By Clem Bezold, Chairman and Senior Futurist, and Mary Carenbauer, Futurist
Technological advancements that could become widely used in the 2020s, have the ability to lower the cost of living while supporting equity and sustainability. These tools can increase self-sufficiency and help families and communities meet some of their needs. These include technologies for low-cost energy production and storage, in-home and in-community food production, and 3D printing of home goods, electronics, and even homes. We label these ‘abundance advances’.
As these technologies expand and adapt to be culturally and practically accessible across different communities – particularly low-income communities – human service deliverers’ role will evolve to include training and supporting the availability and effective use of these technologies. That is because the availability of some of these advances (e.g., low-cost energy used in rental apartments) may require incentives, regulation, and advocacy. This changing focus of human services will contribute to achieving the aims of personal dignity, responsibility, increased self-sufficiency and shared community empowerment.
Abundance advances cross different areas necessary for basic living and thriving, including food, shelter, information, and energy. These are briefly detailed below, with consideration given to the impact on lives of low-income persons.
A variety of advances in energy production and storage are likely to lower the cost of this basic item. This includes solar, hydrogen, nuclear and even fusion energy. An important aspect of low-cost energy is the potential to transform the lives of low-income communities.
The e-lab leap initiative, from the Rocky Mountain Institute, brings together government representatives, housing authorities and property owners, NGOs and others towards the goal of empowering low-income communities with clean and affordable energy (1). Access to energy is crucial for economic empowerment and economic development. This e-lab leap initiative will be among those shaping these technologies to truly be “abundance advances”.
Low-Cost Solar Energy
New solar cell technologies for low-cost production include nantennas and perovskite materials that will likely provide highly effective solar cells. Storage costs for solar are decreasing and are projected to continue to become less expensive. For example, Tesla released a battery storage concept which dropped prices (2). Storage costs had dropped sufficiently by 2016 and 2017 that some energy companies replaced their natural gas “peaker” plants that supply electricity at peak demand times with battery storage facilities (3).
As solar energy advances, costs will continue declining. As reported by the Solar Energy Industry Association (SEIA), from 2010-2017, the cost to install solar energy declined by 70% while solar grew in terms of installation and share of energy capacity across the United States. Labor costs, permitting and installation fees and supply chain costs related to solar likewise declined (4). As projected by Green Tech Media, prices of solar are expected to continue declining at the rate of 4.4% for a 27% reduction by 2022 (5).
Other advancements in lowering the cost of solar energy include a new manufacturing process which claims the ability to reduce the cost of silicon wafers, “the platform for a solar power cell”, by half (6). Another one is a breakthrough by University of Cambridge researchers in developing semi-artificial photosynthesis that uses algae to split water into its components of oxygen and hydrogen. This could yield a potent new generation of solar panels capable of producing unlimited amounts of energy, using only sunshine and algae. It could also provide low-cost hydrogen for use by fuel cells (7).
Fuel Cell and Nuclear Technology
Other forms of sustainable, low-cost energy may become available, such as small scale cell fusion. According to a 2016 article published on Energy Central, fuel cell technology will change daily lives in five ways. These are: cleaner vehicles with less or no carbon emission, more reliable power for homes and buildings, enhancing mobile phone charge and design, incorporation into fossil fuel design to bridge the gap with renewables, and freedom from the grid towards independent and individual energy production (8).
Fusion power has the potential to produce nearly four times the energy as nuclear fusion with very low carbon emission and could prove necessary for producing accessible, clean energy (9). Small scale fusion, a low-cost form of energy production in which atomic nuclei release energy, is capable of powering a small town using a unit the size of a flatbed truck (10). Small scale nuclear power stations are being proposed and in 2018 one developer argued they would be available in 8 years – by 2026 (11).
Hydrogen fuel has been proposed as a clean source of energy. Though it has been costly to develop the feedstock for hydrogen, recent research published in the Journal of Catalyst has found that ammonia can be used to stimulate hydrogen fuel (12). And as noted above, the development of semi-artificial photosynthesis could produce hydrogen in a clean, sustainable and low-cost manner.
