How resource scarcity is driving the third Industrial Revolution

| Interview

Will shortages of energy, materials, food, and water put the brakes on global growth? Far from it. By combining information technology with industrial technology, as well as through harnessing materials science and biotechnology, innovators are showing that it is possible to produce more with less and to access resources at far lower costs. In this video interview, former McKinsey director Stefan Heck and director Matt Rogers, coauthors of the new book Resource Revolution: How to Capture the Biggest Business Opportunity in a Century (New Harvest, April 2014), argue that to be successful, managers will need to think in new ways about products, services, and technologies. An edited transcript of their remarks follows.

Interview transcript

Stefan Heck: I am an optimist, because while we’re facing this unprecedented set of constraints—in food, in land, in energy, in water, all across the planet, with 6 billion people going to 9 billion people all consuming resources—that really just represents a challenge. It’s a challenge to humanity, a challenge to ingenuity, to innovation.

Matt Rogers: What you begin to see is the writing on the wall that, rather than this great threat to the global economy, what we’ve seen is a broad arc that really is now changing in the most fundamental way it has in a hundred years.

From crisis to opportunity

Matt Rogers: Starting in about 2005, we began to see a rapid run-up in energy prices, in gold prices, in copper, aluminum, steel prices—all driven by the realization that 2.5 billion people were going to enter the middle class and that there weren’t enough resources to go around. And that began to worry everyone, particularly around economic growth. How were you going to sustain economic growth when you have these kinds of commodity prices essentially slowing the economy down?

And it began to change around 2010, 2011, when all of a sudden we began to realize that, “Hey, this high resource price thing may in fact be the beginning of a massive opportunity rather than the biggest threat to the global economy. It might be the biggest opportunity we’ve seen in maybe a hundred years.”

What we began to see was a set of trends that were moving very, very fast, that were, in many cases, driven by the combination of industrial technology and information technology. The most striking one was the development of unconventional gas first, now unconventional oil, in the United States. This was something that no one saw coming.

In 2007, we were sure that the United States was going to be a massive importer of natural gas. We only had a few years left of natural gas, and we were going to have to bring it in from all over the world. And by 2011, we realized that the US was going to be the largest producer of natural gas in the world and had so much natural gas that we were going to start exporting it. In 5 years’ time, what usually takes 50 years to develop, in 5 years we all of a sudden were taken by surprise by this massive change.

At the same time, we saw solar prices going from $8/watt peak, down to $4/watt peak, down to $2.50/watt peak. That kind of change in the course of three or four years, again, took everyone by surprise. So two markets—the natural-gas market and the solar market—both growing at 20 percent plus per annum. In the energy world, we’re used to markets that grow at 3 percent per annum as being really fast. And now we have two massive markets growing at 20 percent per annum, driven by the same underlying technological fundamentals.

Stefan Heck: What’s important to realize is that the technologies we’re talking about changing in this way are really basic infrastructure technologies. And because of that, they have this spillover benefit for the productivity of the economy as a whole.

When we change the cost of a structure—in housing or an office—that has a knock-on effect on all these industries that use or take advantage of buildings. When we change the economics of the resources required for transportation and for movement of goods, every industry that ships anything anywhere in the world benefits from that.

When we virtualize a process to, instead of physically moving a good, turn it into a service delivered over your phone or over the Internet remotely, that, again, spreads to many, many industries, from elevators to automobiles to mining companies. They’re all now taking advantage of the fact that I can do things remotely. That’s why it’s very exciting. We’re just at the beginning, the inception point, of these new materials and new IT technologies beginning to affect many, many other industrial domains.

Matt Rogers: The bringing together of information technology with industrial technology, the application of biological technologies to resource problems, the use of new materials and nanoscale science to these industrial and resource-productivity challenges all of a sudden enables us to capture the kind of productivity growth that we need, and more—so that we can grow the economy while not actually increasing the demand for resources nearly as significantly, or while making the production of resources much cheaper than anyone expects.

Meet the car of the (near) future

Stefan Heck: The recent history has been very interesting. The learning curve for batteries has doubled from about 4 percent improvement, with every doubling of capacity, to 8 percent. Eight percent starts to be a very significant slope. It’s like compounding interest when you make an investment, right? Eight percent double the rate actually gets you on a very different trajectory.

And that’s the piece that people have underestimated. By leapfrogging from smartphones into power tools and now into automobiles, and then ultimately from automobiles into grid storage, batteries are going to show up everywhere.

