Why technology is not the silver bullet in securing a sustainable future

And why we need a regenerative approach.

January 25, 2021

I was speaking with a client this week who was hugely excited about the role technology would play in their business achieving their sustainability ambitions. He shared stories of how, with the right technology, all the world’s problems would be solved — from working from home to climate change, from transport systems to robotic guide dogs, from car batteries that charge in 10 minutes to floating farms. I was captivated by his passion and, as I listened to the narrative, I found myself getting taken along with the vision of this futuristic place. Admittedly, in my mind the place did start to look a bit like the hoverboard scenes in Back to the Future, but still, in that moment, I was absolutely drawn in to his view of the future where the world was shiny, life was efficient, unproblematic, and slick as hell. It felt good to think of all the challenges we’re facing at the moment being swept away with technological fixes already in motion.

But then, less than 5 minutes later, I felt empty.

And that’s because I know full-well that technology will not enough be enough to secure the future we want and need. To get to where we to be, the starting point must be a regenerative lens rather than a technological one. We need to rethink and redesign entire political, cultural, and economic systems. People, business and policymakers will all have an active role to play in renewing, restoring and regenerating broken systems. The focus needs to shift from technological fixes within those systems.

All of this is brought into the fore with the Frontiers of Conservation report, as the writers of this report summarised:

The gravity of the situation requires fundamental changes to global capitalism, education, and equality, which include inter alia the abolition of perpetual economic growth, properly pricing externalities, a rapid exit from fossil-fuel use, strict regulation of markets and property acquisition, reigning in corporate lobbying, and the empowerment of women. These choices will necessarily entail difficult conversations about population growth and the necessity of dwindling but more equitable standards of living.

I would go one step further than that and suggest that if we can make decisions in every part of life through a regenerative lens, we absolutely can create the shift we need. A net-positive framing for the decisions we make, the innovation we deliver, and the people we engage will get us there. But that’s a heck of a mindset shift from the ‘technology will fix it’ and ‘there is a silver bullet’ sentiment which continues to perpetuate business and political leadership.

Technocrats vs regenerists

And as the Silicon Valley types continue to innovate incredible technologies we frankly don’t even know we need (and sometimes probably don’t), we see a fork in the road — the technocrats who paint the picture of the future which is fast, shiny, and clean, versus the regenerists who paint a future of humanity with a renewed connection to nature, with businesses, political structures, and communities operating as living systems. The card the technocrats think they have up their sleeves is if we can’t fight climate change in time, we’ll just space-travel to another planet and set up camp there. The regenerists on the other hand know that we have a duty to work within the planetary boundaries and ensure we can provide future generations with an opportunity to thrive.

Why did we get to this

And there are so many reasons why we’ve ended up with this fork in the road, and with an overly simplistic and binary view of what will most facilitate human progress and survival (either a technological or living systems approach).

Just a few of those reasons:

  • Separation — we as humanity have separated ourselves from the planet, thinking we’re above it, beyond it. We’ve forgotten that without a thriving planet there can be no ecosystems, no business, no life.
  • Treatment of people and organisations as machines rather than living systems
  • An obsession with growth
  • We continue to boil down big complex problems into ‘manageable’ ‘measurable’ tasks solving the wrong problems with technical rather than systems approaches

This philosophy that we can innovate ourselves out of any crisis with new products and services without fundamentally redressing our relationship with the planet is really the crux of where everything is becoming unhinged. As a society, we are forgetting what we’re all about and how we can thrive.

A regenerative future enabled by technology

So, what I am proposing is that as we drive the green recovery — rethinking systems and structures — we look through a regenerative lens, focusing on the basics of planetary and societal health, and trust that the rest with follow. We must adopt regenerative principles to everything we we do, including: holism (valuing the entirety of the system), interdependence (recognising connections with clients, suppliers, partners and competitors), and developmental (grow and develop ability for people and systems to thrive). Ultimately, moving away from simplistic, binary sense-making, and giving up on the silver-bullet mentality that is entirely inappropriate for the complexity and scale of the challenges we are facing.

“We need to rediscover… how to be sustainable. To move from being apart from nature to becoming a part of nature once again.”

David Attenborough, A Life on Our Planet

But that’s not to say that technology won’t play a part in the shift to sustainable models. It absolutely needs to. But much like the economy, it needs to be considered within the whole — within our planetary boundaries.

As Kate Raworth so brilliantly puts it with her Doughnut Economics work, for humanity to thrive in the 21st century, we need to be meeting the needs of all people within the means of the living planet.

Here are some examples of the amazing technological advances helping humanity to survive and thrive:

  • Predicting Protein folding with AI— Google owned AI firm DeepMind have developed a system that can predict how proteins fold into 3-D shapes, a challenge that has stumped scientists for over 50 years that is fundamental to our understanding of life itself, with significant potential for agriculture and healthcare sectors. (the Guardian)
  • Rapid vaccine development with mRNA — Development of COVID-19 vaccines by BioNTech/Phizer and Moderna used mRNA — a technology previously approved for use in commercial pharmaceuticals — that opens the door to rapid vaccine and gene therapy treatment development in the future. (MSNBC)
  • Providing educational programming for kids in lockdown — The pandemic saw swathes of children forced to home-school during lockdown. The BBC responded by adapting their schedules to provide educational programming during school hours. (BBC)
  • Theatres and venues turn to live-streaming to keep the lights on — Morale was one of the first things to be hit during the pandemic. In response to having to shut their doors to patrons, theatres and entertainment venues across the world took to the internet, live-streaming plays, concerts and events to huge audiences and injecting some joy when it was needed most. (The Guardian)

These are are all incredible scientific and technological innovations that will have a huge impact on humanity and the planet.

So what?

One thing I remain totally convinced about is the immense capacity of humans to deliver change. And we’ve got to get away from these simplistic two-sided narratives, and into a dialogue at the system change level that fully recognises that the starting point for the green recovery has to be a regenerative one. The economy, technology, political systems are all absolutely critical components in facilitating a sustainable future, but they are more a means to an end, not the outcome we as humanity need. We need more than the means to the end. Put simply, we need human connection, we need to be able to enjoy nature, we need to be happy and healthy. We need a planet to thrive on.

And to deliver this change, we’re going to need more than technological fixes…

5 things we need to do
  1. Empower the next generation of system thinkers— help people and communities connect the dots in new and interesting ways, be curious, adopt creative approaches to complex problem-solving, engage in unusual partnerships and collaboration
  2. Recalibrate towards regenerative citizenshipregenerative can be applied to any part of society — we must adopt a mindset that is about giving back more than you get from any system, whether that be education, business, economics, or culture.
  3. Ensure technology is facilitating a regenerative futureinnovators need to ensure that the technology they are developing does not perpetuate broken systems, but instead proactively helps in the shift to a regenerative model.
  4. Shift businesses to regenerative models— ensure all businesses exist to deliver a positive impact to people and planet (not simply year-on-year growth for shareholders)
  5. Share a regenerative vision for the futuredon’t get stuck on the “means to the end”, the growth targets, the job promotions, the technology, the election results — but instead to telling stories about possibility, change, and the health and happiness we want for ourselves and others.

So as I think back to the enthusiastic technologically driven vision for the future I was so engaged with earlier this week, I find myself considering, what if we could generate that level of enthusiasms about a fundamentally different way of doing things that puts living systems at its core? A regenerative future: one with technology present to support the shift, but with a sustainable and connected future that offers more. Let’s make sure business leaders, policymakers, innovators, and advisors push aside the concept of technology as a silver bullet, and instead adopt a regenerative mindset as we transform our communities, organisations, structures, products and services to be fit for the future.