The world passed a singularly significant milestone ten months into 2011. Just weeks before the UN Climate Change Conference met in Durban, the number of souls inhabiting the planet reached seven billion. The single biggest question which confronts policy makers, business and humanity was thrown into sharp relief: how on earth do we steward resources to enable all those people to thrive?
The challenge may seem daunting, but there are grounds for optimism.
Advances in science and technology have helped us to deal with many of the issues arising from population growth to date. Those advances must now combine with the insight that underlies the concept of sustainability: whatever we do to sustain humankind, we must do it in a way that does not harm the planet's ecosystem.
This is where digital systems, connected thanks to investment in telecoms infrastructure, have such a large part to play. To conserve resource, it helps first to measure it, and the rate at which we are using it. We need 'smart' systems that limit waste by equating the use of resources more closely with actual need. We need solutions that bear down on the need for travel and ensure energy use is minimised at home or on the go.
So, for example, installing so-called 'smart meters' in homes and businesses across the globe has the potential to deliver real-time consumption data, allowing energy companies to fine-tune their production for maximum efficiency.
Intelligent building services will further help us to make energy waste a thing of the past. Lights, air-conditioning and heating can be fine-tuned and adjusted automatically to a far greater degree than before. Services can be switched off by smart systems when they detect nobody is in a room. When this happens at scale, energy demands on power grids can be curtailed. A key feature of our future will be digital systems enabling humankind to better assess and register energy need, as a step towards meeting it with minimal waste or drain on our environment.
Similar innovations are possible when it comes to limiting energy use in transport. A return transatlantic flight throws the equivalent of about ten tons of carbon into the upper atmosphere - about the same amount as is generated by the average western home during an entire year.
The need to fly to meetings can be reduced by state-of-the-art video conferencing, and by emerging systems that allow collaboration and co-working in such a way that people many miles apart feel they are sharing the same room.
Where transport is necessary, we can already anticipate the next generation of satellite navigation route-planning systems - those that will take into account data about weather and traffic. Quite apart from benefits for individuals, businesses will move goods faster and with fewer emissions.
Britain is preparing for this future. We should have the best broadband in Europe by 2015. But the challenge is more than a national one. Smart systems are needed worldwide if we are to feed, house, clothe, educate and employ the seven billion people in the world.
Some parts of the planet are sparsely populated or, due to topography, hard to reach with superfast digital systems. Companies alone may not be able to justify all of the investment required. Partnership with governments and supranational bodies are needed if we are to get this right.
Doing so ought not to be beyond the wit of our growing species. As at previous stages of history, we shall find new ways to stretch resources in order to meet the needs of our growing population.
Thought Leadership credentials
- BT is the world's oldest telecoms company. Its origins date back to the establishment of the first telecoms companies in the UK, such as the Electric Telegraph Company, which was established in 1846.
- BT is running field trials to test the UK's first next generation 4G technology, which will potentially bring fast broadband to the most remote parts of the UK.
- BT is the provider of technology that handles telephone voting for all major programmes including The X Factor and Britain's Got Talent.