Gaia fights back

Today is Earth Day – one of the many "switch off this, recycle that" events that now fill the green marketer's calendar.

Today is Earth Day – one of the many “switch off this, recycle that” events that now fill the green marketer’s calendar.

Today is Earth Day – one of the many “switch off this, recycle that” events that now fill the green marketer’s calendar.
The week kicked off with a spectacular revenge of Gaia, the self-regulating mechanism of the earth system, with Iceland’s volcanic ash shutting down carbon-causing airplanes: a significant return to boom and bust bringing us all down to Earth.
As hot things expand, in this case the Earth rather than the economy, they crack. Large bubbles of molten lava eventually burst, aided by climate change melting ice and weakening the mantle. With this geophysical eruption so soon after the sub-prime and dotcom bubbles, there is no wonder British companies are wary of the changing business climate.
Earth Day is usually about the need for recycling, green energy and sustainability, but last week’s events have changed the emphasis. Even now that planes are taking off again, there is still havoc in global travel, events, distribution, exports, imports (no mussels at the local pub being flown in from Thailand) and companies’ supply chains (we have 200,000 of microchips stuck somewhere in the air system). It brings home just how fragile ‘Just in Time Delivery’ really is, and how reliant the UK economy is on its 30 million visitors (two-thirds by air), tourist industry and fast-moving good export revenues. It underlines the message that sustainability and resilience in our supply chains, food and energy should be a core column of business.
Wasting materials, resources and energy is simply now against nature and against business sense. This is aided by incentives such as the new CRC (Carbon Reduction Commitment), FIT (Feed in Tariffs) for residential micro-generation, or WEE and packaging directives (for recycling of electronic goods and packaging). Material costs are increasing, and there is simply not enough mineral resource to extract easily: copper for global new build, lithium for car batteries, gold for investors to buy or use on electronic components, or energy and oil to fuel 21st century growth on outdated 20th century methods. Every product needs to be redesigned and rebuilt for resilience, efficiency in use and the ability to return it to the store at the end of its useful life.
But it’s not just products that will have to change, it’s business models. The idea of global corporations built on use-once disposables (shavers, batteries, bottles), the notion of a computer upgrade as throwing away the entire device – these will soon seem as outdated as cholera and chimney sweeps.
The dotcom era gave birth to new business models that peaked too early, but are now mainstream and essential to everyday life. Similar innovation is essential in business models for supplying consumer products and devices. All products must become services, virtual products like iTunes, intelligent appliances that reduce energy and cost, or modular devices that can upgrade, where high prices are charged for say the chip change alone or download of new software, rather than replacing the whole. Phones are more about the service cost than the unit – last month my roaming bill exceeded my daily car hire cost – so much so that new business models must exist where the car is perhaps a free accessory with a temporary mobile contract whilst travelling, or a future energy contract that comes free with a roof over your head. So much of today’s income is spent on the combined utilities of communication and energy (soon to be joined by water) as the essentials of life – which has given birth to comparison sites, one contract ‘Sky/Virgin’ type packages, and meerkats on virtually every advert.
But with every transition and change in climate, there is natural selection, accident and fortune. The dotcom market collapse showed this, and turned tech investments to ashes. Some years ago I made an art installation called DotCom Challenger from a fairground ‘teddy bear’ crane, stuffed with a sprinkling of business cards from the bold innovators of that era, branded memorabilia, investment bank reports and dotcom Monopoly money. It reminds me of the optimism and opportunism of those years, but looking back (and ahead) much of which was dreamt about then is now possible, and happening. Technology and science are back, centre stage and essential to growth ahead.

Simon Daniel

Simon Daniel

Simon Daniel is the inventor of the USB battery and folding keyboard. He was also CEO of Moixa, the renewable energy group.

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