3D Printing / Local Production of Home Needs
3D printing of goods may disrupt global supply chains and allow local and customized production of goods, often using sustainable and upcycled materials. 3D printing has the potential to impact the lives of low-income communities, including 3D printing of transportation, homes and home components, and medical devices such as prosthetic limbs (13).
Communities can become empowered through low-cost 3D printing, and as 3D printers become more affordable they can be shared and accessed in libraries, community centers or the equivalent of Fedex Office or Kinkos stores.
Housing for low-income populations can also be transformed by 3D printing. 3D printing of homes and multiunit buildings has already begun. For example, San Francisco based company Apis Cor built an entire small 400 square foot home through 3D printing in 24 hours (with workers subsequently completing touches such as painting and some manual installation) (14). In March of 2018, the Texas based company ICON in cooperation with New Story created a 650-square foot 3D printed home that cost $10,000; took 24 hours to complete; and meets the building codes of the City of Austin where it was built. New Story’s mission is to build housing in developing countries and intends to produce these 3D printed homes for $4,000 in those countries (15).
Food insecurity and inability to access healthy foods are common problems for many low-income communities across the nation. This may increase as environmental challenges (particularly higher temperatures, droughts, floods, and fires) reduce agricultural production; however, there are technologies that may empower cities, neighborhoods, and homes to increase self and shared sufficiency in producing nutritious, affordable food.
Advances in food production include aeroponics and hydroponics (growing plants in an air, mist or water environment) to produce food in large amounts quickly and sustainably. Vertical farming, which grows food usually with hydroponic or aeroponics methods in stacked layers, offers a more sustainable year-round crop production with high yields and climate resiliency. David Rosenburg, CEO of AeroFarms (16), is quoted as explaining vertical farming can grow produce in around half the length of time observed in a field, using 95% less water, around 50% less fertilizer, and no herbicides, fungicides, pesticides (17). There are employment opportunities including engineers and maintenance workers. Then, as more automation occurs, new jobs will include system analysis and software development positions (18).
Another area of food abundance is cultured meat, which is progressing in taste and affordability and may be a sustainable and accessible source of producing protein. When lab grown burgers first emerged in 2013, they were extremely expensive – and not particularly tasty.
However, this is rapidly changing. The company Mosa Meat aims to produce a lab grown burger with no taste or texture difference from a traditional one and feels confident that the product will be attractive to large numbers of consumers for ethical reasons (19). Mosa Meat was producing meat in 2016 that costs $27 to $45 per pound, and they expect to enter the market with a premium priced product around 2021. In another five years (around 2026), the prices are anticipated to be competitive to what people currently pay for beef (20). The lower competitive price, combined with a convincingly real taste and sensation, and environmental and animal rights motivations, may allow for widespread production and consumption of cultured meat.
Impossible Foods (21) is one of several companies that are producing fully plant-based meats and cheeses. Futurist Thomas Frey forecasts that “by 2025 industrial grown meats will become the world’s cheapest food stocks (22). There are questions of whether industrial grown meat has appropriate micronutrients and other food components that will need to be resolved. But assuming they are, meat production (including alternatives to meat) could change dramatically.
The potential for abundance advances to make a difference are reinforced by the overall view of this arena provided by entrepreneur Peter Diamandis. In his book, Abundance, he projects that technology will advance exceedingly rapidly in the upcoming two decades and enable the basic needs of water, food, energy, health and education to be met for every person on the planet (23).
And pressing even further, nanotechnology expert K. Eric Drexler (24), argues that in the 2030s the full flowering of nanotechnology will allow us to do nano-manufacturing of most of our needs at relatively low-costs – hence the title of his book, Radical Abundance. Drexler argues that:
- Molecular biology and chemistry will enable many of the items we use daily to be built with atomic precision.
- Transportation, construction, manufacturing, water and food production will become easier to do and so more accessible and beneficial to more people globally.
