Sustainability: Bill Gates Gets It Wrong?

Hats off to Grist‘s David Roberts for putting together a thought-provoking line of thinking in Why Bill Gates is wrong. And no, he’s not talking about Bing.

At the core, Roberts challenges the hubris of viewing all society’s problems through the lens of innovation.  That is, he says that Gates is fundamentally off mark when he sees the solution to our environmental crisis as primarily technical.  Innovate our way out of this mess, says Gates.  Not so fast, says Roberts.

Innovation ≠ technology, is what Roberts states, and he’s right. Here’s how he describes the sustainable city of the future:

Everything is linked up in a smart, integrated communications, power,
and transportation network. The city “knows” which roads are congested
and which parking spots are free. It can communicate to individuals
what combination of walking, transit, and individual vehicles will get
them where they’re going fastest. Vehicles are small, electric,
modular, and–via sensors, GPS, and broadband wireless–intelligent, so
they can pilot and park themselves. They can be charged by
parking-integrated stations or even electromagnetic coils embedded in
curbs, and since they’re interchangeable and easily customizable, they
can be public goods (like today’s car-sharing services), easily swapped
out and thus continuously in use. The city uses the vehicles’ batteries
as distributed energy storage, along with other storage options
including pumped hydro integrated into the sewer system. Rooftops,
parking lots, and other marginal lands are covered with solar panels;
small-scale wind turbines are perched on bridges and towers;
cogeneration systems are attached to every industrial facility. Through
smart design and sensing, every building and neighborhood maximizes
efficiency. The city senses power demand, knows where power is being
produced and stored, and continuously balances supply and demand.

So what’s holding this vision up? By a wide margin, says Roberts, the biggest barriers to creating such bright green cities are social.

I agree. It’s not technology – all of the technology needed already exists – but political will that is holding us back; remember Copenhagen?

Roberts describes the social innovations that need to take place:

Building a city that behaves like an integrated organism means developing a holistic, long-term plan that will coordinate multiple agencies and levels of government. Big, long-term thinking is not exactly an American strong suit these days. Also–and this is a underappreciated problem–cities are cripplingly dependent on the financial largesse of state and federal authorities. They have very little autonomy to borrow money and invest in their own futures.

There are all kinds of collective action and first-mover problems: Who puts the charging stations in if there aren’t electric cars on the road yet, and vice versa? Who pays for a smart grid before distributed generation is in place, and vice versa? How can public infrastructure and private market development be coordinated?

Many of the investments involve high upfront costs that are paid back slowly over time. New financing models will be needed both for private individuals and companies and for cities themselves.

Changes in the way individuals live, work, communicate, and travel must be introduced in a way that maintains social cohesion and political support for further changes. That requires research in social psychology and other behavioral disciplines (sorely lacking in much policymaking). How these things are introduced matters just as much as what they are.

OK. So, let’s ask again, what’s the holdup? Why can’t we address the challenges – both socio-political and technical?  The answer: the structure of our democracy is damaged.  When lobbyists have taken over every aspect of the debate, and the Supreme Court seconds this type of behavior, it doesn’t take a genius to see that “the future” doesn’t stand a chance.

The “inconvenient truth” has once again been buried.  And to say that technology and innovation will take care of it is a huge mistake, one that might even cost us a lot in our near future.

As much as I respect Bill Gates’s exceptional achievements there is always something fundamental missing for me to feel fully engaged when i hear his highly analytical presentations at TED. Always very seductive intellectually, extremely well analyzed and thought out, very well documented, supported by a wealth of data and facts, with solutions to complex issues made simple to understand … but has human complex evolution ever been sorted out by analysis alone?

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