The Promise of Tech: Trust, Results and Hope for a “Greenshot” – A Conversation with GGF 2035 Fellow Zach Beecher
This interview was conducted by the Global Governance Futures – Robert Bosch Foundation Multilateral Dialogues, which brings together young professionals to look ahead 10 years and recommend ways to address global challenges.
As Coronavirus continues to spread, governments are leveraging data technologies to trace and contain the spread of the virus. Some have argued that these measures pose data security and privacy challenges. What are ways that governments can ensure data privacy while promoting technological innovations in the fight against COVID-19?
Mobile technology is democratizing information in ways that we never before imagined. The promise of mobile technology that is available to individuals around the world offers a credible, scalable and critically important tool in fighting the spread of COVID-19. However, as with any tool, its ramifications are dependent on the user and their intent. As the vulnerabilities of our digital personas and personal information become clearer and the full value of what we put online comes into play, people are naturally slower to share information and less trusting of their devices and the companies, countries and organizations that manage the data streaming from them. These violations inhibit faith in good conduct and the integrity of the purpose for the data usage. Fundamentally, trust is the most critical ingredient to the safe and effective deployment of technology in the fight to mitigate COVID-19. Clear communication about the intent, purpose and ultimate use of technology is vital in ensuring citizens feel comfortable in offering their personal data – especially health information – to third-party users. Governments can and must experiment on how to fund phone-based mobile applications based on strong concepts of data sovereignty. Innovations like block chain, decentralized datasets, homomorphic encryption, and others provide the protection mechanics needed to safeguard how information is stored and who accesses it, as well as to maintain a diversified cybersecurity portfolio to comprehensively defend the collected data. Adhering to and following the strictest national guidelines for data protection, like the European Union’s General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR) or United States’ National Institute of Standards and Technology regulations, should be seen as lodestars to ensuring trust is a part of the process. Governments must protect the rights of users to delete or destroy their data on the platform. By creating a framework of mutual trust built on clear communication about standards, governments can encourage increased usage of select applications in order to drive improved effectiveness at scale of contact tracing and predictive modelling applications in the fight against COVID-19.
Scholars have argued that the world’s future in terms of sustainability lies in green technology. However, some also criticize that a 'green-tech' future is a flawed vision, and that it fails to change our behaviors and the way businesses operate. What is your take on this debate and how can we make our existing lifestyles more sustainable?
Technology alone will not save us; there is no deux ex machina invention on the horizon that will solve every problem that we face today. Human beings play a crucial role in the warming of our planet and its disastrous consequences throughout our communities. Changing our trajectory from climate change to stabilization will require a change in mindset: not just a feeling of collective responsibility, but collective action.
Corporations should see themselves as part of the global community. A July 2017 report by the Carbon Disclosure Project showed that 71% of the world’s emissions are traceable to just 100 companies. To change this, people must recognize that they have a voice. Citizens can demand their governments act to tax pollution. The report goes further by identifying that 32% of those 100 companies are publicly traded. This affords special responsibility to shareholders in those companies to use their privileges as a means to demand a change of course.
Though there is legitimate debate within the scientific community about where climate change will take us and how quickly, one fact is undeniable: it exists. Sadly, one of the greatest challenges that we face is getting corporations, governments and citizens to admit that climate change is a very real, clear and present danger facing the world. We must see the scale of this challenge and threat to our way of life with clear eyes before we can find purpose in a common mission. Acknowledging the challenge offers the opportunity to unlock the ingenuity of global citizenry to carve a new way forward. It paves the way for a collective “Greenshot” effort spanning across private, public and civil sectors.
Then, together we can drive green technology innovation across all aspects of society to create new tools that can help further stabilize our environment rather than enable continued climate change. Efforts to improve green energy, including solar and wind, as well as carbon capture tools will be crucial in this broader effort. Ultimately, we are our own best hope: our energies, imagination and commitment should mold a future dedicated to progress through action.
Climate change is proving to be more disastrous than originally anticipated, and emissions goals seem to be more idealistic than realistic. How can we close this growing gap between international climate goals and the reality of the world’s emissions?
The first step: the world must admit it has a problem. With the window of opportunity rapidly closing, climate change may soon create conditions whereby countries are unable to consider collaboration as desertification strains food supplies, rivers run dry and disrupt agriculture, and storms intensify. We cannot allow that moment to arrive. Instead, we should clearly recognize the role our societies plays in the origins of climate change as well its continuation. Governments can help by incentivizing innovation, regulating environmental policies, taxing pollution, and rewarding results. International partnerships will be vital for genuine debate about solutions, areas of focus and priorities in battling climate change. Businesses can unleash their ingenuity and deliver new innovative solutions at scale through continuous improvement, while simultaneously bearing responsibility for the means (and results) of production. Startups and universities should aim to disrupt through new breakthroughs, ideas, and experiments. A united effort with common purpose for a global “Greenshot” will be the only way we close this gap.
The venture capital industry lost at least $10 billion USD between 2005 and 2011 by investing in clean energy technology. Embracing green tech has been, and still is, considered risky and expensive. Why did previous investments in green tech fail, and what do you think can be done to mitigate the risks in green-tech investments?
It is often the case that early adapters and investors take the big leaps necessary to drive an industry forward. While it is lamentable to see investments fail, it is often from the ashes of these fallen projects that opportunity, lessons and new products arise. Indeed, green tech is now blossoming. To drive this point home, consider a report published by the International Energy Agency and Imperial College London in May 2020. The study found renewable investments in Germany and France yielded a 178.2% return in a five-year period as compared to a -20.7% for fossil fuels. In the United Kingdom, investors saw returns of 75.4% for renewable energies and only 8.8% for fossil fuels. In the United States, renewables yielded a whopping 200.3% returns versus 97.2% for fossil fuels. What’s more, fossil fuels performed extraordinarily poorly during the peak of the COVID-19 pandemic, while renewables surged.
The question is not whether investments in renewable and green technology are sound, but rather how can we stoke further to yield greater returns in both profit and impact dividends. The International Renewable Energy Agency stated that investment needs to effectively double from current levels of $330 billion USD to $660 billion USD to effectively scale renewable and green tech throughout the world. The low levels of investment in green tech is closely related to its relatively short history, the questionable results obtained in the past and a lack of a proven, empirical record like fossil fuels to label it as a “safe investment’ for asset managers. This is why governments must play an active role in incentivizing and spurring growth within renewable and green tech investment. Such actions would help to fuel the technological progress needed to stabilize climate change consequences and turn the tide. There is promise and profit in green tech – but extraordinary efforts to accelerate growth in this industry must be foundational to a future global “Greenshot.”
Zach Beecher is the chief operations officer of C5 Accelerate, U.S. Army Reserves Civil Affairs Officer, and a fellow of the Global Governance Futures – Robert Bosch Foundation Multilateral Dialogues program. These are strictly the personal opinions of the author of this piece and do not represent the official positions of C5 Capital, C5 Accelerate, nor those of the United States Department of Defense.