And when we look at vehicles, the amount of range that we can get out of a battery has gone from 50 miles to, in the latest cars, about 200 miles, 250 miles. The speed is already higher than you can legally go on any highway, so there’s no restriction there. It used to be golf cart speed, and now we’re talking about race cars.

So the last dimension that remains is the cost. Right now, it’s still expensive. A battery roughly doubles the price of the car. But if you project that 8 percent learning curve forward—and there are very good, detailed manufacturing and technology reasons to believe that that’s achievable—that improvement basically gets to the point where electrification is a relatively inexpensive add-on option, much like a navigation system or a nice stereo for your car—couple thousand dollars.

And at that point, given the performance benefits, the environmental benefits, the fact that the car is completely quiet, that you accelerate faster, that you consume no fuel when you’re stopped at a street light, why not go electric?

It’s also the integration of that particular product into its ecosystem whole. So we’re no longer just designing a car and shipping it. We’re actually thinking about the car and the way it interacts. The way it parks: Can it self-park now? Can it interact with parking garages? The way it charges, if it’s an electric car. And there’s a big difference between plugging in just when you arrive and actually charging at night. That’s a huge difference for the grid. So the car has to behave nicely in order to not bring the grid down, and actually enhance the grid rather than diminish the grid’s performance.

Then also the way we drive, right? Whether it’s the basics that we’re already all familiar with, of having a navigation system, or things that are yet to come. We’ve seen the Google car navigate and drive on its own. Those sensors that allow that to happen are as expensive as the car itself today.

But they’re actually on the fastest cost reduction that I’ve seen. It’s about a 40 percent learning curve, which means it almost halves with every year. So we’re going to have that as a very inexpensive add-on option.

And so then that means that the car will have to think about its environment, will have to know about pedestrians, will have to think about traffic intersections. And so then the kind of systems-integration challenge isn’t just making the car run, it’s actually making the city run.

Matt Rogers: The standard automobile is utilized less than 4 percent of the time. The economics become quite interesting when you can begin to get that utilization even up to 10 percent of the time—no less 20 percent or 30 percent of the time, which Zipcar and others are able to do.

So you see the convergence of the Tesla and the electric motor with Google and the driverless car and all the technologies that come with that and with the kind of dispatch technologies that Uber and Lyft and Zipcar have. And you begin to see a whole different approach to transportation that we’re just beginning to see today.

What managers need to know

Matt Rogers: We went for almost a hundred years where each year, on average, commodity prices got cheaper. So if you were a manager, you kind of had a little advantage because next year, the commodity price inputs were going to be about 2 percent cheaper. And you could get about 1 percent or 2 percent better in your performance and be just fine.

We’re now going into a period where managerially you have to be able to see things coming from wholly different directions. You have to see your neighboring industry showing up in your industry. You have to see trends that are coming at you at 20 percent per annum change rather than 2 percent or 3 percent per annum change. You have to be able to do substitution of materials very fast so that you avoid the high-risk ones and you capture much lower-risk ones. You have to create these kinds of circular chains where you can recycle a lot of the material that you produce so that it doesn’t cost you nearly as much. For example, “I need to bring software and embed it into my hardware.”

Stefan Heck: You need a mixture of talent. You need not only mechanical engineers but chemical engineers, software engineers, electrical engineers, people who understand psychophysics and human behavior.

But beyond just the skill sets, the real challenge is that the complexity of the device has increased. So making the trade-offs between the disciplines, between the different features, has become more complicated.

The thinking really has to expand. It has to expand beyond the traditional industry that you’re in, because you have to suddenly include innovations and changes that come from your suppliers. You have to include changes in the rest of the ecosystem that your product gets deployed in.

You may have other industries that begin to influence it. So a lot of the technology for autonomy comes from aerospace, comes from the military. So, again, there’s that collision of different industries that are suddenly beginning to change each other. And then I think the other interesting dimension is it’s going to expand across time.

Increasingly, we need to think about the full lifetime. What happens during usage? What happens when there’s a breakdown? How do we do maintenance? A lot of companies are now doing systems engineering to improve the ease of maintenance, to make that possible remotely so that I don’t even have to send a person out to fix whatever the product is.

And then the end of life: being able to upgrade it, being able to reuse it, forms of circularity that allow you to get much more life and productivity out of the same device. And then ultimately, being able to take it apart, recycle it, and reuse materials and components. So we have to think about systems integration not just horizontally into other pieces of the ecosystem but actually forward in time and back in time, to think about what does all this mean for our supply chain and for future use?

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