LANGUAGE OF THE ANTHROPOCENE
Harnessing the power of the Internet, software, and mobile technologies to shrink our environmental footprint
By Prachi Patel
In a light-filled, state-of-the-art coworking space two blocks from London’s Trafalgar Square, a few dozen web developers, entrepreneurs, and sustainability experts and enthusiasts gets together one Monday evening a month. Usually over a few beers, the group networks, shares, and bats around ideas for how software and web technologies can come into play in areas ranging from food sustainability and air pollution to data science and transport.
The London meetup group is an outcome of two phenomena that have grown up in parallel: a boom in clean technologies such as renewables, fuel-efficient cars, and green materials, and the rise of human-centered web systems and social media. The group’s goal is to harness the power of the Internet, software, and mobile technologies to bring about environmental change. It’s a vision shared by a growing number of determined enthusiasts around the world. And they have a word for the idea: cleanweb.
Cleanweb is an evolution of clean technologies from hardware to the softer, human side of things. “It’s about using digital technologies to address sustainability and resource challenges,” says Jack Townsend, who founded the 1,000-person strong London meetup group called Cleanweb UK.
Cleantech entrepreneur and investor Sunil Paul coined the term cleanweb in 2011. He called it the next stage of development for cleantech—a sort of Cleantech 2.0.
New words are a reflection of present-day human obsessions. Cleanweb then is a nod to a society in which social media and online networking are second nature, and people are aware of their burden on the environment.
Arlington, TX-based startup Opower is a perfect example. The company makes software that shows consumers how much energy they use compared to their neighbors. By using online gaming techniques and social behavior science, it promotes energy-efficient behavior. The company, recently acquired by software giant Oracle for $532 million, works with almost 100 utilities in nine countries. By changing people’s behavior, Opower has already saved enough energy to power 1 million homes for a year, mitigating 7.6 billion pounds of carbon dioxide emissions between 2007 and 2014.
Other examples of cleanweb abound. They include recycling and reuse websites such as eBay and thredUP; resource-sharing services like Airbnb and Zipcar; and smart-home energy management systems like the Nest thermostat. True to the cleanweb mantra, these solutions slash resource use. According to a 2010 study by engineers at the University of California, Berkeley, each carsharing vehicle displaces the carbon footprint of 9 to 13 owned cars. Airbnb reports that home sharing through their platform uses 78 percent less energy and 48 percent less water per guest per night compared to hotel stays in Europe.
These startups highlight the promise of the cleanweb. Traditional cleantech like solar panels or wind turbines needs huge capital investment, labs, and extensive manpower. In contrast, cleanweb harnesses ubiquitous mobile technologies, global social networks, cheap computing power, and mounds of data. That means cleanweb startups can get to market quickly with a modest amount of capital, making them a quick way to have a big impact on environmental problems.
Investors are taking note—cleanweb investments are on the rise. In a Fortune magazine commentary, Nicholas Eisenberger, the managing partner at New York-based venture capital and strategy firm Pure Energy Partners, pointed out that more than US$8 billion have been invested in 861 cleanweb deals in over 500 different companies since 2009. And of that total, nearly $2 billion was invested in the first half of 2014 alone, showing a remarkable acceleration of investment.
And while much cleanweb activity has centered in the US and Europe, the idea is spreading. In 2012, for instance, Indian venture capital company Infuse Ventures launched the PowerStart accelerator program to fund cleanweb startups in partnership with the Asian Development Bank and the Indian Institute of Management, Ahmedabad. The incubation program holds two month-long startup boot camps every year to find teams of committed entrepreneurs and investable startups, picking two of these early-stage ventures for seed investment.
Technology can have drawbacks. Indeed, information and communications technologies count for two percent of the world’s carbon emissions. On the flip side, social media can spur connections and free expression—Facebook and Twitter have become tools for empowerment and change. Cleanweb reflects this good side. It may not be long until the cleanweb thoroughly transforms the way we tackle our thorniest sustainability challenges.