Leveraging the Renaissance alchemy to reach our sustainability goals

Here is an ‘almost transcript’ of an introductory presentation I gave at a panel at MTL Connecte in October 2021. My fellow panellists and I were each given a key player from the Renaissance to introduce, assess their impact and bring out lessons learned from their Renaissance experience to our current sustainability challenges. As the CEO of an intelligence and content company, I had the pleasure of talking about Johannes Gutenberg, inventor of the printing press.

We all know that modern technology has enabled us to create vast amounts of content. But just how much? How many of my iPhone 12 minis do you think you would need to store all of the content produced in just one day? Would you believe it’s 2 billion of my iPhones to store the content produced in just one day. And it is growing(2).

That’s clearly too much for people to be able to manage and follow everything they need to follow.

At Curation we help our clients, some of the most impactful companies in the world, cut through this noise, identifying and following emerging themes with a particular focus on ESG and sustainability. As it is a complex area, we apply lateral thinking, add insights and try to be as concise and straight forward as possible – Ultimately to guide our customers to the right action and the right change.

I am particularly thrilled to be reflecting on the change that Johannes Gutenberg enabled during the Renaissance.

However, I’m going to start a little earlier than the Renaissance (300,000 years earlier) with the emergence of Homo sapiens(3) – a species that learnt stuff. They built tools, learnt how to hunt and learnt how to organise. Then around 125,000 years ago, they went on a one-way migration out of Africa(4) taking what they had learnt with them. But any subsequent learning will have stayed with that migrating group.

Over the ensuing centuries, human innovation blossomed with great empires and dynasties such as the Persian empire, the Han dynasty, the Greco-Bactrian empire through to the 14th century Mongol empire, all spawning great inventions. However, that ancient knowledge was largely isolated, not spreading across the globe and even getting lost.

Then everything changed in around 1439 with Johannes Gutenberg’s process for mass-producing printed books(5). It is no understatement to say that this invention enabled the renaissance, the scientific revolution and the Age of Enlightenment where the knowledge of those ancients were recovered.

Before the printing press, books were largely produced in Latin by scribes in monasteries and so not that readily available. But now you could make many more books than could ever have been made by hand. So ideas could be shared and accepted by many more people and that meant broader collaboration between academics and practitioners.

And there were some compounding effects too:

More books, meant more people reading, meaning more people needing eyeglasses(6).

In 1590 Hans and Zacharias Janssen realised that putting eyeglass lenses on top of each other had a magnifying effect which ultimately led to the microscope(7).

In 1665, Robert Hooke used a microscope to look at a sliver of cork and discovered cells(8)which ultimately led to the discipline of cellular biology, an important fundamental of medicine.

But, let’s wind the clock forward to today and considering our sustainability goals how does the Guttenberg Renaissance experience apply?

The Internet and social media are the modern printing press, enabling information sharing and collaboration on a huge scale. However, to achieve that scale, content has become bite sized – 60 second Instagram Reels, 3-minute TikTok videos, 280-character tweets. The impact of that has been to reduce often nuanced ideas or solutions into binaries – it’s either good or it’s bad or there is only one solution, a one size fits all. Disciplines and thinking have become quite siloed, in many ways the antithesis of what happened in the renaissance where art and science were regularly combined to arrive at a solution. Just look at Leonardo da Vinci.

But the truth of the matter is that some solutions are appropriate in some situations but not in others. Things are interconnected and so when we think about the challenges that achieving the UN’s Sustainable development goals are bringing, broad collaboration is critical. We need to think laterally and holistically. Let me give you just one example. Researchers from the Universities of Virginia and Maryland looked at scenarios heavily reliant on net emissions reduction technologies and they predicted that given competing demands for energy, water and land from bioenergy crops, food prices in the global south could jump 5x from 2010 levels by 2035(9).

