Industrial revolutions take place when energy and communication technologies come together to ignite broad-scale changes. This happened with coal, the printed press and steam engines in the late 18th century (1st Industrial Revolution), oil, electricity and the automobile in the 20th century (2nd Industrial Revolution), and it is poised to take place once again with renewable energy and internet technologies in the 21st century.
This Third Industrial Revolution, thus named by author Jeremy Rifkin, will initiate far more than technological changes in society. As the cost of renewable energy production decreases fast, more people are quickly becoming able to produce their own energy. Communities in urban and rural areas are coming together to cover entry costs and produce collectively, too. With the introduction of smart grids, energy efficiency grows and numerous appliances are being developed with digital processing and network connectivity to establish an Internet of Things.
While this reality may at first appear to be far-fetched, it is in fact rapidly coming to be.
This poses enormous opportunities and challenges. One of the core features of these new, fledging energy systems is decentralisation and lateral power. Energy will be no longer produced by huge conglomerates and distributed to the population, but instead produced by a large number of small-scale units and distributed laterally. What does this mean to energy governance? We should not only think of the policy instruments that can help advance such systems, but also of the new socio-economic (and, thus, political) reality that emerges.
How does such an energy transition affect the promotion of sustainability more broadly? Once 3D printers and other such innovations become more widely available, how could that be used to create inclusive “green” value-chains and a bio-based economy? “Lateral power” may become a metaphor not just for energy transmission but acquire also a socio-political sense. Understanding how this affects — and could be best harnessed for — the promotion of sustainable development is fundamental.
Given my expertise and experience on renewable energy policies and governance, I find this to be one of the most relevant and exciting areas of sustainability today.