VergeCON London

Two weeks ago I went to VergeCON London a conference that brings together people from different background to discuss the convergence of sustainability, technology, transportation and cities. It was a great event because of the opportunity to have discussions with people from such diverse backgrounds (science, non-profit & industrial).

Opening Keynote and panel

The opening keynote and panel focused on some of the big challenges we will face creating a more sustainable infrastructure. Unlike IT, changes to our energy system, buildings and transport infrastructure are long-term – the existing grid for example took over 50 years to build. More and more IT will make our infrastructure smarter but will also inevitably add more complexity.

Sustainability is not something business can ignore – as highlighted by the fact that over recent months many of the world’s biggest corporations had to restate earnings based on raw material prices. To make sustainability work in large corporations requires system thinking, busting silos, bridge building and radical efficiency. The challenge is even bigger for cities. New cities were described as “fun but not relevant”, as the majority of us live in old cities that will need to make dramatic transformations. Some US cities now have chief innovation officers to help make these changes.

Interactive sessions

There were 2 interactive sessions during the day. The first one was an “introduce yourself to your table” session and a great way to get to know other conference attendees. The second session split the attendees into areas of interest. I joined a session with some of the guys from Navetas about energy management. The consensus was that energy monitors are very useful initially but once the you had learnt where your big energy losses are the novelty wears off and they often get stuck in a cupboard somewhere. Current energy monitors designs are very geeky and don’t communicate well to ordinary people. What may be lacking from energy management and home automation solutions is completeness. We have a collection of bits that don’t add up to a full solution that can intelligently manage the energy in the home.

One great idea

Rather than have long 1 hour talks, there were several short One Great Idea TED style talks. Here were some of my highlights:

AlertMe – Get some energy visibility!

Pilgrim Beart from AlertMe gave a really entertaining talk (using a couple of bags full of plastic balls) about where the energy use in your house goes. The key point: there is a bubble of ignorance about energy use due to a lack of visibility. Home energy monitors/displays can help reduce that usage by 8%. Even bigger gains can be made by tackling heating. Pilgrim has saved hundreds of pounds a year by using a more efficient shower head and intelligent thermostats like the ones provided by Wattbox can yield saving of 15%.

Whipcar

Vinay Gupta from WhipCar gave a good talk on their car sharing startup. I don’t drive but I found this an interesting story of how sharing enabled by the web is taking off in a big way. Whipcar have created a hyper local service where in London where you are never more than 10 minutes walk away from a potential rental car. We have an excess capacity of cars and people view them as an assets that is losing money when not in use. The demographics of people using the service are mainstream (mid 30s) both on the supply and demand side. The hard part of building such a service was assessing the risk of the people who sign up and providing around the clock support in case something goes wrong.

Sustainability at Microsoft

Josh Henretig from Microsoft talked about how their initiative to become carbon neutral this year. I was surprised how much I enjoyed this talk and it is definitely inspiring me to push the same idea at Forward. To improve building efficiency they are using big data techniques to give building managers insight into what improvements to take. To offset the energy usage of their data centres they have made big investments in renewables. When staff fly their business units are now charged a carbon price.

Closing keynote

A fitting closing keynote came from John Elkington who talked about his new book The Zeronauts. His core message was that we need some unreasonable people to start building business that have zero environmental impact to really push sustainability.

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