How to grow without breaking the planet

Steve Perkins on how tech firms are influencing the search for sustainable growth

Technology is at the cutting edge of efforts to make growth more sustainable. As the global population swells and more people move into higher consumption classes, the demand for food, for energy, for water, will all increase. But the resources our planet offers will not. Clearly the status quo is not sustainable. So, how do we use these scarce resources more efficiently? How do we allow everyone to benefit from economic growth, without impinging on opportunities for future generations?

The answer for me, is through technology. Consider Africa: many parts of the continent suffer from famine yet its population is set to double by 2050. Clearly new production techniques and new weather resistant, high yield strains of crop are needed. Meteorological advances could help farmers predict and take preventive steps against drought or flood. Mobile technologies have already transformed the lives of millions across the continent: the proliferation of mobile phones allows farmers to check prices in local markets to see where they could get the best price. And Africa is a leader in mobile payments.

Approximately 70% of the planet's freshwater supply is used for agriculture so the demand for food is closely linked to water depletion. Having traditionally been used as a free resource, water scarcity could well be the major challenge the world faces this century. Companies from Coca-Cola and Nestle to Cadburys and Rio Tinto are investing millions in water-saving and wastewater treatment facilities. Intelligent irrigation systems could disperse water where it is needed most and reduce wastage. Smart monitoring technologies can help companies maintain the integrity of their vast water supply networks by pinpointing leaks quickly and accurately.

Likewise, as the planet warms, the use of fossil fuels becomes more socially, environmentally and, increasingly, economically risky. Clean technologies have moved on rapidly even as energy supply has become more volatile. Renewable energy sources typically require a significant down payment, but they quickly pay for themselves. Businesses and households in emerging markets can use micro generation to circumvent inefficient grid systems. Smart grid systems offer energy efficiency improvements. The next big leap could be the production of industrial-scale batteries which store energy for periods when the sun is not shining or the wind is not blowing.

And technology businesses themselves cannot escape the battle for scarce raw materials. In 2011, there was considerable alarm at a report suggesting that China was in control of 95% of the world’s supply of rare earths, which are used in everything from wind turbines and hybrid vehicles to computer hard drives to televisions. China's monopsony position has been diminished due to the subsequent production of alternatives, but close to two-thirds of technology businesses remain concerned by the cost and availability of raw materials.[1]

I therefore believe the technology industry has a vital role to play in helping businesses, consumers and governments across the world achieve sustainable growth. The relative youth and dynamism of the industry make it the perfect partner for 21st century geopolitical concerns. This opportunity for technology businesses to grow, and to make the world a better place while doing so, should be explored and embraced.