Investing in humanity’s future with sustainable technology

Breaking down the current landscape of sustainability efforts and sustainable tech innovators
Matthews and Garber at Dell Technologies World 2023

From electric vehicles (EV) to green data centers, investment in the development of sustainable technology is on a growth trajectory that far exceeds any previous industrial revolution. The green revolution focuses on meeting the Paris Agreement, which dictates that greenhouse gas emissions must decline 43% by 2030. Achieving this should limit global warming to 1.5 degrees Celsius and minimize the harmful effects of climate change on the whole world. Today’s sustainable tech innovators are literally racing to save the world and humanity’s future.

Harnessing technology to create a more sustainable world has been the focus of tech and sustainability innovator Jessica O. Matthews since she was 19 years old. At just 22, the Harvard University Scientist of the Year founded award-winning renewable energy and data technology infrastructure company Uncharted, which helps cities around the world reduce the cost of developing smart infrastructure. Matthews sat down with Cassandra Garber, Dell’s vice president of Corporate Sustainability & ESG for a discussion on the future of sustainable tech at Dell Technologies World and painted a picture of the barriers and opportunities ahead.

Tackling the obstacles to sustainability

The quest to reach ambitious environmental targets is fueling innovative thinking. From Sydney to Seattle, thousands of individual inventors, SMEs and large corporations are taking part in the race to develop technology created to protect the planet at the core, and there will be multiple winners. The Innovation Index, compiled through responses from 6,600 business and IT leaders worldwide, found that technology is also instrumental for businesses to become more sustainable. Technology was found to help their overall IT carbon footprints, increase energy efficiency and provide greater visibility of carbon impacts. This demonstrates that today innovation, business outcomes and environmental goals are converging to create opportunities for progress that haven’t been seen in two centuries. The modern industrial revolution for sustainable tech will require organizational and individual innovation.

Today’s aspiring sustainable technologists can learn from Matthews’ process. Her career kicked off with a soccer ball while studying at Harvard. “I invented Soccket, which was an energy-generating soccer ball that could harness the kinetic energy from play and store that power inside the ball, so you could use it as an off-grid resource to power small appliances.” After the energy-enthused soccer ball made headlines worldwide, Matthews went on to tackle the obstacles in the way of sustainability, leading to a multifaceted career that includes working on park preservation and with the U.S. Department of Energy.

Having worked with large municipalities and now the national government, Matthews is focused on highlighting how it isn’t the technology that holds up advancing sustainability, but innovation and logistics. She discussed with Garber: “It has less to do with what the technology can do and more to do with the fact that we have not fully thought about the ways that we should all be working with these technologies in concert and together.”

Dispersing the players

For this reason, Matthews is particularly excited about emerging sustainable tech that supports the decentralization of infrastructure systems. In the utility space, virtual renewable energy is particularly interesting to her. “I’m part of a small and growing group of people that believe that virtual power plants will make a massive difference.” Virtual power plants are an interconnected mesh network of prosumers, rather than having a centralized source of power. Matthews cited solar panels on roofs as an example, noting that becoming less dependent on a power grid means more resilience from a consistency and security perspective.

“I think beyond 2030, you’re going to see a lot in that space. There’s going to be a really exciting opportunity to build the technologies that enable that seamless integration across the mesh.”

Putting reuse as the center of the game plan

Integration across all aspects of the supply chain is necessary to build a truly circular economy and central to this, concluded Matthews, is a need to switch from a recycling to a reuse mindset. When you recycle a product, the materials that make it up are reprocessed to create new products or materials and then repackaged and shipped, and there is a carbon impact to that process.  When you reuse an item, you extend the life of the product by, for example, fixing it or passing it on to someone else who can use it once you have finished with it.

“People think about recycling as something that’s good for the environment when in reality, it’s okay. Recycling is preferable to landfill, but what we really need to do is reuse every single thing that is built. Reusing is something that we do not talk enough about and actually is incredibly impactful across the board. The more that we reuse the better this entire planet will be. And we have to think in terms of the responsibility of the makers too. It is the responsibility of the makers to ask, what would it take to make something that lasts?”

As Matthews points out, manufacturers and designers hold the keys to sustainable business. Which is why circular design is at the core of the desire, manufacturing, production and recovery process at Dell Technologies. Project Luna, for example, was created to explore the boundaries of sustainable PC design. To create a truly global circular economy, however, the public and private sectors must work together with governments and individual citizens worldwide to prioritize circularity – business models, repair and reuse and recycling – for humanity’s future. Every consumer, innovator and organization has the opportunity to participate in the sustainable tech revolution. And that opportunity today will determine the possibility of tomorrow.

Lead photo by Casey Horner on Unsplash