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Thwarting the Singularity: Charting the Course

This article will focus on how smart businesses can thrive in an age of acceleration in which technology and the planet are undergoing change at an exponential rate.

The Law of Exponential Returns: EHS Technology for Sustainability and Business Strategy 

Optimization on Pocket Watch Face with Close View of Watch Mechanism. Time Concept. Vintage Effect."Only time (whatever that may be) will tell." – Stephen Hawking

When we examine the narrative of history, the highlights are those events which caused a rapid divergence from the charted course. Typically these events are sudden and spectacular - and often perceived as negative. For example, the volcanic eruption that fell Pompeii. The changes that we would classify as positive are often overlooked because their impact on history is usually more gradual  - the small steps and innovations which lead to new cures for diseases or creation of better and better solar panels.  Yet it is this gradual, but surprisingly exponential, growth that ends up having the biggest overall impact on society.

This article will examine how this "Law of Exponential Returns" applies to the field of sustainability management, and how innovations in sustainability technology both come from and shape the manufacturing industry.  In particular, we'll look at how the automotive industry has historically played a role in the development of sustainability technology and been a key player in the development of sustainability programs for the larger manufacturing sector. These vectors will play a vital role in our global need to avert the threat of ecological disaster - an environmental tipping point or Singularity, if you will. 

The Singularity: Technological Growth Pattern

Ray Kurzweil explains “that technological change is exponential, [and likewise] the ‘returns,’ such as chip speed and cost-effectiveness, also increase exponentially. There’s even exponential growth in the rate of exponential growth.” Ray Kurzweil may not have had automotive manufacturing in mind specifically when he proposed The Law of Accelerating Returns in his pre-millennial The Age of Spiritual Machines, but it is this industry which most consistently supports the veracity of his theory.

For Kurzweil, this exponential growth ultimately culminates in The Singularity, a profound and disruptive transformation in the human experience. When Kurzweil’s posits are applied to the cumulative historical record, a pattern emerges. Each era, from the prehistoric to the post-modern, contains the same elements: years of rapidly evolving growth and change followed by a significant, singular disruption which signals the beginning of a new cyclic era. This Singularity selects for and distills the era’s most significant evolutions, which in turn provide the foundation that will build the next new era

The Singularity Kurzweil envisions is a technological and economic event horizon, and never intended it to be used to define environmental scenarios. However, many schools of thought pertaining to environmental science have appropriated The Singularity to define the socio-ecological consequences of man’s exponential advances in technology. In other words, we're exponentially approaching an ecological / sustainability tipping point, or singularity, which will define our era and shape the future of manufacturing. 

So what does this all mean for you, as a business person who needs to consider EHS compliance or sustainability in your operational decision making? Isn't the concept of The Singularity just for sci-fi fans? Not so! Here's why you should care:

  • The advancements of the automotive manufacturing industry follow this same technological growth pattern: consider the historically rapid growth of automotive technology, from the assembly line to robotic assembly plants, or from low-speed engines to high-speed to electric vehicles. These advancements build off one another in an exponential fashion with the next big thing always just around the corner.
  • So too do sustainability projects and automotive EHS programs have an exponential impact on your business. Adopting one type of greener technology opens the door to more sustainability projects, and each one has an exponential effect on your bottom line.
  • Finally, it means that sustainability tools and sustainability software have also been advancing at an exponential rate, just like any other category of ERP software. So the old way of thinking about sustainability (that it's all feel-good and flowers) is no longer applicable; sustainability technology has grown tremendously to include advanced automation, artificial intelligence, and high-speed data engines. 

Welcome to the Age of Sustainability Software and EHS Systems

The Roman Empire's long period of peace and prosperity - fueled by their economic and societal  innovations at the time - was known as the Pax Machina. Today we are in a modern equivalent driven by our innovations in software, machines, and technology, which we can dub the Pax Machina. The automotive industry can be used to map the modern era’s timeline the same that way archaeologists follow the webbed expansion of Rome’s roads preceding their pan-continental conquests. We learn how these technological advancements exponentially have improved the quality of life for every facet of society.

Since then, starting with Ford's very first assembly line production, manufacturing technology has made predictably exponential progress in production turn out, resource management, workflow optimization, and profit generation. These innovations have led us to amazing advancements in technology in all manufacturing sectors - but have also contributed to our approach to environmental singularity and tipping point form which it is difficult to reverse. 

