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Geopolitics of Technology and the Hydrocarbon Status Quo

Anis H. Bajrektarevic

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The unrest in the Arab world, which has continued for over a year now, implies one important conclusion beyond any ongoing regional struggle for democracy: It is a reflection on the globally important technological, even more about a crucial geopolitical breakthrough – an escape from the logics of the hydrocarbon status quo, which – after Copenhagen 2009 and Durban 2011 – will fail again in Rio (Earth Summit 2012/Rio+20) later this year.

“No one governs innocently” – de Beauvoir noted in her 1947’s The Ethics of Ambiguity. After a lot of hot air, the disillusioning epilogue of the popular McFB revolt is more firearms and less confidence residing in the Middle East and North Africa (MENA) region, as well as a higher (moral and environmental, socio–economic and political, psychological and security) carbon-energy price everywhere else. As if the confrontational nostalgia, perpetuated by intense competition over finite resources, in lieu of a real, far-reaching policy-making has prevailed again. Caught in the middle of its indigenous incapability and the global blind obedience to fossil carbon addiction, and yet enveloped in just another trauma, the Arab world and the wider Middle East theatre remains a hostage of a geopolitical and geo-economic chess-board mega drama. However, all that appears over-determined now was not necessarily pre-determined in the beginning.

A Grand Dilemma and the MENA
The MENA theatre is situated in one of the most fascinating locations of the world. It actually represents the only existing land corridor that connects 3 continents. Contributing some 6% to the total world population, its demographic weight is almost equal to that of the US (4,5%) and Russia (1,5%) combined. While the US and Russia are single countries, the MENA composite is a puzzle of several dozens of fragile pieces where religious, political, ideological, history-cultural, economic, social and territorial cleavages are entrenched, deep, wide and long. However, the MENA territory covers only 3% of the Earth’s land surface (in contrast to the US’ 6,5%, coverage and Russia’s 11,5%). Thus, with its high population density and strong demographic growth, this very young median population (on average 23–27 years old) dominated by juvenile, mainly unemployed or underemployed, but socially mobilized and often politically radicalized (angry) males, competes over finite and scarce resources, be they arable or settlers land, water and other essentials.

Competition in this theatre, that has a lasting history of external domination or interference, is severe, multiple, unpredictable, and therefore it is fluid and unsettled on the existing or alternative socio-economic, ideological, cultural and politico-military models, access, directions and participatory base.

Interestingly enough the recent crisis, pejoratively nicknamed the Facebook Revolution has so far ‘knocked down’ only MENA republics (declaratively egalitarian and secular regimes of formal democracy). For the time being, it has spared the Arab peninsular absolutistic monarchies (highly oppressive theocratic regimes of real autocracy). The modern-day version of  Metternich’s Alliance of the Eastern Conservative Courts – the Gulf Cooperation Council (GCC) club has so far gained considerably from the calamities: (i) strategically – more durable regimes and ideologies, translated into their political and diplomatic offensive; (ii) institutionally – besides dominating the Organization of the Petroleum Exporting Counties (OPEC), the GCC theocracies now practically control the League of Arab States (LAS), sets its agenda, political direction and punitive actions; and (iii) geo-economically – huge petro-dollar revenues: enlarged quotas caused by the delivery disruptions and embargoes in Libya and elsewhere, as well as the general crude price increase due to MENA uncertainties – e.g. the Bahrain’s State Information Agency reports nearly 20% economic growth for 2011. Hence, if there was any Spring in the Arab world, it was the budding of (Wahhabi sectarian) ideological and hydrocarbon exports of the GCC autocracies in 2011.

Nevertheless, the announced reductions of the American physical presence in Afghanistan, its limits in (nearly failed, nuclear state of) Pakistan, massive overextensions suffered on the southwestern flank of the Euro-Asian continent, as well as the recent US Army pullout from Iraq, is felt within the GCC (in France, Israel and Turkey too) as dangerous exposure to neighboring (increasingly anticipated as assertive) Iran, as well as Russia and China behind it.

Right now, Syria pays a (proxy war) prize for it: This multi-religious country may end up entirely combusted, creating a dangerous security vacuum in the heart of MENA. Oil, its suppliers and its consumers are resolute to fortify and eventually diversify and intensify their bitter covert and overt fight in maintaining the status quo course.

Petro-retro Status Quo: Petrodollars and petro-security
The US has a lasting geo-economic interest in the Gulf of a rather extensive agenda, which is inevitably coupled with its overarching global security concerns. As is well known, oil is the most traded commodity in the world– roughly 12% of overall global trade. By far the largest portion of internationally–traded crude originates from the Gulf. Thus, the US imperatives in the Gulf are very demanding: (i) to support the friendly local regimes with their present socio-political and ideological setups; (ii) to get, in return, their continued approval for the massive physical US military presence and their affirmative vote in international fora; (iii) to maintain its decisive force in the region, securing unhindered oil flows from the Gulf; (iv) to remain as the principal security guarantor and tranquilizer, preventing any hostile takeover – be it of one petrol-exporting state by another or of internal, domestic political and tribe/clan workings; (v) to closely monitor the crude-output levels and money flow within the Gulf and to recycle huge petro-dollar revenues, usually through lucrative arms sales and other security deals with the GCC regimes; (vi) will not enhance, but might permit (calls for) gradual change of the domestic socio-economic and politico-ideological frames in the particular Gulf state, as long as it does not compromise the US objectives in the region as stated above, from (i) to (v).

