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Software Engineers for the Future! Can tech save the planet?

Review your Strategy

A recent MIT Sloan Management article “The World in 2030: Nine Megatrends to Watch” looks at the big picture from a business perspective. What fascinated me how the mindset & discourse shift has moved  from the Fridays for Future demonstrations, to scientists, and now also businesses: “clean tech”, “resource pressures”, “climate crisis”, and “urbanization” are challenges for the planet, as well as corporations. And they are on the strategy map for many exec teams – sometimes as potential business risks, sometimes as business oportunities.

The challenges we’re facing requires industry, policy and individuals to rethink & change how we consume resources, how we travel & transport, and how we create waste.

And I predict that tech will play a big role in making this a viable, feasible & most of all desirable future.

The Convenience Gap

Can individuals save the planet? Or rather: Will individuals want to save the planet?

We could take the train, but it’s more expensive than the plane, and takes 3-times as much time as the car. So, most of us do not.

We could shop locally, or buy online. We could walk to the famers markets or take the truck to the supermarket. We could try on these new sneakers in the sport shop, or order online and return if it doesn’t fit or we don’t like it.

It’s a trade off between time, convenience and sustainability, and very often the sustainable choice is the less fun, less convenient.

Do we have to give up economic growth & our private joy to save the planet?

Or can we make sustainable choices as fun as driving a Tesla or joining a Car Pool Karaoke?  (Both of which being somewhat on the sustainable side).

My thesis: You can make “sustainable” the natural choice, the most convenient and natural – by design. There is a sweet spot of sustainable living space, that does not kill the planet for future generations.

Rethinking Amsterdam

Economist Kate Raworth wrote a note-worthy book on this concept, that is currently brought to practice in Amsterdam. The core concept is to sustain the wealth of the population, have a joyful livable space, AND staying withing planet boundaries. She calls it the Doughnut Economics. Amsterdam calls it becoming a thriving, regenerative and inclusive city for all its citizens, within the planetary boundaries.

This is no longer a vision. “Over the last few years, the city has already completed over 70 projects that contribute towards a circular economy. The evaluation of these projects has proven that the circular economy is both realistic and profitable”.

I highly recommend to check out the 7 levers for a circular city in the report. This is very much at the core of what engineers do: digitalization to track and monitor materials and resource flows, an efficient city wide logistics system that optimizes beyond company boundaries, and innovation networks including startups, knowledge institutes, and corporations – just to name three.

All this does not happen by chance or genetic predisposition.
This could work here, if we plan & engineer for it.

The starting point of Amsterdam is not very different to other cities.
“Currently, the construction sector creates 40% of total municipal waste, consumer goods represent the largest environmental impact of households and one-third of all food goes to waste.”

As an engineer, I want to design-out such ineffiencies.
As a citizen and consumer, I want to have simple, joyful and sustainable solutions now.

City planners need to actively give sustainable, people-friendly choices a priority, and most of all to make this choices easy & convenient.

Convenience & desirable experiences have many “technical” aspects, starting from free wifi on bus, train, stations, to simple updates whether and when a bus will come by text message and app, to simple tap on, tap off billing, to flexibility to change modes from subway to bike share with having to pay twice.

As a business traveler in Canada, US, or Germany, I do not want to learn the local rules of commute. Why do I need a different app & card for public transport in Montreal and Toronto? Platforms like Uber and Google provide consistency across geographies.

How many different systems do I need to use to get from my home to e-g- my parents. Practically, I would need train & a rental & public transport. This is a registration & booking nightmare, like to book a rental where the train network ends.

Seamless Multimodality

You need to make “sustainable” easy & more convenient than the car.

There is a great route planning and booking app I use in Toronto, working actually in many places in North America, but hardly anywhere in Germany.

There is a single mobility app in Finland to make travel carefree, offering an all-inclusive plan or simply pay as you go, for public transport, city bikes, taxis, and affordable rental carscar sharing.

In the times of Spotify and Netflix, please make mobility a carefree flatrate that encourages me to take the most sustainable options, because it is the fastest and the most fun.

The Moovel app is now part of mobility joint venture between BMW and Daimler, providing an on-demand ecosystem that combines car sharing, ride-hailing, parking, charging, and multimodality from a single source. 

Rethink your partnerships: are car companies or ride haulers like Uber part of the problem, or part of the solution? My personal litmus check is how well public transport services are integrated, from route planning to paying, and whether biking and walking has a preference for shorter distances.

Simply replacing ICE vehicles with electro mobility will not get us there. But autonomous EVs integrated into a ride sharing system may at least be more efficient on the road than parked somewhere.

“Data” is my favorite four letter word

The vision of a circular, waste-free city requires us understanding how materials flow: Understanding supply chain, inventory and demand better, to zero down on food waste. Rethink the global fashion supply chain, and bring hyper-local smart manufacturing back to where the markets are – for individualized made-to-measure products, and a waste-free, mark-down free fashion industry.

For true circularity we will need to team up engineers across industries: Like having recycling, mining and automotive companies solve the circularity challenge for EV batteries, or have cities and recyclers share data on waste streams to operate smarter.

Topolytics, the winner of the Google Cloud and SAP Circular Economy 2030 Challenge, maps the generation, movement and fate of industrial and commercial waste through IoT and analytics, and helps waste producers and recycling companies to achieve better commercial, environmental and investment outcomes.

Consumer Experience and the Ocean Plastic’s Challenge

We will need to tackle this together, and it is encouraging to see consumer products giants, recyclers, and packaging companies working together with consumers, cities and tech providers for solutions.

The SAP Plastic’s challenge is an inspiring blue print how to understand the problem and end-to-end and to come up with creative engineering solutions.

I am also convinced we will need clear policy boundaries for companies to take larger investement decisions, and shift away from single use & waste to circular models, from diesel traffic jams to livable cities, and from flight shame to affordable highspeed trains.

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