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This historic moment: Our finite Earth and unlimited human imagination

By Russ Klettke

Is now a time that future historians will describe as a green technological turning point? Is this the moment when pressing needs, environmental degradation and climate change find solutions in human innovation?

It probably is. I’m reading the latest book by New York Times bestselling author Steven Johnson, “How We Got to Now: Six Innovations That Made the Modern World” (Riverhead Hardcover 2014) and I can’t help but think about the constellation of developments in green technologies, buildings, products and environmental practices that defines our current era. In my work as a contributing writer to Green Building & Design and American Builders Quarterly magazines and other publications, I get to see what architects, builders, lawyers, investors, lenders, educators and product inventors are coming up with. It’s hard to ignore the big things that are being built, getting done and leading us in a cleaner, sustainable direction.

Johnson’s position is that there have been six key developments that transformed life to where we are today. They are glass, artificial cold, human controlled sound, cleanliness, time (the measurement thereof) and artificial light. Perhaps one day someone like Johnson will add the inventions of the current era as a seventh category, which is something along the lines of “the realization that the Earth is finite” (“Earth Limited?” “Shrinking Planet?” “Resource Smart?”).

We only have so many rivers, lakes and ocean habitats. Our fresh water is precious, capriciously distributed and increasingly expensive. Our soils are stressed and our food systems fail to deliver clean nutrition. We now have to dig deeper or blast off the tops of mountains to extract fossil fuels. With a global population of seven billion and growing, demands on natural resources are already the cause of armed conflict. The only hope for social stability is to conserve and draw from increasingly accessible renewables: the sun, the wind, biogas, geothermal and gravity.

Add one other inexhaustible resource: human ingenuity.

It’s moments of opportunity, often begat by problems, which Johnson describes. With the 16th century proliferation of printed books (thanks to Guttenberg’s press), people learned their eyes were faulty. Reading glasses, once a rarity, became widespread. With so many glasses makers, a few began to tinker with microscopes and telescopes, leading to great scientific advancements. Johnson cites historians who claim that the invention of mirrors engendered self-consciousness, introspection and individualism, which in turn changed society and legal systems.

Shifting energy systems today offer similar changes – and obvious disruption. If our homes can draw energy from the air (solar or wind) or the earth (geothermal energy), we are freed from power grids and utility expenses. This is already happening. According to the Solar Energy Industries Association, solar capacity installed in 2013 doubled what had gone online in the preceding 30 years; in the second quarter of 2014, installations were up 21 percent over the same time period in 2013.

Most people are familiar with solar panels (much glass involved there too) and wind turbines, including how they enable a significant reduction in carbon dioxide output. All good, and it should be noted that both wind and solar now generate jobs and profits, providing a net gain to the economy. But even in the small universe of what I’m exposed to in my work, I see innovation and building and education programs that might be considered bureaucratic or otherwise mundane; in fact each innovation is remarkably transformative, even if not sexy:

  • Urban planning in New Orleans, where a proposed Urban Water Plan is a fundamental component of the city’s renaissance. In cities everywhere, the task of controlling water is shifting back to natural systems thanks to the enlightened work of urban planners and landscape architects.

  • Schools in Virginia, Florida, Washington state and North Carolina, where innovative teachers, librarians, administrators, architects and developers engage students in learning and activities to create smart kids today who will be responsible and creative adults tomorrow.

  • Attorneys, lenders and investors, who find ways to place photovoltaic solar collectors on large roofs, generating clean, low-cost energy for owners of those roofs as well as a stream of income to investors.

  • Product designers and manufacturers, such as Titus, which redesigned air vents to fundamentally change how air moves around rooms. Something this simple effectively lowers fuel consumption. Sometimes, it only takes simple product or process innovations – such as the wireless Schlage security lock, or a holistic approach to home energy audits and retrofits – to radically reduce waste. In the case of Con-way Freight a software package cuts 124,000 truck-miles traveled per day while improving customer service.

These examples share two important characteristics. One is the financial imperative – each recognizes the importance of resources and economics (i.e., altruism is present but not a sole driver in their cleverness). Second, everyone involved respects the planet and its finiteness. No one is arguing for an austere world; they simply look for smarter ways to do things. Each innovation moves us an inch or two closer to sustainability, yet together it all adds up to something much bigger.

If this intrigues you, I welcome you to peruse my blog on what I call "The 10,000 Solutions.” Since 2009, I have had the opportunity to speak to many of these modern innovators – the people a future Steven Johnson might flag as the 21st century Da Vincis, Galileos, Bells, Marconis, Birdseyes and Edisons – and I like to share them with friends and colleagues.

Somewhere in these 10,000 solutions are several things that are singularly remarkable (check out Seattle’s Taj Mahal of sewage treatment plants). But as Johnson notes, it’s the sum of the parts that make the real story.

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Innovation success almost always needs communications – to announce, to explain, to instruct and to report. Russ Klettke is a business writer with three decades of communications experience across a wide spectrum of industries, professions and causes: healthcare, nutrition, fitness, food, banking, law, architecture, development, manufacturing, human rights/social justice, sustainability, and more. Contact him to discuss your communications needs.

Photo above: This canopy over the entrance to 345Meatpacking in New York City was designed by the architects at DDG, a Manhattan developer that blurs the lines between interiors and exteriors. The building also references the nearby High Line, a linear park that has redefined urban placemaking while repurposing abandoned rail lines -- and which is being copied in Chicago, Atlanta, Philadelphia and Toronto.

Photo below: From the inside of 345Meatpacking, residents see their city partially framed by sustainable native plants growing on top of the canopy.

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Russ Klettke

Business Writer

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