With the world’s population set to increase from 7.5 billion today to 10 billion by the year 2056, according to the United Nations, this growth will no doubt have a major impact on our planet, especially when looking at five key areas: water, energy, human health, food, and air.
While it’s easy to be discouraged by the problems a fast-rising population will present, as a father of three children aged 18 to 22 I’m encouraged by the way young people look at the world when it comes to sustainability and the rise of the sharing economy. And, as a futurist, I remain optimistic because one of my core beliefs is we can conquer almost any challenge with technology.
Below, I’ve outlined what I believe to be the five biggest challenges posed by overpopulation, offering thoughts on how each can be solved through human ingenuity. In a complicated world that often leaves people feeling hopeless, I want to show you that technology truly has the power to make anything possible.
Water and Energy
Let’s start with a brief look at two challenges that we’re already well on our way to managing through technology.
Since we’re advised to drink between three and four liters of water a day, you’d think we should all be concerned about our future water supply. However, oceans hold about 96% of all Earth’s water and scientists are already developing technologies that convert sea water into fresh, drinkable H2O.
Similarly, the sun is a renewable, abundant source of energy capable of meeting our future energy needs once we figure out how to store solar energy and deliver it on demand. In this area, Swedish researchers have recently demonstrated efficient solar energy storage in a chemical liquid, and make no mistake, more innovation is on the way.
Even with abundant sources of energy and water, the general sentiment is a larger population will lead to widespread sickness and disease. But, while we’ll certainly have our hands full in managing and containing new pandemics, massive breakthroughs in the health sciences are just around the corner.
Scientists believe the first person to live to 150-years-old has already been born, which is no surprise when you consider the potential the Internet of Things has in helping us monitor our personal health with technologies that will soon make current wearables seem antiquated.
Imagine IoT sensors connected to an EpiPen that automatically inform teachers, parents, school nurses and paramedics when a child with diabetes uses the EpiPen. And, according to Stanford Researchers, in the world of Artificial Intelligence, deep learning algorithms trained in image recognition have already matched dermatologists in their ability to identify certain types of skin cancer based on photographs of skin lesions, and could soon make their way on to consumer smartphone apps. This would provide an opportunity for early personal diagnosis.
Let’s discuss food security. It goes without saying that with a larger population you need a larger food supply, and with climate change already having an impact globally, Mother Nature has made our growing seasons unpredictable.
This is where I see automation being utilized to offset this volatility. Niagara College’s Research & Innovation division is currently working on a project that uses automation and wireless sensor technology to collect data in fields, orchards and vineyards in southern Ontario. By using sensors that are connected to the cloud, the farmers of the future will know when an incoming storm is approaching, and be able to get an exact reading on the heat and humidity of their crops so they’re no longer wasting water or spraying chemicals on crops that don’t require them.
Ontario dairy farmers are already deploying robots to milk their cows, increasing production by almost a third while saving them tremendous amounts of personal time and resources.
That leaves just one significant challenge: maintaining the quality of our air. Biking and car-sharing continue to show great potential in cutting greenhouse gas emissions, but I believe businesses can and should take the lead on this area of environmental stewardship.
Connected cloud technology allows businesses to reduce the energy costs of heating/cooling/lighting with sensors that determine when certain rooms or areas are not being used. Unified Communication technologies such as Avaya Equinox are also empowering people to work and collaborate from anywhere, enabling businesses to reduce their office footprint and energy needs while keeping cars off the road. Solutions exist, and it’s on businesses to make sure they build an environmental sustainability policy into their digital transformation roadmap.
So, while there’s no doubt population growth will pose a great number of problems, I believe we have, or will have, the tools necessary to solve all our needs in the areas of water, energy, human health, food, and air. Thanks to IoT, AI, Cloud and technologies that accelerate digital business innovation by establishing a communication workflow between companies and the millions of connected machines that are already out in the world, we can become smarter, super-efficient and more productive as a planet.
Continuous research and development is of the upmost importance to address these challenges. We need governments and businesses focused on finding solutions that will help us resolve these complex problems ahead of us. Encouraging innovation, entrepreneurship, STEM education is fundamental to this achieving this goal.
While we enjoy a period of seamlessly endless innovation, this isn’t the time for companies to stand still– it’s a time to look forward, a time to be curious. I believe the businesses that think ‘customer first’ and that have a long term vision, continuously re-inventing themselves will be the businesses that shape the future.
Rejean Bourgault is president and managing director of Avaya Canada.