How the web and mobile can help with the full planet problem

“The Earth is full,” says New York Times Thomas Friedman (s nyt) in a column this week. A similar sentiment has been echoed across the media in recent weeks, from new research on rising food prices and the warming climate, to reports that say feeding 9 billion people by 2050 will take a colossal organized effort. Reading these articles and headlines tends to spur a few reactions, including depression, apathy, and anger.
That last feeling is pretty useful when it comes to acting as a catalyst for changing behavior. And it can often lead to another, even more positive, step: empowerment, which comes from contemplating and adopting possible solutions. The problem of feeding, and providing water and energy to 9 billion people by 2050, many of which are expecting a quality of life as high as Americans (at the same time as we reduce the world’s carbon emissions) will require many, many technology solutions.
While a lot of these tech solutions are expensive, and will take decades to deploy (clean power or, say, Bloom Energy’s dream of distributed home fuel cells), in the near term, there are technology solutions we’re using everyday that can help deliver the use of resources more efficiently, and reduce personal energy and fuel consumption: the Internet and cell phones.
In a unique way, the web can act as a sort of operating system for physical “stuff.” More and more people are joining car-sharing networks, giving up their cars to use shared cars (via Zipcar (s ZIP), City Car Share or even RelayRides), and turning to web systems and mobile apps to manage the reservation systems for those cars. Joining car-sharing services tends to remove cars from the roads and uses each car far more efficiently. With the successful IPO of Zipcar and the emergence of second-generation, peer-to-peer car sharing, the year of using cars as a service has really arrived.
Other new sites are rapidly emerging, too, to help people share other stuff like housing space (AirBnB), tools and items with neighbors (Neighborhood Goods), second-hand baby clothes (ThredUP) or kids toys (Toygaroo). I think the web sharing movement is starting to reach a tipping point — as I wrote in this article last week. Pioneers of these newer sites are web companies like eBay (s EBAY), and Craigslist, which helped get us used to bartering with people online.
Shiply is an almost three-year-old startup from the U.K. that uses available extra space in moving vans and trucks to help people ship goods for a low cost. Shiply founder Robert Matthams explained to me in an interview that transport companies bid on shipping the items via an eBay-style web auction system, and the system enables the shipped goods to piggyback on trips already being taken, thus reducing the need for extra trips. Shiply has helped reduce almost 10 million kg of carbon emissions to date.
In Friedmand’s column this week, he interviews author and environmentalist Paul Gilding, who Friedman says asserts that eventually “We will realize … that the consumer-driven growth model is broken and we have to move to a more happiness-driven growth model, based on people working less and owning less.” Owning less perhaps in technical sense, but maybe (in an optimistic world) using a similar amount of shared resources via this new sharing economy, and using them in a smarter way.
The web and mobile, of course, aren’t magic bullets for freeing the world from the problem of how to manage 9 billion people by 2050. But they are key tools that can help us get ready. And that’s one solution I can rely on in the short term, while I read the daily headlines and waver between feelings of depression, apathy and anger.
Image courtesy of Zipcar, Zimrides.