Think about that for a moment. An endeavour designed to address Sustainable development goal 13 (Climate action) could have an adverse impact on Sustainable Development Goal 2 (zero hunger). We can actually see a live example in India right now where the country’s grain-based ethanol targets are causing food security concerns(10).

So let’s do some lateral thinking:

If there is competition between food and bioenergy crops, can we grow food in different ways so reducing that competition?

That could lead us to look at vertical farming and urban farming?

Let’s take that one step further. What about installing vertical farms in supermarkets growing certain produce on site, reducing transportation and packaging?(11)

And going back to the original problem of competition between crops, are there other ways to capture and sequester carbon that reduces the requirement for those bioenergy crops? We know about the potential of forests, but what about algae and specific seaweeds such as kelp that can store carbon, improve local biodiversity, grow quickly and can produce useful products from protein to antimicrobials(12) to building materials(13) to even producing power(14)?

If I can leave you all with one thing that I have learnt from the impact of Johannes Gutenberg’s invention it is this: We need to harness our collective intelligence to think holistically scaling existing solutions appropriately. In that way we can arrive at the right long term, sustainable solutions – and you need smart insights for that sustainable success which is where Curation comes in.

References and notes:

  1. MTL Connecte panel: “Leveraging the Renaissance alchemy to achieve our sustainability goals” – you can watch it here: https://youtu.be/e0HTFLpmcV0
    Bernard Lebelle (host): https://www.thegreenlink.co/
    Marie-Josee Privyk (Novisto): https://novisto.com/
    Kosta Peric (Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation): 
    Gabe Tavas (Symmetry Wood): 
    Khadija Nadi (DeltaQ):
  2. Source Statista (https://www.statista.com/statistics/871513/worldwide-data-created/) My iPhone has 64Gb of storage.
  3. Rito, T., Vieira, D., Soares Da Silva, M., Conde-Sousa, E., Pereira, L., Mellars, P., Richards, M., & Soares, P. (2019). A dispersal of Homo sapiens from southern to eastern Africa immediately preceded the out-of-Africa migration. Scientific Reports, 9(1), [4728]. https://doi.org/10.1038/s41598-019-41176-3
  4. Although commonly cited as 125,000 years ago, the Apidima Cave fossils suggest the migration could have started more than 210, 000 years ago. Harvati, K., Röding, C., Bosman, A.M. et al. Apidima Cave fossils provide earliest evidence of Homo sapiens in Eurasia. Nature 571, 500–504 (2019). https://doi.org/10.1038/s41586-019-1376-z
  5. Ok so rather than “inventing” the printing press, Gutenberg actually brought together a number of ancient technologies from 9th century China and further developments in 13thcentury Korea through to the Mongol empire. https://lithub.com/so-gutenberg-didnt-actually-invent-the-printing-press/
  6. Eyeglasses were invented in the late 13th century by the Italians, but the printing press accelerated their adoption.
  7. There is some debate that the inventor may have been Hans Lippershey. https://www.livescience.com/39649-who-invented-the-microscope.html
  8. https://www.nationalgeographic.org/encyclopedia/cell-theory/
  9. https://app.curationcorp.com/story/3B41BB20-D2C6-4270-9792-D32334620C13
  10. http://app.curationcorp.com/story/F940FED8-9A6D-4980-8DDD-F77F9F9E0BAD
  11. https://www.producebusinessuk.com/whole-foods-market-installing-vertical-farms-inside-london-supermarkets/
  12. For example, https://app.curationcorp.com/story/D9356818-6006-4C1E-8251-98C4B402C993
  13. Bouasria, Manal & El Mendili, Pr. Yassine & Benzaama, Mohammed-Hichem & Pralong, Valérie & Bardeau, J-F & Hennequart, Franck. (2021). Valorisation of stranded Laminaria digitata seaweed as an insulating earth material. Construction and Building Materials. 308. 125068. 10.1016/j.conbuildmat.2021.125068
  14. https://www.buildup.eu/en/practices/cases/biq-house-first-algae-powered-building-world

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