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We can do a lot, but we need to be forced to do it!

A nice graphic showing the various factors at play when pursuing sustainable manufacturing. Notice that it is only by taking this global view that real benefits can be obtained. By focussing on just a part the benefits derived from that may be offset by increased damage induced in other parts. As an example, using less polluting materials is good but if the sourcing of these materials (minig) increasing pollution somewhere else the net result may be worse. Image credit: Zhuming Bi

Sustainability is a good thing, nobody would deny it. We hear a lot of talking about sustainability, at political leve, at marketing level and on newspapers/media. The truth is that we have polluted the planet, as any other species starting with the massive pollution created by cyanobacteria that 2.5 billion years ago started to liberate oxygen in the atmosphere, with the first massive life extinction on the planet. Oxygen is a poisonous gas and most life at that time (anaerobic bacteria) was not prepared to tackle it with resulting death. On the other hand, oxygen is very good from an energy harvesting point. Those few bacteria that managed to survive and adapt found themselves with plenty of energy available for their metabolism and that allowed the massive diversification of life that in the following 2 billion years resulted in the species we see today, including of course, our own.

Horse manure in Morton Street, New York street in 1893. Streets were covered in manure attracting billions of flies that in turns spread diseases. Image credit: George E. Waring. 1987

Much closer to us is noticeable the clamour with which the first vehicles (cars) were met, as the solution to overly polluted street: London was suffocated by the great horse manure crises of 1894. Every single day the 50,000+ horses used in London to move people and goods around produced some 680 tons of manure, spread on London’s streets and New York was even in a worse condition having to deal with over 1,300 tons of manure a day. Disposing of that was a big challenge, and the filth attracted flies and other pests that spread diseases.
Interestingly an international conference (first international conference on urban planning) to deal with “sustainability of manure” was held in 1898 in New York.

The real solution came with the shift to engine powered vehicles, replacing horses. We traded manure for gasoline fumes.

By 1912 most cities in the world were replacing horses with engine powered cars (by the way, that transformation killed a whole industry that was “horse-ecosystem based”).

I am mentioning this to point out that:

  • the human species is not the only one creating environmental problem, and
  • our ways of solving a problem is most often generating a new one.

We are now facing a large scale pollution generated by million of vehicles but we have the solution, once again! Let’s move to electric cars and like magic our cities will lose all the pollution. Actually, this is another example of a solution creating a new problem. We solve the internal combustion engine problem but what about the disposal of batteries? It is not just about the disposal of batteries, it is also about, among other things:

  • mining of lithium (for manufacturing batteries);
  • generating the electrical power to recharge the batteries
  • creating the recharging infrastructure

I am not saying that we should stick to internal combustion engines at all. Rather, I am saying that sustainability is a tangled web, a very complex (not just complicated) area.

What is needed is a holistic approach to sustainability, as shown, as an example, in the first graphic showing the relationships in the sustainable manufacturing landscape.

Sustainability has to be considered across the board, taking into account all players (users included) and all aspects. By solving a local issue we are just shifting the problem somewhere else, mostly likely making it worse at a global scale.  This is the real issue with sustainability: local intervention does not work.
Additionally, we have to recognise, going beyond the marketing and political lip service to sustainability, that sustainability does not come free, nor, as someone is ready to claim, generate business! Yes, it generates business but not for the ones involved in the current life-cycle. Industry is facing with rising cost to make sustainability real in their domain (and, as mentioned that is not sufficient since it is a local intervention) and it will only bear these cost if it is forced to do it.

The good news is that technology is providing alternatives to production processes, to materials used and it provides possibility to manage the use of products and their re-cycling. However, all this has a cost, and fooling ourselves by pretending that sustainability decreases cost is not going to work.

What we have, that our elderly did not have, is an awareness of the problem, is the capability to get a global perspective, is the possibility to evaluate the outcome of our decisions on the medium and longer term. If we leverage these assets and politics can on one side create awareness in all citizens -leading to consensus- and on the other side develop sustainable framework that all Countries can subscribe than sustainability can become part of our world.

The time to stop talking and pretending is now. We can become sustainable, but we have to enforce sustainability, accepting higher cost, at least in a short time frame.

About Roberto Saracco

Roberto Saracco fell in love with technology and its implications long time ago. His background is in math and computer science. Until April 2017 he led the EIT Digital Italian Node and then was head of the Industrial Doctoral School of EIT Digital up to September 2018. Previously, up to December 2011 he was the Director of the Telecom Italia Future Centre in Venice, looking at the interplay of technology evolution, economics and society. At the turn of the century he led a World Bank-Infodev project to stimulate entrepreneurship in Latin America. He is a senior member of IEEE where he leads the New Initiative Committee and co-chairs the Digital Reality Initiative. He is a member of the IEEE in 2050 Ad Hoc Committee. He teaches a Master course on Technology Forecasting and Market impact at the University of Trento. He has published over 100 papers in journals and magazines and 14 books.