In order to thwart the threat of an unsustainable ecological Singularity, manufacturers have taken the lead in searching for workable solutions to correct for the unforeseeable environmental impact of human innovation and technological advancement.

  • Investing in environmental management software to assist in compliance and protect air quality.
  • New techniques for recycling and reducing waste, including innovating new uses for waste products or new technological approaches to treating waste.
  • Development of smarter cars, including fuel efficiency, electric vehicles, self-driving, and smart diagnostics.

Manufacturers are understanding the need for environmentally sustainable business practices and the technology to support those polices in order to continue sustainable manufacturing well into the future while having a positive effect on the local environment. This turn towards EHS-centric and sustainability management software heralds a new age of sustainability software being the new norm. 

Solving for Corporate Sustainability Programs: Role of Technology

Even though industry leaders understand why sustainability is important to business and the positive impact of green strategies, it's still unclear for many which approach is the best route to take. 

There are as many names for this search as there are approaches for solving this puzzle. The corporate world has adopted "sustainable development’' or "sustainable manufacturing" which is defined as “development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” Redefining corporate profitability, the triple bottom line approach was developed by John Elkington to legitimize and strengthen sustainable development within the context of business. 

Triple Bottom Line Venn Diagram

The trend towards developing corporate sustainability initiatives with teeth has evolved alongside our awareness of the need for corporate accountability and transparency regarding their environmental policies and impact. Sustainability management is an evolving field of study, and the corporate sector is evolving best practices with each pioneering milestone. This means, however, that practical sustainability measures may have been ad hoc and haven’t been integrated so much as stuffed haphazardly into existing frameworks. Extending the metaphor, once you have stuffed the drawers full, it’s easier to avoid the disorganized, over-stuffed drawer than to empty and organize it .

What this means is that while achieving corporate sustainability goals has been a staple in enterprise planning in the past few years, manufacturers are still looking for the right sustainability systems to make those goals a reality. Mainstreaming sustainable development is where technology is required to automate and streamline all those big ideas and dreams that sustainability professionals and forward-thinking executives want to actualize. 

  • Sustainability software focuses in on the actual data from your enterprise resource planning and activities, grounding your dreams into measurable and manageable outputs.
  • EHS Compliance software automates the number crunching and data management needed to keep your business in compliance with the basic EHS regulations while also feeding you business intelligence data to make smart sustainability decisions for your corporate sustainability program. 
  • Integrated software/hardware tools like CMS (Continuous Monitoring Systems) or LDAR cameras take advantage of the technological leaps in automation and sustainability Internet of Things (IoT) to make sustainability programs more attainable within the limits of other business concerns like profits and human resources.

There are a dozen dreamers for every doer at every level of any organization. There is a vast library of literature available on the subject of corporate sustainability, however the focus is heavily weighted towards presenting reasons that businesses should adopt eco-friendly policies. Significant in its absence is qualitative literature on the practical implementation of corporate sustainability - people want to know the steps to implement a corporate sustainability policy and follow through with it. Robert Burns was both more elegant and colloquial on this topic when he said To a Mouse, “The best laid schemes o’ Mice an’ Men Gang aft agley.” AT ERA we believe that the starting place for any effective sustainability program is in the data, and your first step is to find an EHS system that uses data collection and data automation as the backbone. 

The Next Step: Strategy and Sustainability

After reading this article, we hope you understand just how essential sustainability software and an EHS management system is for your business. Manufacturers are racing forward towards a Singularity in which technology is going to bring untold dividends to those that get in early enough to benefit from the exponential growth pattern. At the same time, our ecological resources are also hurdling towards an environmental Singularity in which our natural resources and climate may reach a tipping point. 

The manufacturers that are going to thrive and profit as we get closer and closer to these twin tipping points are the ones that double down on EHS technology to help prevent ecological degradation while maximizing their process efficiency.

To learn more about ways ERA Environmental is already assisting automotive manufacturing facilities adopt successful and profitable sustainability management practices that improve all elements of their triple bottom line, click the button below and one of our environmental scientists will contact you. 

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This post was written by Jenn Mullen