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How Digital Tech is Driving the Energy Productivity Explosion

By Bill Shireman

There are two ways to double the nation’s energy supply.

One way is to dig deeper and broader wells, to extract twice as much of it. The other is to invent smarter products and processes that need half as much of it, doubling the productivity of energy.

The first way is the equivalent of doubling our bank withdrawals – it reduces our wealth. The second is like doubling the buying power of our savings – it increases our wealth.

As advanced information and communications technology becomes embedded in products and processes, it is already enabling leapfrog gains in productivity.

And, as advanced information and communications technology becomes embedded in the energy production and distribution system, it will enable even greater gains in productivity, including the development of entirely new sources of energy.

Think about what has already happened to energy productivity, in the information and communications technology sector so far.


Energy productivity gains for specific activities—some 1000 per cent or more—led to overall gains in economic productivity. But more interesting than the quantitative gains are the qualitative impacts they had. Each major innovation created powerful new tools that could be used by people and institutions.

As this “energy productivity explosion” continues, the net effect may be another economic transformation as great as the transition from the agricultural age to the industrial age and as great as the already dramatic transition from the industrial age to the early information age.

The real potential lies in the shift from an industrial economy refined by information, as exemplified by virtual storefronts like Amazon, toward a truly new economy founded on it—a place where industry is simply part of a new system that transcends it, just as agriculture is part of the industrial world today.

“For those of you keeping score, the dotcom era has ended,” says Henry Jenkins, founder and director of the Comparative Media Studies Program at MIT. “The age of social networks and mobile media has emerged … We are no longer talking about a digital revolution, which envisioned new media displacing the old. We are now talking about media convergence, where old and new media interact in ever more complex ways. We are no longer talking about interactive media technologies; we are talking about participatory culture.”1

And a participatory economy. That economy is being created in real time, by individuals—Tea Partiers and Netroots, gamers and bloggers, Indian villagers and high school hackers, consumers and employees, government leaders and corporate executives. We are all agents in a participatory economy. As Jenkins says, “we are discovering new ways to pool our knowledge and work collaboratively to solve puzzles and master complex tasks. What we are learning as consumers has the potential to change how we think as citizens. And these new social skills and cultural competencies have implications as well for the future of education.”1

In his prescient 1998 essay, Entering the Infosphere, Michael Vlahos, Professor of Strategy at the United States Naval War College, foresaw “the fusion of all the world’s communications networks, databases and sources of information into a vast, intertwined and heterogeneous tapestry of electronic interchange.” People will join it, he predicted, because, while it feels artificial and foreign at first, “it offers tremendous advantages. It gives people the ability to meet and access information anywhere, all the time. And people can meet in groups, share information and make agreements, just like they do in situ. The difference is that they are not site-bound. Eventually, as the environment becomes more familiar, it will become less alien.” Once drawn in, people become part of something new—a whole new social ecosystem.2

Vlahos’ prophetic 1998 vision is today’s emergent reality. Google gave almost everyone access to the world’s information. Facebook gave everyone access to each other. Breakthroughs in “telepresence” are being driven by companies like Cisco, Skype, AT&T, and Intel. New networks and digital concepts are sprouting daily—new Googles and Facebooks have already been born.

The potential quantitative gains in energy productivity are vast, but even more momentous are the qualitative changes, which could transform our lives.

The resulting economy has the potential for dramatic efficiencies. The energy productivity gains just from reduced travel will be substantial. But efficiency alone will not automatically drive environmental sustainability.

That is in part because efficiency happens inside an economy driven by the embedded subsidies that supported the industrial era and its dominant narrative—a narrative that tended to correlate physical consumption with economic value and personal fulfillment.

In the industrial world, it made sense to drive physical consumption, to overcome poverty. In a world where the fundamental resource—information—is both renewable and regenerative, it will not only be possible but lucrative to satisfy more needs and wants with ever decreasing material and energy inputs.

1 Jenkins, Henry. YouTube to YouNiversity. USC Annenberg Center Speaker Series (2007).

2 Vlahos, Michael. Entering the Infosphere. Journal of International Affairs, Volume 51, Issue 2 (1998).

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