I was watching the twitter stream roar by me the other day, and my eyes lit upon a tweet from Umair Haque linking the reader to a blog post on the HBR (Harvard Business Review) site. With the title If you were the next Steve Jobs..., it was definite click bait. So I clicked.
The article was great, drawing from the particular to the general in a very elegant manner. I'll let you read it to see for yourself, but key to the article was the idea that tomorrow's problems will not be solved by today's institutions. To solve tomorrow's problems will require the following to be addressed:
Yep, ok, so they all begin with S. They probably don't make quite as much sense beginning with S's, but it kind of works.
Anyway, the S's are put forward in a general context, but apply equally to tomorrow's waste problems. Here's how.
The idea put by Umair is that business will get increasingly personalised, and the trick is to provide the "mass customisation" to service it. That is true in waste management on two levels.
First, each customer (ie waste generator, but also purchasers of recycler product) wants you to not just understand their business, but tailor your service to meet their needs. Dealing with stables? They might want regular collections, and may even want a solution to keep worming products out so that the stable manure can be composted. Different for food courts, and different again for manufacturing. It is time to go beyond the days of supplying the same bin service to all customers.
The second aspect to singularity is that each material type will be increasingly dealt with separately. Collection and treatment will be better tailored to gain the most value from the material. It is time to go beyond the days of bulking all waste together and then landfilling or burning it.
Umair talks of people wanting a relationship, even if it is understood by all to be pretty tightly constrained.
Does this apply to waste? Absolutely! The concept of waste goes to the core of what people are and do. What people throw away can define them (in psychology that would be the "Other", or in manufacturing the quality of a product is defined by what is rejected). People know this, and given the chance, want to be part of a community around waste. Waste is, at heart, a social thing as expressed by Don Delillo in Underworld:
He looked at all that soaring garbage and knew for the first time what his job was all about. Not engineering or transportation or source reduction. He dealt in human behaviour, people's habits and impulses, their uncontrollable needs and innocent wishes, maybe their passions, certainly their excesses and indulgences but their kindness too, their generosity, and the question was how to keep this mass metabolism from overwhelming us.People also want waste operators to be a responsible part of their community. They do not want stinking tips, rogue contractors or plants imposed on them. The waste is generated by the community and needs to be treated within the community. Scale down rather than up.
Waste can be a very staid business. Plants are built for decades, and seek to constrain uncertainty by "consistent" supply. This makes the business dumb.
The new breed will see businesses pop up or rapidly shift to exploit opportunities as they arise. A new waste type emerges, and businesses will pounce on it to recover the materials.
It will be a business that is decentralised to clever and committed people on the ground, a business that tries new ideas regularly in search of the best. It will promote a culture of collaboration.
The new waste business will seem to be employing black magic. It will understand customers (generators and purchasers of product) so completely that their needs will be completely anticipated.
The new waste business will be able to collect, refine and connect waste materials. It might just act as a match-maker, or data publisher, or any number of things to connect wastes (by-products) with consumers.
The new world of waste will see pervasive data and well anticipated needs such that a major source of waste - mismatched generation against downstream needs - can be overcome.
This is the cool bit, and perhaps the obvious bit. For all of the above to come together, institutions (businesses, governments, whatever) need to look at the currently unsolved problems and imagine a solution.
They need to look at the current squandering of materials and refuse to accept the status quo, to insist that a solution can be found and that they will find it.
It needs people who believe that, as Archimedes put it, with a fulcrum and a long enough lever, they can move the world.