Sustainability: A Technological Challenge


“Achieving sustainability is fundamentally a technological challenge. This is why GE has doubled its investment in R&D. How can industry meet the world’s needs for energy, transport, water, food and healthcare, and do it within environmental limits? Technology is the only answer.”

Jeffrey Immelt, CEO

In 2012, as part of our stakeholder engagement, GE focused on the role of technology in addressing sustainability challenges. We brought together our Citizenship Advisory Panel with technology leaders from GE’s Global Research centers for a convening with public policy, research and civil society experts. The Panel also spent time with our Chairman and CEO, Jeffrey Immelt, to discuss these issues.

Success in solving today’s tough problems is not guaranteed. As a global community, we are in a race against time, as our former ways of managing ecosystems and social and economic systems no longer suffice. We see sustainability as a technological challenge with three key dimensions. First, we need to apply technological ingenuity to the world’s toughest problems, not just to the easiest, most interesting or most immediately profitable ones. Second, the solutions we develop must not carry unacceptable financial, environmental and social costs. Finally, the benefits of such solutions need to be broadly accessible.

We need to apply the world’s smartest minds to its toughest challenges. At GE, there are 36,000 technologists and researchers, including nearly 3,000 scientists and engineers at our Global Research centers in New York, Bangalore, Shanghai, Munich and Rio de Janeiro. Their work, spanning 10 global labs, responds to both the immediate and long-term needs identified by GE businesses, and it also seeks to demonstrate possibilities that the businesses have not even thought about yet. Beyond these labs, we’ve established a global network of Local Growth Teams; collaborations with customers and joint venture partners; partnerships with national labs, universities and startups; and relationships with environmental and civil society organizations. Our ecomagination and healthymagination innovation challenges have expanded this network even further, opening the door to new ideas and new collaborations.

However, as Senior Vice President and Chief Technology Officer Mark Little has highlighted, we are still a long way from being able to say that technology has the answers. Regarding energy, for example, he told the expert convening: “With today’s technologies and fuel sources, we can offer energy that is low-cost, abundant or “clean,” but there are trade-offs and choices. We cannot offer all three, which is what the public and politicians would like. We don’t yet know how to crack this.” On expanding the ability of technology to serve the needs of the poorest communities, Little said: “We don’t yet have all the technologies to deliver with high quality and at low cost to all corners of the world. I used to think that global technology teams combined with local marketing teams could bridge the gap. I now know that is false. We need local teams creating products that are suitable to their markets.”

In healthcare, the challenge of addressing the trade-offs between cost, access and quality has been termed the “iron triangle.” We think this principle can be extended to other sectors. Energy, transport and food, as well as many other critical systems, are struggling to deliver on these three imperatives in the face of environmental limits. Incremental progress in making existing technologies and business models more efficient can yield some great results, but not enough.

Our discussions with external experts focused on the challenges of getting beyond incremental progress, toward creating the technological and business innovations that can reshape our cities, supply chains and industries so that 7 billion people can enjoy health, prosperity and comfort, without destroying the health of our natural ecosystems. The critical questions raised were, How can we:

  • meet a broad set of needs, including in the poorest communities, through accessible solutions and services?
  • bring down the cost of clean energy and other sustainable technologies, until they become the obvious choice?
  • anticipate and mitigate the risks of unintended impacts from new technologies?

Expanding Access

The experts stressed that reaching the “base of the pyramid”—by creating energy, water, healthcare and other technologies to serve the majority of the world’s people—must be the focus of mainstream research and business development and shouldn’t be seen as a special category. They called on GE to finish the job that Edison started and work together with others to achieve universal access to modern electricity.

GE’s Local Growth Teams are working to develop solutions that respond to local needs, creating breakthroughs such as the Vscan handheld ultrasound scanner and Mac 400 ECG machine that can be carried in a backpack, bringing modern diagnosis to rural villages. Participants at the convening suggested that nontraditional partnerships are where the magic happens. The group urged GE to extend its practice of reverse innovation from its labs, technology networks and university partnerships into partnerships with social entrepreneurs to develop new ways of reaching customers and meeting needs. It was pointed out that people in rural villages are already developing unique solutions to everyday problems, but that they don’t have the resources and capabilities to commercialize them and bring them to scale. This is where GE can play a role by providing expertise and business acumen.

Reducing Cost

Advances in technology have brought down the cost of both wind and solar power, to the point where utility-scale wind is now commercially competitive in some regions and solar has the potential to be as inexpensive for households as buying from the grid. However, in many places, fossil fuels still remain the cheapest option. “We are committed to clean energy,” said Immelt, “but energy is hard without public policy.” 

Energy experts at the convening agreed that lowering the cost of supplying clean energy through existing technologies depends on achieving scale. This is also contingent on finance, and financing is influenced by public policy. Bringing down the cost, therefore, depends on “working where the willingness is,” whether this is with ambitious states or cities, economies that recognize the green economy opportunity, or corporations that see the need to address energy and water risks. An estimated 1 billion people are already covered by carbon markets, or will be soon. From California to Europe, Korea to Australia, and across five provinces of China, this represents a large-scale opportunity for clean-technology deployment.

Technological breakthroughs have the potential to shift the current relationship between policy, finance and technology. For example, high-efficiency batteries combined with lower-cost solar cells could make it possible for many households to be energy-self-sufficient, eliminating the need to contract with energy utilities altogether. Developing smaller and more powerful batteries to enable power on-demand has been a key focus of GE’s research.

Redefining Quality

Quality is perhaps the area of greatest uncertainty and possibility. Ambient energy harvesting and wireless electronics offer the potential for what GE has coined the “Industrial Internet,” in which intelligent products would converse directly with one another. This creates powerful possibilities for healthcare, assisted living for older people and logistics coordination, to name but three areas. GE’s new Global Software Center, in San Ramon, California, is concentrating on these possibilities. In turn, the Industrial Internet brings with it a new generation of ethical, governance and human rights concerns, which we must be aware of to ensure that privacy and freedoms are not eroded or technologies misused.

What we can imagine, we can make happen

GE’s technological depth and ability to cross-fertilize between different businesses means that we are able to find solutions in unexpected places. For example, the GE Durathon™ batteries used for remote telecom base stations and home power systems were first developed to meet the demands of hybrid locomotives. Similarly, imaging techniques developed for medical scanning also can be used for diagnosing faults in industrial machinery, and composite materials used in aircraft wings have enabled the development of stronger, larger wind turbines that deliver more power, more cost effectively. These kinds of linkages are crucial, as the issues of sustainability, food, water, energy and healthcare themselves are also tightly intertwined.

GE’s healthymagination and ecomagination strategies are aimed at developing and highlighting new solutions; this thinking is extending throughout our product development pipeline. We are increasingly assessing lifecycle environmental impacts in the early stage of product design and development. And 25% of budget for the Global Research centers is not tied to immediate business imperatives but rather focused on future possibilities.

In conclusion, success depends on combining innovation with finance, expertise and policy, sometimes between competitors and across nations whose shorter-term interests do not always coincide.

Today, there is a gap between what can be imagined on the technology front and what can currently be created, but at GE we are determined to help. We will continue to engage and listen, collaborate in the hard work of technology development, and assist in closing the gap, and with it, the gap to sustainability. 


For further insight on this subject, download GE’s Technology white paper.

Sustainable Growth 2012

GE’s 2012 Sustainable Growth Summary highlights progress against commitments on our social, environmental and economic impacts—or, what we call People, Planet and Economy.



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