General Electric and its partners will decide who gets the money, but a startup company named Solar Roadways won the popular vote for its concept of roads that recharge electric vehicles as they drive. Another top contender is Nextek Power Systems, whose popularity may be due in part to an engaging promotional video that makes a case for direct-current grids as a way to connect renewable energy sources and high-tech devices without as much wasted power. (See it at http://vimeo.com/15004808.)
Progress and Profits
The New Polymath: Profiles in Compound-technology Innovations, by Vinnie Mirchandani, a blogger and former Gartner analyst, is a book that seems to be about everything and nothing at the same time. In it, Mirchandani uses examples from dozens of companies to argue that we will soon be experiencing a renaissance of new technologies and sustainability that will meld together and yield new ways of living and working. Although the book lacks a compelling logical order and it is often hard to understand how the different stories are connected, it does get one thing right: Everything is going to have to change at once if this renaissance is to be realized. The same is true for a successful industrial reboot.
The electric grid will have to change to support personal mobility units. These vehicles will need to be built without that “new car” smell — which some contend is emitted by chemicals that are harmful to our health — possibly using the kinds of green chemistry that Grossman tells us about in her book. We will have to change our notion of how and where food is grown, and that will require new notions about how we power our cities and use and reuse water, among many other things.
If the comprehensive interconnection of all this seems too daunting, consider Climatopolis: How Our Cities Will Thrive in a Hotter Future, by Matthew E. Kahn, an urban and environmental economist at UCLA. This book, which looks at how cities will cope with climate change, is remarkable for its sheer pragmatic optimism. (For a practical guide to “green city” opportunities, see “Reinventing the City to Combat Climate Change,” by Nick Pennell, Sartaz Ahmed, and Stefan Henningsson, s+b, Autumn 2010.)
Those who follow the news have already had their fill of stories about the worst possible environmental outcomes. Kahn readily admits the potential dangers we face, but he stands out both for his commonsense approach to looking at the problems and for his hopefulness. For instance, when he examines the Great Chicago Fire of 1871, he sees the development and growth that occurred in its wake and how the fire eventually made the city stronger. Those trained in economics will see that he has been influenced by Joseph Schumpeter’s notion of creative destruction.
Although he acknowledges that capitalism and global industrial expansion have contributed to climate change, Kahn holds firm in his belief that it is also capitalism that will save us. He reminds us that a key theme in modern economics is that our scarcest resource is not natural capital, but human ingenuity of the kind that fueled the original Renaissance — think Leonardo da Vinci and Galileo. With the billions of educated, ambitious individuals in the workforce today, Kahn reasons, the best adaptations and innovations ought to be pretty good. As he says, “A small cadre of forward-looking entrepreneurs will be ready to get rich selling the next generation of products that will help us adapt.”
He’s probably right. The entrepreneurs and companies that undertake the industrial reboot will participate in the creation of new industries and the rebuilding of the infrastructure on which we all depend. In the end, profits remain quite a compelling reason to stave off some of our worst environmental nightmares.