Futures vs Fellows: Disruptive technology

A recent IEMA Futures event saw a panel discuss how innovative new technology could be applied within the sustainability sphere. IEMA Futures chair Hannah Lesbirel reports.

On 18 February, IEMA Futures met the Fellows network for the first Futures vs Fellows event, to discuss the role of disruptive technology in climate action. 

A panel of environment and sustainability professionals discussed how disruptive technologies can advance our work. The discussion was chaired by the sustainability facilitator, coach, trainer and consultant Penny Walker, who was joined by three panel members: Mike Lachowicz, director at Panagaea Consulting; Elizabeth Ashford, graduate consultant at Arup; and Alex Ward, business portfolio manager at Earth Active. 

The discussions looked at disruptive technology from the different perspectives of environment assessment, monitoring and management. The panelists all had different motivations for investigating the topic and shining light on their experiences. Mike, for example, wanted to explore disruptive technology’s potential risk to the environment and society, while Elizabeth suggested that this technology needs to be integrated into our working lives, and that the tech we use to tackle climate change does not always need to be complex. 

The recent UK storms caused chaos, highlighting the potential for disruptive technology to be used as a direct form of defence against or adaptation to climate change events. On multiple occasions, for example, Tesla vehicles’ automatic braking has saved drivers’ lives, reacting faster to a falling tree than a human driver could – highlighting the value of automation.  

“We will need more best practice guidance if we are to make the most of what it can offer”

The use of material passports in construction was cited as a potential driver of a circular economy system that would facilitate construction materials being sent for reuse. Material passports could also reduce carbon footprints by reducing the need to transport waste over long distances, lowering demand for the use of virgin materials and driving progression up the waste hierarchy. 

The ‘B’ word – blockchain – was mentioned slightly reluctantly; it was thought that blockchain’s vast potential application and benefits, as well as its energy intensiveness, could make it hard for people to understand its successful application. All panelists, however, cited improving accountability, gathering large data sets and refining accuracy as central to driving the climate initiative. For example, improved accountability and transparency could change the way organisations report their impact on the environment, boosting demand for ethical products and investments. 

One of the main advantages of disruptive technology highlighted during the event was the ability for it to be used as a communicative tool to enhance our work. Digital report delivery could bridge accessibility gaps, and gathering large amounts of data could make consultation phases more representative. The ‘Internet of Things’ and remote monitoring devices could be used to engage communities via live web maps, as well as improving the qualitative data we use in decision-making. 

We concluded that the industry is going through a transitional phase, learning about emerging technology and how to integrate it into our professions. Widespread application of its use in this sector is still lacking, and we will need more best practice guidance and encouragement if we are to make the most of what it can offer. We must note that just because we don’t see a particular technology as disruptive now, that does not mean it never was or couldn’t be. 

Behaviour change is a major requirement for the successful implementation of disruptive technologies; as Mike said, “those of Futures age should be actively promoting disruptive tech to those of Fellows age and helping them understand the benefits”. Sharing application ideas, lessons learnt and successes among and between our organisations is key, and this event provided a platform to begin that knowledge transfer.  


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