Rearchitecting a Sustainable World Through Technology and Innovation


Amid growing environmental concerns, the need for innovation has never been greater. And when it comes to creating new solutions that have a real impact on the world, what’s required is a confluence of the right technology, the right risk-taking mindset and the right amount of teamwork, according to iPhone and iPod co-inventor Tony Fadell.

The pioneering engineer, entrepreneur, investor and New York Times best-selling author recently sat down with Tencent’s Chief eXploration Officer David Wallerstein to talk about how technological innovations can tackle sustainability issues and fundamentally rebuild the world with a greener framework that benefits all of humanity.

The discussion was livestreamed as part of the Tencent Dialogue series, a knowledge-sharing platform for some of the most important issues of our time.

Taking Action with Technology

While there’s a real urgency needed to address the problems plaguing our planet, Fadell said he was optimistic about the prospects of solving these challenges, given the technology we have today.

For his part, Fadell has been working on climate-related innovations for over a decade. In 2011, he launched the Nest Thermostat – a smart home appliance that reduced energy consumption by optimizing temperatures in homes and workplaces – and he continues to invest in many companies working in the sustainability space.

“We have the technology, and in some cases, technology that was even invented in the early 1900s, that can be deployed today to fix the climate crisis,” Fadell said. What’s needed, he continued, is the will to use these resources to create marketable solutions, and this determination is something that he’s seen more of in light of the pandemic and other events that “woke up a lot of people to climate change.”

“We are starting to see a lot of mobilization, which is giving me a lot of hope,” he said.

Kick-starting Industrial Revolution 2.0

To tackle the environmental crisis, innovations will need to fundamentally reinvent current systems and structures that were designed without sustainability in mind.

For example, as a direct result of inefficient industrial processes, 60 percent of generated energy goes to waste as does an estimated 30 to 40 percent of all food that we grow and process.

These staggering figures point to the need for society as a whole to embrace efficiency solutions, Wallerstein said, adding that companies could leverage innovations like software technology and artificial intelligence to make smarter decisions and refine their industrial processes to better identify and eliminate waste.

Fadell also highlighted the need to decarbonize traditional industries, such as steel and cement production, by using clean energy sources such as hydrogen and electricity instead of fossil fuels.

“What we’re talking about is a reboot of almost all infrastructure on this planet that has been built over the last 150 years,” Fadell explained. “The opportunity is off the charts. We have to go to industrial revolution 2.0. That means all the things that move us, whether that’s in the air, in the sea, under the sea, on the land – all of those things are going to change. All the ways we fuel those things or put energy into them are going to change. How we create the food we eat … Those are also going to change and be revolutionized,” he said, adding that innovators – or who he calls “builders” – are in the perfect place in human history to make that difference.

While rearchitecting these systems may seem like a massive undertaking, the benefits of implementing intelligent, “planetary-neutral infrastructure” are far reaching and long lasting, Wallerstein explained. “If we can make this transition successfully, we’re going to be in a very stable position as human species.”

Leading with Real-World Solutions

Both Wallerstein and Fadell stressed the importance of backing the right founders – those who are diligent about the sectors they are in and have both the dedication and skills to rally support and organize resources around their solutions to get them “from the lab into life,” where they can make an actual impact.

They urged leaders to look beyond the problem statement and their discipline and to take a holistic view of their products, whether it’s in terms of their teams, technology, business ramifications, marketability or customer friendliness.

Fadell also advocated a risk-embracing attitude for founders and pointed to what he calls the “do, fail, learn” philosophy.

“In other words, you do something that you’re curious about you try to build something. Most likely, the first time you try, you’re going to fail. And then if you try long enough and learn from your mistakes, hopefully, you’ll get to success. That is how life works in all regards. If you want to be successful, you’re going to have to take risks and try things that no one has seen before, because you’re going to build things and create things that the world has never seen before,” he said.

The fearlessness to push the boundaries by attempting the unknown is what sets leaders apart from followers, Fadell added. Citing his own experience with creating the first iPod, Fadell said that his team was back in the design studio within minutes of the launch announcement to work on the product’s second iteration. “You can’t rest on your laurels,” he said. “It’s always about challenging yourself, leapfrogging yourself.”

A Win-Win-Win Situation

Protecting the planet is a moral obligation for humankind, but there are also plenty of other incentives for going green.

“If you can solve the climate crisis in whatever way you can, there is tons of money in it,” Fadell said, adding that it’s in businesses’ best interests to supplant outdated practices with more efficient ones that do less harm to the planet, customers and companies’ bottom lines.

Wallerstein echoed this sentiment, saying that while the environmental crisis poses challenges for society, there’s every reason to embrace this moment because of the pure opportunity there is to reinvent the world in a better and smarter way for everyone.

Achieving this vision, however, will require not just technology and innovation but also cooperation across all levels of society, be it governments, companies, investors or individuals.

“We need to get really good at building the cooperation muscle,” Wallerstein said, adding that a failure to do so will result in missed opportunities every day for humanity to tackle the impending threats to our planet.

“We need to work together to find these solutions,” Fadell said in agreement. “None of us have all the resources. We have to work together if we’re going to solve this existential crisis.”