The 2009 Emerging Technology Conference offered an incredible opportunity to catch some of the cutting edge ideas that are shaping the way we look at the world. Several recurrent green themes formed bridges between luminary speakers from a variety of backgrounds, as Alex Steffen, Mary Lou Jepsen, Jeremy Faludi, and others reinforced the need to create repairable, open-source, long lasting products, reveal energy usage, and pursue forward-thinking strategies for a greener tomorrow. Read on for our highlights from the conference!

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Sustaining the American Family – Alex Steffen

Worldchanging Executive Editor Alex Steffen kicked off Tuesday with an opening keynote that explored the way that the prosperity of the developed world is shaping the desires of the developing world, and how we need to lead by example and reinvent our current model of prosperity in order to avert an impending global collapse.

Thus far the developed world’s prosperity has been based upon mining and using natural resources to build everything around us. This industrial model leads to great societal wealth, but the environment picks up the check in the form of greenhouse gas driven climate change and widespread ecosystem damage.

Half the population of the planet is under 35, most of them live in the developing world, and almost everyone on the planet knows how the richest live. However if everyone lived like the average person in the developed world, we would need 5 planets worth of resources to sustain them, and if all of the kids in the developing world adopt our way of getting rich, then we stand to run head on into an “ecological brick wall”.

The way to avert this catastrophe is to reinvent the way we perceive prosperity, and to encourage the developing world to choose a greener model by leading by example. It’ll be tough, but Alex outlined six strategies to help us on our way towards a bright green future:

Open: We need to have more transparency in all aspects of our society. This means holding not just our elected officials and corporations accountable, but also holding one another accountable. Alex called for greater product transparency (where are things made, by whom, using what materials?) and touched upon the surging field of water and power monitors as encouraging people to consume less resources. If people know more about the products and services they consume, then they will make more sustainable choices.

Smart: We need to develop smarter systems that cut down on “stupid waste” and change the way things work. Smart solutions include establishing a price on CO2, installing smart grids and electric vehicle infrastructure, and pay-as-you go car insurance.

Compact: Dense and well designed communities are the singe best investment that we can make in the US. If our communities are more compact we’ll save money and materials that would have been spent on roads, buildings and power lines, drive less, and have more time to spend with our families and friends.

Green: Rather than treating natural flows as problems we should use them to improve our lives. Instead of investing in mechanical air conditioning and ventilation, we should design passive houses that work with the sun’s cycles. Other solutions include rainwater harvesting, lunar resonant streetlights, and biomass energy generation.

Remade: Products should be designed to last and be easily repaired, tools and other goods should be shared, and we should follow cradle-to-cradle design principles such as design for disassembly and product lifecycles that continue past their initial form.

Reconnected: We need to re-consider and re-make what real happiness is, be more contemplative of obligations that go beyond ourselves, and get better at sharing innovations across borders.

Low-Cost, Low-Power Computing – Mary Lou Jepsen

Pixel IQ founder Mary Lou Jepsen spoke next, relating her experience in developing super energy-efficient computers by focusing upon their most energy-intensive component – the screen. She began with an overview of the the hugely successful One Laptop Per Child project, which sought to provide low-power computers to the 50% of the world without steady access to electricity. She noted that most laptop screens act like hdtv’s – they constantly refresh, and are hard on the eyes due to their backlit screens.

By contrast the OLPC uses a smart screen technology that doesn’t refresh the screen if it determines that nothing has changed. This allowed them to cut the laptop’s power usage down to 1w at its most efficient setting. Echoing Alex Steffen’s keynote, the devices are designed to last and are repairable using commonly available components.

As for future plans, Jepsen said that Pixel IQ is working on a cutting-edge screen that offers three modes: a full color transmissive mode, a black and white epaper mode that is readable in direct sun, and a low-power color mode that is readable in sunlight. These advancements signal a shift in personal computing away from faster and more expensive cpus to towards more readable energy efficient displays – as Jepsen definitively declared: the CPU wars are over, and the screen wars are on!

The End of Obsolescence – Lane Becker and Thor Muller

In the wake of the economic crisis the consumerism curve is crashing, however Lane Becker and Thro Muller of Get Satisfaction see these turbulent times as a tremendous opportunity to change and revisit some of the institutions that we’ve founded society upon. As financial collapse squeezes cash out of the system people will have less money, so Becker and Muller offered up several potential ways to get around consumerism based upon “weak signals” – design patterns that suggest directions the future may take.

Free Already present in the thriving open-source community, Becket and Muller championed the idea of creating value around the concept of free. This applies to everything from computing to design and services.

