Wednesday, 8 October 2008

Richard Barrington on scale

The final keynote at October's Green Monday was Richard Barrington, ex Sun, who began with the intriguing revelation that the reason Sun initially engaged with climate change was because its HQ is only 1m above sea level and the business deemed that global warming presented a corporate risk. The close proximity of the San Andreas fault, however, is not considered to pose an equal threat.

Richard's view is that seismic shifts are needed to effect the changes we need in global consumption patterns. They key to this is dematerialisation, with products giving way to services, and new business models along these lines are already being developed. But conventional thinking on intellectual capital won't allow us to achieve sufficient scale quickly enough.

An "open source" approach is needed to create the momentum for a new technology to spread with sufficient speed, similar to how Java has become so ubiquitous that Richard estimated every member of the audience had 3 pieces of Java on them.

There are already some good examples of the power of open source - Curriki being one. This online information resource (another project which originated at Sun) provides disadvantaged teachers and students around the globe with open access to high-quality educational materials, challenging the vested interests in education. This collaborative approach, with people freely sharing their knowledge, is rare in the commercial world, but in my experience the one place it's currently thriving is in sustainability circles. It's heartening to see how willing people are to share their knowledge and expertise on this topic.

But to really effect the change we need, the new technologies we develop must be substitutional, not additional. As Richard pointed out, commentators feared that the emergence of Amazon would kill books because we'd all download the texts. That didn't happen, and book sales are higher than ever.

His ultimate conclusion was that we have no choice but to embrace the new world order because our challenge is about survival of the species; the planet will take care of itself, and may do a better job without us.

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