The Net-Zero Nonzero City

We hear a lot lately about Net Zero buildings that produce as much energy as they consume, and as we extend this idea to cities, energy efficiency will continue to be a crucial part of our future. NonZero refers to the human part of the equation: social arrangements, especially cities, where a nonzero sum (or win-win) game is possible, where cooperation, exchange, innovation, trade, environmental, balance and sustainable growth are facilitated and accelerated. (By contrast, zero sum games are where there’s a clear winner and a clear loser, like when an army massacres a village and burns it to the ground – only one winner there – or continuing to burn fossil fuel to benefit rich countries while polluting and visiting devastating climate change disproportionately upon mostly poor ones). With the world rapidly urbanizing, strategies that facilitate nonzero interactions are essential to global social cohesion and survival. The Smart City, for which lighting is an important driving force, is one of these strategies.

Net-zero energy buildings and cities are a crucial goal to achieve if we’re to collectively deal with climate change. The upcoming UN Conference on Climate Change (COP21) is being anticipated all over the planet with hope for meaningful results. While we understand well how to achieve energy efficiency and CO2 reduction goals through technology, policy, and engineering, we often forget that we can do this while improving, not sacrificing, quality of life for humans. IN other words, we generally get two of the triple bottom line concerns –Planet and Profit– but often overlook the People part. We don’t really need to save the planet anyway, the planet doesn’t care, and will recover from whatever devastation we visit upon it, letting the ants and termites soldier on while we fade into extinction. We need to save humanity, and preserve a healthy environment in order to facilitate our own survival- there’s a qualitative difference. The good news is that what we’ve historically seen as tradeoffs are often illusions.  Nonzero transactions can take place not only among our own species but between us and the rest of the planet. And you can take part in this, everyone can.

Today we’re also deluged with talk about the Smart Cities, self-driving cars, advanced controls, Internet of Things, Internet of Everything, Industrial Internet, Physical seems like very day there’s a new development to learn about or risk being seen as behind the curve and generating a FOMO (Fear of Missing Out) attack. More closely, in the lighting industry, the talk has been about smart controls and applications that go far beyond what we know of lighting today, so far in fact that the industry may become unrecognizable much faster than we think.

The frenetic pace of technology creates a more generalized fear than FOMO. Because of automation, machine learning, AI, and myriad deliberate and random combinatorial innovations, we should be wondering how we’re going to be working in the coming years and decades. Will a robot eat your job? When? Well, the answers are: yes and probably much sooner than you’re comfortable with. Automation and machine learning replace a lot of jobs (as they should in many cases) but despite what Silicon Valley, politicians, or some economists may want you to believe, they usually don’t create new ones. I encourage you to see your current practice in a much larger context and make technology work for you rather than vice versa.

I like to use lighting as a vehicle with which to explain the evolution and history of much technology throughout the last millenia or so.  Why do we look to the past in order to explain and prepare for the future? One compelling reason is that there’s nowhere else to look. While the patterns we can perceive in the past don’t guarantee that the future will unfold in any particular direction (and we routinely and persistently overestimate our ability to predict to future despite constant failures) a careful examination of history, especially the history of technology and cities, uncovers very useful connections between what happened then and what’s happening now.

Because of the challenges were facing today with the nature of work, I encourage you to think way beyond your box, however stable, fulfilling, and challenging it may be (or not) and still keep the important parts of your current practice, which I assume involves bringing better lighting to human beings in some real sense. This is not only totally possible but totally necessary - non-lighting people and companies moving into the lighting space often don’t have a clue how lighting people work, usually behind the scenes, to make architecture and cities better. In any future scenario of expanded technology around lighting, we can’t risk losing that expertise and collective intelligence.

We humans evolved as utterly social animals, developing skills that favored collective sharing of resources. But the brains we still have evolved in an environment utterly different from the one in which we find ourselves today and will increasingly find ourselves in the future- the modern city. We also are naturally inclined to seek nonzero transactions, and the modern city is the product and the enabler of increased global transactions. Lighting has played a key part in the development of cities and will continue to do so, that is of course, if you’re up to the challenges.

And that’s one thing about nonzero thinking, the history of technology, and combinatorial innovation – dramatic evolution and what Robert Wright calls “moral progress” happens much more by accident through the actions of normal everyday people than by the brilliant earthshaking discoveries of geniuses. And today there are so many new technologies and innovations to try, so many new ways to learn and connect and do business – this is partly what is known as the network effect ­­– that the average person’s chances of contributing to global intelligence are now greater than ever before. You’re probably already doing this every day without realizing it by participating in the global flow of knowledge. Becoming more conscious of it will strengthen your connection to the rest of the world.