The First Regenerative Revolution

Humanity can usher in a new green age

“The past is a foreign country: they do things differently there,” wrote L.P. Hartley in his novel, The Go-Between. Hartley’s words perfectly encapsulate the western mindset that the challenges we face are unique to each generation and uninformed by history. They cast a light on why our society is prone to repeating mistakes, generation after generation.

It’s conventional wisdom that time’s arrow has now brought us to a period of unprecedented change and disruption. But in 2015, Klaus Schwab, Founder and Chairman of the World Economic Forum (WEF), introduced a more circular idea that we’re entering the Fourth Industrial Revolution, also known as 4IR, which is currently being researched at the WEF hub in Silicon Valley.

While the Third Industrial Revolution was driven by our rapidly increasing computing power, the central concept of 4IR is that modern “smart” machines give us unprecedented connectivity that’s capable of helping us address the enormous challenges currently faced by humanity. According to WEF, 4IR represents “a fundamental change in the ways that we live and work” by merging our “physical, digital, and biological worlds”. While the convergence of modern technologies can create “both promise and peril”, it’ll certainly drive “a new chapter in human development”. Initially a concept that wasn’t well-known outside of elite business circles, 4IR has recently gained traction — propelled in part by accelerating challenges like climate change.

On the surface, the past 30 to 50 years of the Third Industrial Revolution have been relatively stable, delivering a statistically better world, where more women and young people have access to quality education; overall health has improved; and hundreds of millions of people have been lifted out of poverty. However, we’re now witnessing increasing inequity globally. The climate crisis and destruction of nature are threatening those gains and causing greater instability. The commitments to reach net zero by 2050, made at last year’s COP26, are our global confession to living beyond our planet’s boundaries.

What the Fourth Industrial Revolution will look like in practice remains unclear. But one of the benefits of thinking about the world through an industrial revolution lens is that it requires us to look at previous periods in history that underwent similar changes — and to learn lessons from them.

We need a goal around net zero waste that ensure planetary boundaries are not breached

For Gen Z, the world of their parents really is a “foreign country”. They have more in common with their great grandparents — those born in the late 1800s, who experienced the innovative, and at times, unbelievably destructive transition from the Second to the Third Industrial Revolution. This was a time when whale oil and horse-and-carts were replaced by coal-fired electricity and oil and gas — and when radio and telephone replaced telegrams, connecting people at a scale not previously imaginable.

The wealth generated by those new technologies created a period of great prosperity, but also massive inequality. It laid the foundations for both global multinationals and modern philanthropic organisations. At its heart was the potent mix of many different technologies coming together to cause massive shifts in capital and power. This phenomenon is what characterises our own age.

Each industrial revolution has also been very different. There are two key differences that stand out for me. The first is that we have more information than ever before on the problems and consequences humanity is facing — whether that’s climate change, loss of nature, nuclear weapons, cybersecurity threats or social injustice. The second difference is that we already have many of the scientific and technological solutions at hand that are needed to solve them.

This means that the information and technology we need are at our fingertips. The challenge is putting those solutions into action at scale, and in a way that will allow us to mitigate any unforeseen consequences and unintended impacts. There are risks around technologies — both costs and unintended consequences. Shifting customer demand and investor appetite needs to be managed to ensure the transformation doesn’t take a negative toll on society, through political polarisation and geopolitical instability. The promise of a better world was central to the previous three industrial revolutions. But I would argue that a specifically regenerative purpose must be at heart of this emerging revolution, not just in terms of its rhetoric, but in its global targets and impact.

The WEF has called for a reassessment of how countries and organisations develop and create value that benefits people from all walks of life. But what does this reimagination entail? A good place to start would be with the social and economic construct of the concept of an industrial revolution itself. Such an expression is imbued with the ideology of past transitions, which were based often on cheap natural resources and the exploitation of labour.

I’ve previously written about why the Fourth Industrial Revolution needs to be reconfigured as the First Regenerative Revolution. If people and the planet are to have a prosperous future, this revolution can’t be based on the exploitation of the natural world or human communities. It’s out with the industrial mindset, in with the regenerative mindset. The overall vision must be to feed, clothe, house and provide energy to people equitably, while maintaining a healthy planet. History shows that thinking with an industrial mindset leads us down a path that does not do justice to our human potential. It’s hard to see how we can achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development  Goals (SDGs) with an industrial revolution mindset.

However this direction and the ambition of our current goals — net zero emissions by 2050, nature positive by 2030, as well as greater equity, diversity and inclusion — are sound. But we need a change in mindset about the role of government, the purpose of business and academia, and what exactly constitutes civil society. We need global ambitions that can move the dial at speed and on a scale that goes beyond our efforts so far. We need to think bigger, and aim higher.

The net zero by 2050 climate goal, for example, is a great start, but it’s only one element of the solution. If we build a zero-carbon world with a business-as-usual (BAU) mindset, there will be unintended consequences. We can’t simply shift manufacturing capabilities and supply changes towards renewable energy infrastructure without factoring in the simultaneous need for a circular economy.

We need a goal around net zero waste that ensure planetary boundaries are not breached, as we find the resources needed for driving this massive period of innovation. And we need to ensure the new infrastructure is built so that its components are 100 per cent reusable and recyclable.

