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Cleantech
The Two Deficits, Part Five:
Driving the Next Energy Productivity Revolution

This is the fifth in a series of five posts that comprise Future 500 founder Bill Shireman's insightful essay, The Two Deficits: Why Conservatives and Progressives Are Both Right, from the book

This is the fifth in a series of five posts that comprise Future 500 founder Bill Shireman's insightful essay, The Two Deficits: Why Conservatives and Progressives Are Both Right, from the book Towards a New Agenda for America: Ideas To Bridge the Left and Right and Move the Nation Forward (Future 500, 2012). Read parts one, two, three and four. Shireman will discuss ways to bring the two together during his plenary session at SB '13 on June 4.

That likely understates its potential, by a wide margin. Think about what has already happened to energy productivity in the information and communications technology sector so far. Energy productivity gains for specific activities — some 1000% or more — led to overall gains in economic productivity.

But more interesting than the quantitative gains are the qualitative impacts they had. Each major innovation created powerful new tools that could be used, or abused, by people and institutions. While governments and corporations had new power, people tended to have even more. The capacity of individuals and small groups to disrupt or even destroy centralized institutions gradually grew.

The real potential lies in the shift from an industrial economy refined by information, as exemplified by Amazon, toward a truly new economy founded on it — a place where the consumerism phase of industry is simply part of a new system that transcends it, just as agriculture is part of the industrial world today. This is what sets the Internet apart from past systems of communication — this extraordinary flow of information-on-information, extending not in linear form but through a web, not in one direction but in all directions, not with static content and reruns, but with dynamic, living content that changes as it’s used.

“For those of you keeping score, the dotcom era has ended,” says Henry Jenkins, founder and director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT. “The age of social networks and mobile media has emerged ... We are no longer talking about a digital revolution, which envisioned new media displacing the old. We are now talking about media convergence, where old and new media interact in ever more complex ways. We are no longer talking about interactive media technologies; we are talking about participatory culture.”

That culture is being created in real time, by individuals — Tea Partiers and Progressives, gamers and bloggers, Indian villagers and high school hackers, consumers and employees, government leaders and corporate executives. As Jenkins says, “We are discovering new ways to pool our knowledge and work collaboratively to solve puzzles and master complex tasks. What we are learning as consumers has the potential to change how we think as citizens. And these new social skills and cultural competencies have implications as well for the future of education.”

In his classic 1998 essay, Michael Vlahos, Professor of Strategy at the United States Naval War College, called this emergent system “the fusion of all the world’s communications networks, databases and sources of information into a vast, intertwined and heterogeneous tapestry of electronic interchange.” People will join it, he predicted, because, while it feels artificial and foreign at first, “it offers tremendous advantages. It gives people the ability to meet and access information anywhere, all the time. And people can meet in groups, share information and make agreements, just like they do in situ. The difference is that they are not site-bound. Eventually, as the environment becomes more familiar, it will become less alien.”

Once drawn in, people become part of something new — a whole new social ecosystem.

Vlahos’s prescient 1998 vision is today’s emergent reality. Google gave almost everyone access to the world’s information. Facebook linked us to each other. New networks and digital concepts are sprouting daily — new Googles and Facebooks have already been born.

The breakthroughs in telepresence driven by companies such as Intel, AT&T and Cisco, enable an advanced form of immersive video conferencing, which is becoming, as the jingle said, “the next best thing to being there.” These and coming innovations take us a step into a world where we can engage fully and creatively with others — not just as a tool to our industrial lifestyle but as our primary means of interacting.

Efficiency, by itself, doesn’t automatically drive environmental sustainability. That is in part because it happens inside a culture driven by the embedded subsidies that support the industrial-era dream — a dream that equates physical consumption with personal fulfillment. So every efficiency gain gives us even more capacity to consume — and obsessively, we do.

But our culture is changing, and our dreams are, too. In the industrial world, it made sense to drive consumption, to overcome poverty. In a world where the fundamental resource — information — is both renewable and regenerative, where each information transaction results in more on both sides of the equation, we may come to value what makes us each different, not what makes us the same. We may well find that our purposes are better served not by competing to have the most stuff outside ourselves, but by collaborating to draw the most from inside ourselves and give it to the world —n ways that no one yet fully knows.

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