There’s a food, energy & resource crunch looming and data can help

The world’s population is growing by 200,000 people a day. By 2050 it’s expected to reach 10 billion. So over the course of the next forty years the planet is expected to get a whole lot more crowded.

At the same time that the population will be surging, it will also grow wealthier, and expectations for quality of life will grow along with that wealth. That means more and more people will be looking to eat more protein (particularly animal proteins) as well as crops, grown by farmers that are facing mounting challenges. The growing population also be looking to use more energy to heat, cool and electrify their homes, drive (or have access to) more cars, and use more water.

Farm with tractorsThe trend is obvious: more people, using more, on one planet (unless Elon Musk gets us to Mars) means that not only will there be tight resources in the future, but that existing supplies of energy, food, water and materials need to be used with increasing efficiency. Underlying this global resource crunch is the increasing extreme weather and changing climate, which is in itself in part being pushed by greenhouse gas emissions from both fossil fuel-based energy use and the creation of food.

The positive note to all of this is that computing, networks and the explosion of data — tools that human beings created in the last couple of decades — can help with this resource management problem. And it is just that: a potentially boring and bureaucratic one filled with tracking and managing, like a planetary accountant with a super-smart filing cabinet.

Tracking resources down to the tiniest amount, managing the flow and delivery of resources, predicting how many resources will be needed and finding the best resources available are all tasks that are easily done by software, sensor and data networks, wireless communications and data management tools. The trend will effect all industries across agriculture, power, transportation, construction, and others.

Readying the lettuce bot to collect pictures.

Readying the lettuce bot to collect pictures.

Just today, agriculture giant Monsanto announced that it plans to spend close to a billion dollars on buying data analytics firm Climate Corporation. Climate Corp. has built a system that collects and analyses detailed data about U.S. agriculture land and weather, and sells products to farmers like weather insurance, crop insurance and software tools to enable farmers to maker better decisions about their crops.

As Climate Corp’s CEO David Friedberg put it in a call with the media, farmers on average make about 40 decisions every year on how to manage their fields. Those are decisions like where and when to increase water and fertilizer and what crops to grow according to the seasons and changing weather. Any type of data that can help farmers maximize their food output and minimize their water and fertilizer use is very valuable to them.

Far from the farmlands of the agriculture industry, growing participants in the sharing economy are leaning on software, networks and computing to manage shared resources. Car sharing programs are proliferating in cities with little parking and a lot of traffic. All users need to participate is a phone or computer to make the reservation, and a computerized key fob to swipe over the lock/unlock system on the car. Same goes with sharing living spaces and apartments on Airbnb (though that’s still a little more manual).

There’s a wealth of innovations that will emerge out of the resource management meets data/software space over the coming years. And these are actually something Silicon Valley is decent at investing in, in contrast to some of the failures in the traditional cleantech sector of the previous last 6 or 7 years.

Climate Corp was backed by top name VCs, like Google Ventures, Khosla Ventures, NEA, Index Ventures, Allen & Company, Atomico, and First Round Capital; Friedburg is a typical serial entrepreneur that commonly emerges from the Valley. This type of innovation and investment represents how the Valley can finally get cleantech right.