Mid-Course Correction: Toward a Sustainable Enterprise

Article excerpt

I. THE SHAPE OF THE NEXT INDUSTRIAL REVOLUTION

On a Thursday in April 1996, I was in Boston on a panel speaking to 500 people. The subject was "Planning for Tomorrow," and the panel was about technology's role and impact on the strategic decisions companies make. The discussion was sponsored by the International Interior Designers Association. The audience was about one-third interior designers and two-thirds business people, including some of my company's competitors.

While the subject of the discussion was technology, I think that the audience's understanding of the term probably had to do with the technology in the offices where most of them worked: information technology such as office automation, computers, e-mail, radio mail, laptops, word processors, CADs, telephones, voice mail, video conferencing, faxes, Internet, intranets, websites, and so on. There is an infinite variety of gadgets, networks and servers that helps us do arithmetic faster and store, manipulate, retrieve, transmit, receive and examine information--in written, spoken, picture and virtual reality form. Technology gives us faster, surer information when, where and in whatever form we want it. Understanding the information and using it wisely, of course, is then up to you and me. Technology does not do that for us. We're on our own in developing the wisdom, knowledge and understanding to make the information useful.

That's my mental map of what most people--especially people who work in offices--think and mean when they talk about technology. But the definition of "technology" in The American College Dictionary states:

1a. The application of science, especially to industrial or commercial objectives.

1b. The entire body of methods and materials used to achieve such industrial or commercial objectives.

2. The body of knowledge available to a civilization that is of use in fashioning implements, practicing manual arts and skills, and extracting [emphasis added] or collecting materials.

There's quite a lot there that we don't find if we just look in the office: technology that's not electronic, and not about storing, manipulating, sending, receiving, and examining information. There's chemical, mechanical, electrical, civil, aeronautical and space technologies, construction, metallurgical, textile, nuclear, agricultural, automotive technologies, and now even biotechnology.

I illustrated the point for my Boston audience with an example: I told them that I run a manufacturing company that produced and sold $802 million worth of carpets, textiles, chemicals, and architectural flooring in 1995 for commercial and institutional interiors. We have offices chock full of technology: mainframes, PCs, networks, you name it. And people who are hotelling and teaming, working anywhere, any time. Information technology makes it all possible, hooking us up around the world.

But we also operate factories that process raw materials into finished, manufactured products, and our raw material suppliers also operate factories. When we first examined the entire supply chain comprehensively, we found that in 1995 the technologies of our factories and our suppliers, together, extracted from the earth and processed 1.224 billion pounds of material so we could produce those $802 million worth of products--1.224 billion pounds of materials from Earth's stored natural capital. I asked for that calculation and when the answer came back, I was staggered.

Of the roughly 1.2 billion pounds, about 400 million pounds was relatively abundant inorganic materials, mostly mined from the Earth's lithosphere (its crust), and 800 million pounds was petro-based, coming from either oil, coal, or natural gas. Roughly two-thirds of that 800 million pounds of irreplaceable, non-renewable, exhaustible, precious natural resource was burned up to produce the energy to convert the other one-third, along with the 400 million pounds of inorganic material, into products. …

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