't get to zero through incremental change to our current way of doing things. However, discontinuous change offers "massive opportunities," he noted.

Industries such as renewable energy are opportunities for change

Renewable energy, energy storage and passive building are some areas where Steffen expects to see disruptive change and opportunity.

"Passive strategies don't improve the mechanism [i.e. increased energy efficiency]; they design away the need for it," said Steffen. Limiting end-user energy demand is critical, he says, because it cascades up the supply chain. Since there is loss all along, reducing demand reduces the need for production even more.

Steffen expects the sharing economy – such as car-sharing and Airbnb – to continue to change the way we view private space and goods. (His example: "What I wanted was a hole in the wall, but what I bought was a drill. Our lives are surrounded by things like drills that have enormous surplus capacity; we leave them sitting on a shelf until they seize up," he said.

Steffen's key message was that this era of discontinuous change requires us to think and act differently – and that we must start now. He said we are better off accepting the costs of changing our behaviours than having to adapt to climate change.

"I firmly believe this: we can't build what we can't imagine. If we're serious about trying to build better systems, and to do it fast enough, then we have to imagine what it takes to achieve zero. I encourage you all to imagine that world."