When I take the bus to work each morning, I get off in Midtown Manhattan in front of the United Nations headquarters, where they’re no doubt busy planning for COP27. Meanwhile, at our office down the street we’re finishing up plans for our upcoming Techonomy 2022 conference, which has the theme “Innovation Must Save the World.”
As I was walking down 44th Street the other day, it dawned on me how deep was the connection between the conference and what the UN stands for.
I’ve been thinking recently how many people, especially powerful people, have been taking steps that seemed so harmful, not only to themselves, but to the world. But the conference and the UN are all about finding ways to do the opposite—work together to help ourselves and everyone, everywhere.
Finding myself in front of the UN reminded me of the colorful pin I always wear on my lapel or jacket, the logo of the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals for 2030. In the United States, people routinely admire the pin and ask what it is. Proud as I am of it, and handsome as I think it to be, I’m always mildly distressed when they ask that. Because Americans just aren’t aware of the goals, and barely of the UN itself, sadly. And in fact it doesn’t happen nearly so often when I’m traveling in most other countries, where the UN and the SDGs are more understood. (Learn more about the 17 Goals here.)
The UN SDGs represent perhaps the apex of working in our own best interests. They emerged at a shining moment in global history when countries were able to think about how to work together, at least briefly. In 2015, during the Obama presidency, all 193 nations of the United Nations–every single one of them–signed on to a project to collectively address the world’s gravest issues and work to solve those grotesque systemic problems by 2030. The UN describes the 17 goals as “a universal call to action to end poverty, protect the planet, and ensure that by 2030 all people enjoy peace and prosperity.” Goal number one is “No poverty.” Number two is ”Zero Hunger.” Other goals include “Climate Action” and “Gender Equality.”
Well here we are. It is almost 2023, and we’re not making enough progress, to say the least. Instead, our leaders, such as they are, seem mostly intent on taking rash actions that may seem beneficial to them in the short term but which are egregious for the rest of us, and even, ultimately, for them. It’s weird and painful to observe the self-defeating actions that seem to surround us these days. Most serious is Putin’s invasion of Ukraine, which cannot end well for him and his country. But look also at phenomena as diverse as the antisemitic tweets issued by Kanye West and the NY Nets’ Kyrie Irving or Musk’s ill-considered acquisition of Twitter–probably the most expensive purchase of anything by an individual in human history. He put in $24 billion of his own money, and seems to be flailing in figuring out what to do with it, treating employees like dirt in the process. In another political example, Benjamin Netanyahu has regained power in Israel by allying himself with anti-Arab bigots. How can that be good for his country or the world?
Then there’s Zuckerberg. He seems to be doing everything he can to hurt the company he founded. He is relentlessly embracing massive spending for future hypothetical Metaverse opportunities as he seemingly disregards his current business (and its 3.7 billion users!). Meta’s stock was $382 in early September 2021. Today it’s $90, and the all-powerful CEO continues willfully acting against his own interests.
By contrast, people speaking at Techonomy 2022 are uniformly thinking about our collective best interest. How can we get past our emotional and instinctual blockages and think big and creatively? How can we innovate without ego? Two sessions will explicitly address each of those questions.
Concretely, how can we use biomanufacturing to continue enjoying the things we love without despoiling the planet? How can we grow food and materials in vats fed by sugar and let the world’s billions, for example, add meat to their diet without choking the planet with fumes? Did you know that cows account for, by some calculations, 30% of total greenhouse gas emissions of the United States? Engineered meat and milk could eventually eliminate most of that.
Other speakers will talk about things like how investing in Africa helps the whole world. Or what if much cheaper medicines could protect billions from Covid at pennies a dose? One speaker insists it’s possible. How will autonomous cars make cities better? What about electric cars—what’s next for them and the infrastructure needed to bring them to scale?
Now that the U.S. has enacted the oddly-named Inflation Reduction Act, which really is a climate spending bill, how will we most effectively spend the hundreds of billions now allocated to American climate innovation? A session held with our partner the Environmental Defense Fund will explore that. Or how could we quickly convert coal plants around the world to new ways to generate heat that don’t pollute? Another NGO speaker has a plan for that.
Then there’s the promise of fusion nuclear power. One speaker told us yesterday in a prep call that there are now 33 fusion power startups worldwide. That’s astonishing, in part because just to build a mere demonstration facility to figure out if a particular fusion approach will work typically costs over $100 million. But then Commonwealth Fusion Systems, a Massachusetts-based startup that emerged from MIT, has raised $1.8 billion. It is starting to build a test reactor it hopes will finally achieve the grail of positive energy from fusion. If fusion works, the world’s energy problems could be addressed at scale in a few decades.
But we also go from macro world-changing opportunities to the micro—how will changes in our homes and daily experience reduce our carbon footprint and allow us all to do more with less? Some speakers fervently believe the metaverse will fit that bill. We’ll have such lifelike virtual presence we really will be able to travel less, yet still have satisfactory interactions with those far away. And another speaker, our old friend Ken Washington, who now oversees Amazon’s robotics business, will talk about how its new Astro home robot, now starting to be available, can change how we live in our homes, and make them more secure.
Techonomy is all about taking actions together that help us all, using tech as a tool whenever possible. We’ve been having this conversation since 2010, but it’s more urgent now than ever.