A review of Rethinking Humanity

The world can look like a dark place sometimes. With an existential climate crisis threatening and global political upheaval seeming constant, it may seem darker than ever. But there may be light at the end of the tunnel. Technologies that are already with us today could get us to carbon neutral long before 2050. Other technologies will impact energy, food, and commerce to such an extent that perhaps even war over resources can become a thing of the past.

Is there a new global enlightened age of freedom upon us?

The independent think-tank, RethinkX recently released a report called Rethinking Humanity, authored by James Arbib and Tony Seba, which sets out such a path. It is a positive vision of future change and is worth reading — lots of very interesting detail.

Below is my own summary of that report, and my thoughts about the disruption caused by technology.

Electric cars and batteries: how will the world produce enough? A fair question asked by a recent article on the of Nature website. That article includes a graph from a BloombergNEF report (Electric Vehicle Outlook 2021):

Graph from a BloombergNEF report (Electric Vehicle Outlook 2021) on pace of electric and other car sales up to 2040

The chart is very typical of how analysts see things — nice linear growth over a period. This is rarely how growth happens though, especially with disruptive technologies. EVs have been around for some time, with mainstream models from Nissan, Renault and Tesla having been around for 10 years or so. But now there is a big change on the horizon. A perfect storm of climate change worries and government actions, added to manufacturing scale acceleration — especially in China — will see EVs accelerate much quicker than this chart.

Already by 2025, Norway will have ceased sales of new internal combustion engine (ICE) vehicles. Belgium will follow in 2026, Austria in 2027, and a host of other EU countries in 2030. The UK, India and Japan will also cease new ICE sales by 2030. China and the rest of the EU by 2035.

Four years before they are banned, ICE sales in Norway have already fallen below 50%.

Consumers are not that dumb. They can see the writing on the wall for ICEs and also the continuing climate emergency. With the falling price of EVs due to manufacturing scales, people will start buying electric. Gas service stations, already a utility that is reducing in number, will have to reimagine themselves and start to convert forecourts — using what is happening in Norway as an example — to serve this new market. Rural drivers, who may already struggle to find fossil fuel for their vehicles because of station closures, will realise that they can easily charge an EV at home, probably using their own solar generated electricity. Drivers who don’t convert to EV will see cost of motoring rapidly increase, and fuel availability decrease.

Here is a money trail to follow: the low running costs of electric vehicles, despite current higher up-front costs, will have logistic companies rapidly move away from internal combustion. This will drive down the up-front costs, and push infrastructure improvement, in a virtuous cycle.

The gentle linear rise of the analyst’s chart will quickly become a hockey stick. As EV demand increases, it will put pressure on traditional European car manufacturers to fill. The Chinese and Korean EV companies will happily fill that void. Fossil fuel companies will scurry to change their business models. Jobs will be lost. New jobs will be created.

The air will be cleaner.

This is not new. This pattern has happened again and again throughout history. From farming development 10,000 years ago, to the printing press, to the Ford motor car, to the iPhone, innovation constantly disrupts and changes the world.

Innovation is disruptive. The main incumbents will reject it. Experts and analysts will predict the status quo or more gentle, linear transformation.

“Americans are a horse-loving nation… the widespread adoption of the motor-driven vehicle in this country is open to serious doubt.”

- Lippincott’s magazine, 1903

“The wireless music box has no imaginable commercial value. Who would pay for a message sent to nobody in particular?”

- said to David Sarnoff, pioneer of American radio and television, 1920s

“I do not believe the introduction of motor-cars will ever affect the riding of horses”

- John Douglas-Scott-Montagu, 2nd Baron Montagu of Beaulieu (later editor of The Car Illustrated), 1903

“Who the hell wants to hear actors talk?”

- H.M. Warner (Warner Brothers), 1927

“There is no reason anyone would want a computer in their home.”

- Ken Olsen (President, Chairman and founder of Digital Equipment Corp), 1977

“This ‘telephone’ has too many shortcomings to be seriously considered as a means of communication. The device is inherently of no value to us.”

- Western Union internal memo, 1876

The thing about disruption is that it can be quite disruptive! It is never linear and is always difficult to plan for. Consider the disruption of the motor car. In 1890 there were over 1,300 carriage makers in the US. By 1920 there were only a handful left.

Classic stories, told in MBA schools around the world, are told about companies that just didn’t see the disruption coming. Kodak failed to see the disruption of digital photography to their film business. Blockbuster Video failed to see the impact of streaming video while Netflix was stealing their lunch. Nokia built great phones that are fondly remembered by people who used to have one (before they bought a smart phone).

“we didn’t do anything wrong, but somehow, we lost”

- Stephen Elop, CEO, Nokia, 2013

Barriers to entry and barriers to adoption are the sand that incumbents build their castles on. Their analysts treat them as constants, or slowly moving, when the reality is that they are variable, shifting and blown away by disruptive innovation.

Incumbents often try to save themselves by diversifying, but it is often “a day late and a dollar short”. If you try to pivot without fully embracing the new, the efforts are doomed to failure. In the 1950s, the average age of a Fortune 500 company was 60. Now it is less than 20 — and that trend is accelerating. Companies that were once the rock stars of the Stock Exchange have now been bought out, merged out of existence, or just plain bankrupt.

20 years? Just think about what has happened in the world in 20 years! 20 years ago, I thought that WebEx was a pretty nifty way of having an occasional remote meeting. I never dreamed that its successors, such as Microsoft Teams and Zoom, would enable entire teams to work and collaborate completely remotely for an extended period.

It is hard for factory workers to operate remotely though, but could robotics advances, including #AI, mean that even assembly line workers will work from home? Anywhere in the world? This type of technology is either already here or coming very soon!

How will the food industry change over the next 20/30 years? Could precision fermentation tanks replace dairy farming? Vertical plant farming is already happening at low cost, low water use and local to consumer. A new Green Revolution at global scale? The whole food ingredients business gets disrupted to become not a chemistry or biology business but a software business!

What of the land that gets freed up? Maybe grow a tree or two? Or just leave the land to work it out itself, with benefits for the entire ecosystem? Not to mention the carbon sink potential!

In many countries, the cost of solar and wind generation is already below fossil fuel alternatives. Follow that money chain and we get to global solar connected systems (“follow the sun”) backed by wind and clever storage options that are already coming on stream.

With renewable power costs dropping, the older “baseload” power stations will become redundant. The yet unfinished Hinkley Point C nuclear station in the UK is already looking like a white elephant. The climate needs us to stop burning stuff, but it could happen sooner than we think!

All these technologies, many already here, will help communities all over the planet to become self-sufficient. Many of the current UN Sustainable Development Goals can be met and exceeded.

There will be disruption.

There will be change.

Bring it on!

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Stephen Redmond

Stephen Redmond

Stephen Redmond, Big Data, AI & Data Viz Professional. MSc in Data Analytics. Qlik Luminary. Author and blogger. All opinions my own.