Smart Sustainability: Beware of Black Swans

Speaker: Dr. Lawrence Jones

Sustainability is about taking into consideration the long-term view in every facet of our lives today; how the decisions made and actions taken now affect our lives, and could potentially impact the lives of future generations. Achieving sustainability is the ultimate challenge of our time.

There is overwhelming consensus that technology is a key factor in overcoming the sustainability challenges facing humanity. We are compelled to be not only smarter about how and what technology choices we make, but also smarter about how we develop systems, businesses and the policies that regulate them. Simply put, achieving sustainability will require that everything and everyone be “smarter,” from individual devices and components to integrated, man-made, complex network systems: smart electricity grids, smart energy, smart water, smart transportation, smart sensors, smart cars, smart materials, smart regulation, smart utilities, etc.

Each new generation learns and presumably knows more about the earth than previous generations. However, this does not mean that future generations necessarily make wiser, more informed or smart, sustainable decisions. Nowhere is this more obvious than when it comes to risks and mistakes. One need only examine our repetition of the mistakes made by those less informed who lived before us. It is absolutely critical to examine the risks and avoid mistakes in deploying technologies despite the promised and perceived benefi ts. We are sadly reminded of this as we witness the “Black Swans” in the Gulf of Mexico, a result of the oil spill that has devastated parts of that region. Black Swans refer to highly improbable and unimaginable events which have a disproportionately large impact on history. Kenneth Posner, in his book Stalking the Black Swan, describes ways we can avoid Black Swans, such as thinking in probabilities, walking the fine line between over- and under-confi dence and mitigating information asymmetry. The human, environmental and socio-economic consequences of such events are not easy to estimate. But, we can strive to reduce the risks and potential human errors that might cause them. Today’s major sustainability challenge is global climate change. And while each citizen and country can take positive steps toward sustainable living, globalization and our “flat world” require that there is global consensus on the future trajectory for this planet.