Repair Culture One of the most important things people don’t talk about is how repair culture can solve our over-consumption problem. When we build objects to last, people want to take care of them – objects tell us what we should do with them. Additionally, a repair culture will lead to more innovation as people take time to repair, tweak, and hack the things around them.

The Loanership Society We all have a lot of things that we don’t utilize fully – cars, tools, etc. Why not collectively share them, making better use of our resources and breaking the model of ownership? We’re already starting to see subscription services promoting the loanership society in everything from Netflix to Zipcar, and Becker and Muller also looked at how shared spaces like community gardens create community and inspire stewardship.

Virtual Production These days were seeing entire markets created upon virtual sales – look at the Kindle or the iPhone. The prospect of digital goods replacing physical goods breaks the environmentally destructive cycle of production and consumption.

Open Fabrication and the Environment – Tom Igoe

NYU Interactive Telecommunications Professor Tom Igoe gave a great survey on the state of industrial design, advocating increased literacy of sustainable energy, materials, production practices, and natural resources in the creation of new objects. However the crux of his talk focused upon unmaking these designs and closing the loop on recycling.

In order to recycle an item properly, the people who unmake items need to know how we made them. However this information is often considered proprietary by manufacturers, who view recyclers as competitors. Tom went on to list the development steps for a product from firmware to schematics to assembly, showing that recyclers only need access to an item’s list of materials and chemicals, assembly order, and any supporting materials or chemicals used.

Tom ended by appealing to manufacturers to help close the loop on recycling by defaulting to openness, and calling designers to take account of the sustainable design literacies earlier discussed.

Priorities for a Greener World – Jeremy Faludi

Sustainable design strategist and researcher Jeremy Faludi gave a talk that developed a ranked list of priorites for green innovators, entrepreneurs, and activists as they look for ways to make the most effective change in the world. Jeremy opened with a question: “If you could design anything – where would you do the most good?”. Using empirically derived evidence he went on frame the most dire problems facing the world today, and shared some ways that people are tackling them.

Climate Change: Looking at a chart of greenhouse gas emitting industries, Jeremy found that single worst offender was cars, although residential and commercial buildings combined accounted for the biggest slice of the chart.

Designs that stand to cut these emissions are innovative building materials (like Calera Concrete), more efficient vehicles and transportation infrastructure, and energy modeling software that helps design more efficient buildings. And of course, the best way to improve transportation and our built environment is to build more compact, efficient cities.

Species Extinctions and Habitat Loss: Consulting a graph of the largest threats to biodiversity by habitat, Jeremy concluded that the biggest threat is habitat change, followed by pollution, over exploitation, and invasive species – all of which are directly cause by our destructive food and agriculture system.

Designs that address this problem range from the high tech solutions such as skyscraper farms and hydroponics to low-tech approaches like rooftop gardens, which also help insulate buildings, cut down on rainwater runoff, and reduce the urban heat island effect.

Resource Depletion: Looking at a chart of the planet’s resources in decline, Jeremy pointed out that the earth’s reserves of minerals and metals such as indium and gold are approaching exhaustion, crushed stone used for buildings and cement accounts for our largest single material use, and a tremendous amount of water is used for agriculture and to create the products we buy.

To address these issues, we need better designed buildings that use less resources and more recycled materials, better cities that require less infrastructure, innovative recycling programs, and more vegetarian options on menus, since livestock farming is by far the most water-intensive area of our food industry.

Pollution: Consulting a list of the most polluting industries, we found that the largest source of water pollution is agriculture (due to pesticides and fertilizer), mining accounts for the largest production of solid waste, and electric utilities account for the most air pollution.

A few approaches towards tackling the problem of pollution are designing a better food system, promoting recycling programs to cut down on the amount of materials mined, and speeding the transition towards clean sources of energy.

Overpopulation: Although overpopulation is broad and systemic problem, Jeremy looked at charts showing that people living in cities tend to have lower birthrates than those in rural areas, and educated women tend to have lower birthrates than non-educated women.

Ways that we can help address overpopulation are increasing access to birth control and family planning, and empowering women through microlending institutions and other programs.

Compiling all of these problems and solutions into a single list, Jeremy derived this set of priorities for a greener world:

1. Cities 2. Buildings 3. Transportation 4. Food / agriculture 5. Electricity generation 6. Family planning 7. Empowering women 8. Other industries;

a. Chemicals b. Paper c. Concrete d. Electronics

+ ETech 2009

Jeremy Faludi’s list of priorities for a greener world

The Maker Shed was in full effect, teach classes on soldering – an important skill for the upcoming culture of repair!

The twittering Fortune Bird read my RFID-enabled conference badge and broadcast my fortune: “Experience is directly proportional to the amount of equipment ruined.”