Thoughts by Russ: Building a Future We Want

July 13, 2021 |

By Russ Freeman, PE Retired

Special to The Digest

One must wonder what a future Circular Economy might hold and whether we really want one? Since a tipping point seems to have passed in the swing toward such an economy, we need to rather urgently consider how to proceed. Real change means, rather than fixing what is not working, we should pursue a shared vision of a future in which old problems do not persist and then work toward making that vision a reality.

In such a new world, envision: (1) Technology replacing or significantly transforming work; (2) “Work from home” transforming needs for office buildings, and parking garages while also eliminating time lost in commuting; and (3) Carbon capture and carbon repurposing technologies eliminating a need for fossil carbon.

If emerging technology can be revolutionary, as it is proving to be, then the world of the future can surely be radically different than one of today. In that regard, two lessons from recent history come to mind:

In 1976 Steve Jobs and Steve Wozniak worked out of Jobs’ garage to develop a small computer (https://www.thoughtco.com/the-history-of-apple-computers-1991454). Widespread adoption and deployment of such computers disrupted IBM, the leader in that industry at the time. However, widespread adoption of personal computers also enabled the internet, which in turn, enabled a dramatic changed in the economy from the one we knew back in the 1970s.

About the same time, Bill McLean working with a small team on a remote defense facility developed “sidewinder”. His work was not authorized or even considered to be within his operational mission. But with little funding and support his team created a remarkably different rocket guidance system which disrupted then prevalent and well-funded weapons research and design. His new sidewinder missile also soon changed aerial warfare as the world then understood it. Their initiative has been described by one historian as a highly readable tale about one of the most successful weapons in history, which should be of interest to everyone. (Ron Westrum: Sidewinder: Creative Missile Development at China Lake – September 1, 1999).

In her keynote presentation at ABLC 2020, Holmgren (Jennifer Holmgren, CEO, Lanzatech at ABLC 2020, https://video.ibm.com/recorded/127307798), outlined what may similarly change everything. Her points, edited and summarized here:

Follow advice from Buckminster Fuller: “Don’t fix a faulty system, build a new one that makes the old one obsolete.”  She continued: first pursue technological disruption, then build a platform that makes it possible to develop commodities from locally available carbon, even waste carbon dioxide. Add a new financing model and pursue evolution through numbering up rather than building mega facilities. In summary, she concluded, if we get back to impacts on climate, we need to keep carbon from getting into the air, but we also need to get carbon out of the air. That means making everything from things already out of the ground.

The foregoing leads to a vision of flexible networks of right-sized, right-purpose centers enabled by emerging technology, converting local carbon and other recycled materials into whatever people want at that small region. Externalities stemming from use must be considered an element of social cost in using fossil energy. From such a view, the  new-technology network approach will be cheaper, better, and more efficient than today’s giant-sized technical and financial entities with complex supply and distribution chains and equally complex growth/replacement capitalization models.

Going beyond climate for our ideal future society, we must envision an economy where value is leveraged from a return on assets and shared such that there is much less need for the common person to rely on wages. Properly shared value can create a levelized playing field in which all people are relatively free to pursue what their unique talent allows them to accomplish with ease and which also provides personal satisfaction. Such a socioeconomic system must also allow each person to enjoy a comfortable lifestyle. We know how to make this work. Think cooperatives and employee-owned enterprise.

So, Russ’s thought for today is that such a future is arguably within our grasp if we choose to cooperatively envision it and then jointly and diligently pursue it!

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