The future is here - it's just not evenly distributed.
History shows that the technologies that have transformed our shipping, energy, food and health sectors have taken decades to move from invention to scale.
For example, the first modern computer was invented in the 1930s, but early growth was slow. In 1943 the president of IBM is famously reported to have said, “I think there is a world market for maybe five computers.” Yet today, there is one personal computer in use for every five people on the planet. And the next generation of computing is here: personal computers are already being displaced by tablets and smartphones, which have the processing power of desktop computers ten years ago.
In part, this slowness can be explained by technology’s natural life-cycle. Before new technologies enter the market, they must be developed, tested and qualified. Investors must gain enough confidence to finance research and development and consumers must gain enough confidence to use them. It takes time to build trust in the quality and safety of new technologies.
But a number of barriers can slow this process further – barriers that seem to be particularly formidable for sustainable technologies. Incumbent infrastructure – whether physical, regulatory, economic or societal – is one of the biggest impediments to change. For example, the centralized grids that form the backbone of our electricity system are ill-equipped to handle variable renewable sources such as wind and solar power.
Most power markets do not incentivise cleaner, more distributed generation. And most consumers have limited visibility and agency over their energy use, making it hard for them to make greener choices even if they could save money.