Ahead of a Volans team session at the end of this coming week, I have been trying to clarify my thinking on how I want to spend the next couple of years. Yesterday, in ongoing conversation with the wider Volans team, I concluded that central to my mission and vision is the notion of mapping, connecting with and supporting the innovators and entrepreneurs who are at – or who are moving towards – the leading edge of the fourth wave in the model of change I began to map out in 1994 (see below for latest, summary version).
The characteristics of Wave 4, at least in my mind, are – among many other things – a growing focus on disruptive innovation and scalable entrepreneurial solutions to the world’s great governance, economic, social and environmental challenges.
So two stories from today’s papers struck home as I read the papers today. The first, from the New York Times supplement in The Observer, featured the thinking of Ray Kurzweil – and his notion that the Law of Accelerating Returns will mean that the solutions will emerge far faster than we might currently imagine. The key point he makes, whether in relation to human genomics, life extension or solar solutions for climate change, is that: “Scientists imagine they’ll keep working at the present pace. They make linear extrapolations from the past. When it took years to sequence the first 1 percent of the human genome, they worried they’d never finish, but they were right on schedule for an exponential curve. If you reach 1 percent and keep doubling your growth every year, you’ll hit 100 percent in just seven years.”
Of course, what goes up can also come down, and exponential curves can take us places we absolutely don’t want to be. Waves can develop vicious undertows that drag would-be surfers into the depths, or or civilizations into a vortex of ecological decline. This point was underscored earlier in the week by probably my favourite contrarian, Martin Wolf of the Financial Times. He began: “Is it possible for the vast mass of humanity to enjoy the living standards of today’s high-income countries?” Then he continued: “This is, arguably, the biggest question confronting humanity in the 21st century. It is today’s version of the doubts expressed by Thomas Malthus, two centuries ago, about the possibility of enduring rises in living standards. On the answer depends the destiny of our progeny. It will determine whether this will be a world of hope rather than despair and of peace rather than conflict.”
Wolf was drawing on a new book by Jeffrey Sachs, Common Wealth. “The most illuminating concept,” Wolf note of the book, “is that of the ‘anthropocene’ – the era in which human activities dominate the world. Peter Vitousek of Stanford University has documented the ways in which humanity has appropriated the bounty of the earth for its own use: human beings now exploit 50 per cent of the terrestrial photosynthetic potential; they have put up a quarter of the carbon di-oxide now in the atmosphere; they use 60 per cent of the accessible river run-off; they are responsible for 60 per cent of the earth’s nitrogen fixation; they are responsible for a fifth of all plant invasions; over the past two millennia they have made extinct a quarter of all bird species; and they have exploited or over-exploited more than half of the world’s fisheries.”
For entrepreneurial solutions to work, however, they have to be regulated, at least to a degree. That’s where the governance element becomes crucial. And that, in turn, is where the second piece of new today fitted in, at least in my mind. Nick (now Lord) Stern is proposing the world’s first credit rating system for carbon offset in the developing world. Given that it is estimated that perhaps two-thirds of some 3,000 offset projects being developed under the UN’s programme are, according to The Observer, “either late or will fail to deliver the promised carbon savings,” this idea (promoted by IDEAcarbon) is precisely the sort of market mechanism that I suspect will need to become much more common as the peak of Wave 4 eventually subsides and we move into the fourth downwave. Downwaves, as I often stress, is where the really useful work tends to get done.