AI, when combined with satellite imagery, can used to determine what’s needed to optimise soil and crop quality

We should remember that technology is agnostic — it’s up to us how we decide to use it. Achieving planet zero waste by 2050 is not impossible, but it requires a massive reimagination of what BAU means. To put it simply, the well being of people and the planet must be the principle purpose underlying our innovation.

The intersection of technology and purpose has grown significantly over the past few years. For example, the concept of ‘Tech4Good’ has made its way into mainstream consciousness, with millions being invested in everything from purpose-driven startups to big, multinational, social venture projects. AI is one of the technologies that has massive potential to help us reach our SDGs faster. For example, it can provide enhanced predictions on supply chain sustainability, natural disasters, and energy prices.

AI can also be harnessed to autonomously optimise the usage of energy, water and other resources. Additionally, it has a powerful role to play in what’s called “precision agriculture”, which is an approach to farm management that uses tools like satellite imagery or field mapping to determine exactly what’s needed to optimise soil and crop quality. The possibilities are endless and the opportunities to support global transformation are tremendous.

But history has continually shown us that technology is agnostic at times with unintended consequences. The idea of public interest technology is still an early concept, but it’s one that needs to be rapidly developed further. Big philanthropy is also part of this trend and can play a bigger role, with many new tech billionaires starting to direct massive investments into global, purpose-driven technology initiatives.

While huge gaps remain, there have been significant shifts in the allocation of capital for sustainable development. Financial and capital markets are moving towards environmental, social and governance issues (ESG), helping address climate, nature and social inequity. They’ll continue to experience regulatory challenges on how ESG is defined and measured, but overall, it’s part of a bigger mega-trend where lines between profit and not-for-profit are increasingly blurring.

We’re slipping back into the mindset of scarcity at the very time we need to be adopting a mindset of abundance

As humans, we’re good at being disruptors, but not so good at being disrupted ourselves. In a world of increasing scarcity, we think and behave differently. Scarcity orients our brains, both analytically and emotionally, towards our immediate needs. We overvalue the ‘now’ at the expense of future opportunities. This scarcity mindset can be seen in the language we use, including those in global trade dialogues or political narratives about hypercompetitive and strategic competition.

Perhaps the last time we saw a comparable scarcity mindset on this global level was during the OPEC oil crisis in the 1970s. Just before the crisis, the Club of Rome’s publication, The Limits to Growth, predicted we would both exhaust the planet’s resources (minerals, oil and gas, and food supplies) and pollute it. But the combination of high inflation, interest rates and the oil crisis saw governments and businesses adopt a scarcity mindset.  No expense was spared in securing access to fossil fuels and ramping up food production — ushering in a period of the past 50 years of unprecedented environmental destruction.

Today, there are similarities to that period, such as the energy price shock, security in supply chain fears and increasing inflationary pressure. But unlike then, we have a new, cheaper energy replacement for fossil fuels, new technologies, capital looking for ESG impact, and  globally agreed goals for where we need to be by 2030/2050.
As one Silicon Valley venture capitalist told me recently, we’re slipping back into the mindset of scarcity at the very time we need to be adopting a mindset of abundance to solve our biggest global challenges.

Rapid innovation and rollout are possible — we just saw it. The COVID-19 pandemic showed that we could produce a vaccine faster than anyone believed possible. As such, we should be confident in our ability to solve other problems at speed. There’s already enough food available today to feed the 8 billion people living on this planet. We can produce enough renewable energy to power our societies. We’ve shown we can reduce poverty and can improve education for all — especially for women and girls.

We’re fortunate to live in a world in which we have the solutions, as well as access to the information and knowledge needed to accelerate and scale their adoption. These will replace the old structures and systems built for the world of yesterday.

Previously the winners of past industrial revolutions, old systems are now the biggest blockers of change. Given the dominance of energy in previous industrial revolutions, the oil, gas and coal industry must be transformed or transitioned out. As historian Rutger Bregman mentioned in his book, Utopia for Realists, the big challenge is getting incumbents to change what’s not in their short-term interests.

For example, while we can understand the oil industry’s concerns about profitability and stability in this period of energy disruption, we should also remember that oil companies are the ones that ruthlessly obliterated the horse-driven transport industry in the early part of the 1900s. Others, like coal-fired power, must simply be removed from economies. Otherwise, the damage that these blockers of transformation might wreck on our global wellbeing and security as incumbents try to hold onto power could be catastrophic for humanity.

The First Regenerative Revolution is a mental reset — away from thinking of society and the economy as a linear industrial machine and towards a concept that’s not only circular and purpose-driven for people, but also works with the abundance that nature provides. One that’s truly revolutionary, in every sense. The good news is that we have the knowledge, technology and connectivity to drive this revolution in a positive way. The challenge is that it’s disruptive, complex and rewrites the rule books.  History can help us navigate this uncertainty, as well as prepare us for its unintended consequences.  But mindset is everything. The First Regenerative Revolution is exciting opportunity within our grasp for people across the planet to collaborate and design a regenerative society together.

Dermot O’Gorman is the CEO of WWF-Australia, and was recently a Fulbright Scholar at Stanford University, California

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