Rio+20: A lot happens in 20 years…

19 June 2012

Damian Ryan, Senior Policy Manager, The Climate Group, continues his analysis from Rio+20.

A common theme that has run through many of the sessions here at the Corporate Sustainability Forum (CSF) in Rio is the tremendous amount of change that has occurred over the last 20 years. Mentioning China’s rise or the exponential growth in information technology is almost clichéd.

But repetition doesn’t make this change any less true or profound. It is interesting for example to reflect on the difference in technology available at Rio 1.0 and 2.0.

Today, all the delegates at the CSF use ubiquitous smartphones to access information for the forum on a very clever little app. At a touch of a button you can find not only the agenda for the day, but also speaker details for every event, their bios and related materials such as reports. Attendees can also vote in polls, send emails and find out when the next bus is leaving. All this on a device little bigger than your average wallet. The app has allowed forum organisers, the UN Global Compact, to deliver an event that is effectively paper-free. Given the reams of paper normally consumed at UN events (I’m thinking of you UNFCCC COPs 1-17!) this isn’t a trivial achievement.

This enthusiasm for a garden variety app might sound a little naïve in today’s tech-savy world. But it does illustrate an important point about the speed of change. The reality is that we don’t have to go back to 1992 to find an app or smartphone free world. Even three years ago, smartphones were arguably still a device for early adoptors. Their use and acceptance was still some way off for the majority, who perhaps didn’t perceive the benefits such devices brought. Today we find ourselves in a similar position with many of the low-carbon, clean-tech products that tomorrow will be commonplace. These products are set to be equally as transformative, once that crucial tipping point has been reached.

Information technology has also enabled a democratic media revolution that few in 1992 could have imagined. Getting your message to the masses at Rio then meant cultivating the right journalist and convincing them of the merits of your story. Traditional media companies, whether TV, print or radio determined what was news and what wasn’t. Fast forward to 2012 and anyone with – yes a smartphone – a twitter account and the right social media network can now connect with millions in seconds. What once was controlled by a few is now owned by the many.

These changes are to be celebrated. They have helped unleash a wave of innovation that has created new business opportunities, while ensuring that those in positions of leadership are increasingly held to account. While the progress made in many areas of sustainability since Rio 1.0 has been far from sufficient, there is no shortage of inspiration to draw from the other areas of profound change we have witnessed to inspire us over the next 20 years.

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