(3) Seth Mullendore, “Declining Battery Storage Costs Raise Questions About the Role of Natural Gas”, July 17, 2018, Renewable Energy World, https://www.renewableenergyworld.com/ugc/articles/2018/07/17/declining-battery-storage-costs-raise-questions-about-the-role-of-natural-gas.html
(4) SEIA, “Solar Industry Data”, https://www.seia.org/solar-industry-data
(5) Green Tech Media, Solar Costs are Hitting Jaw-Dropping Lows in Every Region of the World, https://www.greentechmedia.com/articles/read/solar-costs-are-hitting-jaw-dropping-lows-in-every-region-of-the-world
(6) E&E News, Closing in on a solar power breakthrough, https://www.eenews.net/stories/1060044628
(7) Market Watch, Opinion: This Breakthrough in a type of photosynthesis could provide the world with unlimited energy, https://www.marketwatch.com/story/this-breakthrough-in-a-type-of-photosynthesis-could-provide-the-world-with-unlimited-energy-2018-09-12, citing Katarzyna Sokol, et. al., Bias-free photoelectrochemical water splitting with photosystem II on a dye-sensitized photoanode wired to hydrogenase, Nature Energy 03 September (2018)
(9) Futurism, Mini Reactors Could Make Affordable Fusion Power a Reality by 2030, https://futurism.com/mini-reactors-could-make-affordable-fusion-power-a-reality-by-2030
(10) 21st Century Tech, Fusion Reactors Two Steps Closer to Reality, http://www.21stcentech.com/fusion-reactor-step-closer-reality; and, The Event Chronicle, Small-Scale Nuclear Fusion: Very Little Radiation and Limitless Energy, http://www.theeventchronicle.com/science/small-scale-nuclear-fusion-little-radiation-limitless-energy
(11) Bloomberg, First Small-Scale Nuclear Reactor May Be Just Eight Years Away, https://www.bloomberg.com/news/articles/2018-04-10/first-small-scale-nuclear-reactor-may-be-just-eight-years-away
(12) Futurism, Cheap Hydrogen Fuel Was a Failed Promise – But its Time May Have Arrived, https://futurism.com/ammonia-hydrogen-fuel
(13) Borgen Magazine, Five Ways 3D Printing Can Help Alleviate Poverty, http://www.borgenmagazine.com/3d-printing-alleviate-poverty
(14) See more here: https://www.engadget.com/2017/03/07/apis-cor-3d-printed-house
(15) Fortune, This Company will 3D Print a House for $10,000, http://fortune.com/2018/03/12/sxsw-2018-3d-print-home-icon
(16) See more here: http://aerofarms.com
(17) CNBC, Vertical farming: The Next Big Thing for Food- and Tech, https://www.cnbc.com/2015/06/24/vertical-farming-the-next-big-thing-for-food-and-tech.html
(18) Benke, K. & Tomkins, B. (2017). Future food production systems: vertical farming and controlled-environment agriculture. Sustainability: Science, Practice and Policy, 13, 13-26
(19) The Science Explorer, You Could Be Eating Lab Grown Meat by 2020, http://thescienceexplorer.com/technology/you-could-be-eating-lab-grown-burgers-2020
(20) NewsWeek, Lab-Grown Beef Will Save the Planet- And Be a Billion Dollar Industry, http://www.newsweek.com/2016/03/11/lab-grown-beef-will-save-planet-and-be-billion-dollar-business-430980.html
(21) See more here: https://www.impossiblefoods.com
(22) Futurist Speaker, The Coming Meat Wars – 17 Mind Blowing Predictions, http://www.futuristspeaker.com/job-opportunities/the-coming-meat-wars-17-mind-blowing-predictions
(23) Peter Diamandis and Steven Kotler, Abundance: The Future is Better Than You Think, 2012, New York, Free Press
(24) See: Drexler, K. Eric. (2013). Radical abundance. New York: PublicAffairs
This post is part of a series on forecast areas with potential disruptive developments (positive and negative) shaping the futures of human needs and human services over the years to 2035. The final scenarios and main report will be released in the upcoming months here. And previously we wrote on job loss to automation and new jobs that automation will create, the growing values of equity and inclusion in the US, and housing options shaping human progress and human services.