Digging in to Megatrends
Today, it can feel like there's always another catastrophe right around the corner. Whether its a growing policy of isolation among nation-states or the dangers of climate change made manifest, these megatrends influence many aspects of our day-to-day lives. Nancy Novak, Compass Datacenter's Chief Innovation Officer joined WTCI for a panel discussion on megatrends as part of the AGILE Global Innovation Series, but the conversation was too robust for just one panel. So she sat down with us to dig deeper into the most salient megatrends of our time.
WTCI: One future trend that’s been discussed is hyper urbanization and the rise of “megacities.” Is this something that’s realistic in the future? If so, where are we putting them?
Nancy: I do believe it’s definitely in our future. Even before COVID-19, 70% of our population here in the U.S. was in the urban environment. COVID kind of softened that a little bit because people were trying to get away from the crowded areas just out of panic. But the trend is still there. The interesting challenge is going to be whether you have a greenfield city like the one that Bill Gates is trying to invest in over in Arizona, or whether you’re trying to renovate and upgrade an existing urban environment. The latter is much more challenging.
WTCI: We’re already starting to retrofit some cities, but there are other aspects of infrastructure. How do we need to be working to prepare America’s infrastructure for this kind of new future?
Nancy: We might have to leapfrog ahead of ourselves a little bit here. What the infrastructure people see every day and think about is the hard connected infrastructure. Whether its bridges, roadways, freeways, fiber lines, power lines or things connecting the grid. In many cases, if we leapfrog ahead like some of the emerging markets are doing, it’s going to be we don’t need the roadway or the bridge or the fiber line because we can now use satellite dishes and things that will help us move into the future without having to have that hard infrastructure that we are currently trying to upgrade everywhere.
WTCI: If you’re talking about leapfrogging, is that abandoning those kinds of older infrastructures?
Nancy: I think it’s going to depend on a lot of things. If I say infrastructure is abandoned, if it’s a pipeline that’s corroded that we no longer need, obviously we abandon it. If it’s a bridge that is used all the time, then we need to upgrade that so people can still use it. And we love the fact, from a national security standpoint, that here in the U.S., we’re connected with hard infrastructure.
In many cases, like an older facility that doesn’t have any historic importance to it, it might be better to take it down and build again with more sustainable materials. You have to be very careful because a lot of folks who are not in the build environment have this belief that it’s always going to be more sustainable and less cost if you reuse a building and that’s not necessarily the case.
WTCI: Speaking of infrastructure, your company builds data centers. Our digital infrastructure is still lacking internationally, and even here in the U.S. And now we’ve got plans for internet delivery via satellite. What does that mean for our digital infrastructure? Does that mean that everybody is now going to be online?
Nancy: In the U.S., we still have about 25% of our population that doesn’t have access. That’s quite a bit for a country as progressive as the United States. And we are currently in the lead when it comes to internet access per capita, but we do have some countries that are catching up fast, like China. When we get satellites, which we have quite a few of them, it will be easier to reach people on a global scale. But even when you bounce signals off a satellite to transfer data, you still need a place to put the data. And the other thing is even if you have access to this information or to the internet, you still need the tools, the equipment, the IT support and the literacy abilities. You need to be able to read it in your language. There are many, many layers to being able to provide access and opportunity to all of the human population.
WTCI: What about the physical resource demand for all these types of things, not only in terms of the metals that go into the phones that we use to access the internet, but things like cooling and data centers? What are we doing to alleviate that demand?
Nancy: There are a lot of things being done about this. For those who have been in the business, this isn’t really a surprise. We’ve seen this coming. Demand is something that always drives ingenuity. There are the resources that get involved in energy consumption and energy storage. Lots of amazing technologies on long duration energy storage that are being studied right now and being put into practice so that we cannot only make these devices but then sustain those so that we can use them. It’s a big topic, but I’m very hopeful about the fact that the mother of invention is the need for it. You’re going to be seeing other ways for us to meet our demands with supply.
WTCI: What are you excited about right now?
Nancy: I feel very optimistic and excited about figuring out new energy sources. I think long duration energy storage that’s clean and sustainable is right on the horizon. I feel like it’s very close to being able to pivot and utilize different technologies that aren’t based on fossil fuels or polluting the environment, which I think is definitely going to make a difference in global warming. I also am excited about if we can offer the internet on a grander scale. If we can really look at trying to equalize and have the internet become the great equalizer versus the great divider then humankind has an opportunity to be this one planet. I know this sounds a little fluffy, but that makes me feel good!
WTCI: I know there’s a lot of doom and gloom out there, so it’s nice to have some positivity.
Nancy: Yes! We have to be thinking through those lenses, because there’s a lot of good happening. Our brains are interesting, we have these synapses to track what we feel and how we empathize. And so we can try to focus on those positive, innovative ways to becoming more inclusive and being more open and providing opportunity to all. The pie will just get bigger and it will be a better place to live here on earth.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.