On the other side of Hormuz, Iran is a unique country that connects the Euro-Med/MENA with Central and South, well to the East Asia, so as it solely bridges the two key Euro-Asian energy plateaus: the Gulf and Caspian. This gives Iran an absolutely pivotal geopolitical and geo-economic posture over the larger region – an opportunity but also an exposure! No wonder that the US physical presence in the Gulf represents a double threat to Iran – geopoli- tically and geo-economically. Nearly all US governments since the unexpected 1979 Shah’s fall, with the G.W. Bush administration being most vocal, have formally advocated a regime change in Teheran. On the international oil market, Iran has no room for maneuver, neither on price nor on quotas. Within OPEC, Iran is frequently silenced by cordial GCC voting.

The US hegemony in the Gulf, a combination of monetary control (crude is traded exclusively in US dollars, predominantly via the New York-based NYMEX and London-based IPE) and physical control (the US Navy controls all transoceanic oil transports), is the essential confirmation as well as the crucial spring of the overall US global posture. In exchange for the energy inflow security, the US anchors loyal bandwagoning in many places around the globe. As long as oil remains priced in USD, it will represent the prime foreign reserve currency (some 68% of global reserves is held in USD), as the functional tie between the major currencies’ exchange rates, (economic and politico-military) security and fossil-fuel energy cannot be derailed and delinked.  Finally, this hegemony is not only based on the exclusivity of oil currency, but also on the exceptionality of the very policy of pricing.

Throughout most of oil’s short history, the price for ‘black gold’ was high enough to yield profits (via the 7-Sisters, mostly for Wall Street – besides the US military, another essential pillar of American might), still without pricing it overly high, which would in return encourage sustained and consequential investments in alternative energy sources. Basically, the main problem with Green/Renewable (de-carbonized) energy is not the complexity, expense, or the lengthy time-line for fundamental technological breakthrough; the central issue is that it calls for a major geopolitical breakthrough. Oil and gas are convenient for monopolization (of extraction location and deployed machinery, of intl. flows, of pricing and consumption modes) – it is a physical commodity of specific locality. Any green technology (not necessarily of particular location or currency) sooner or later will be de-monopolized, and thereby made available to most, if not to all. Therefore, the overall geopolitical imperative for the US remains preservation – not change – of the hydrocarbon status quo.

Ergo, oil (and gas) represents far more than energy. Petroleum (be it a finite biogenic mineral or not) is a socio-economic, psychological, cultural, financial, security and politico-military construct, a phenomenon of civilization that architectures the world of controllable horizontalities which is currently known to, possible and permitted, therefore acceptable for us.

In a broader historical, more vertical or philosophical sense, the hydrocarbons and its scarcity phychologization, its monetization (and related weaponization) is serving rather a coercive and restrictive status quo than a developmental incentive. That essentially calls not for an engagement but compliance. It finally reads that the fossil fuels’ consumption (along with the policy of prizing it) does not only trigger one CC – Climate Change (repeated failure in Durban), but it also perpetuates another global CC – planetary Competition and Confrontation (over finite resources) – to which the MENA calamities are only a tip of an iceberg. Therefore, this highly addictive construct logically permits only a (technological) modernization which is defensive, restrictive and reactive. No wonder that democracy is falling short.

Anything terrific between Arctic and Pacific?
“…bold Russian Arctic policy is (yet) another signal that the Federation… will increase its (non territorial leverage and geopolitical) projection as a major energy supplier of the world throughout the 21st century…” – I noted in 2009. To clarify: Neither Russian territorial size and historical passions, nor pride and socio-economic necessity will cause Moscow to sink down to a second-rank power status. How will the Federation meet its strategic imperative? We have already discussed the two important pillars of the US strength (the so-called ‘East Coast twin might’: the Pentagon and Wall Street). Well, there is the ‘Pacific Coast twin might’ too. The post-Soviet Russia has neither the ideology – global soft power appeal of the US entertainment industry and its ravenous (Hollywood), nor has it the vibrant, world-leading and highly lucrative High-Tech and IT sector (Silicon Valley) that the US possesses.

Let us generously assume the quantitative and qualitative parity between the US and Russia’s armed forces. Still, military modernization requires constant cash injections. How to maintain that? Moscow holds a big advantage: the US imports hydrocarbons while the Federation exports it. Nevertheless, Wall Street controls the international (petrodollar) monetary flow – even the post-Soviet republics are not trading oil in Rubles, but in US dollars. Hence, to meet and finance its strategic imperatives, as well as to respond to the growing international energy demands and to the domestic pressures, Moscow has only non-high tech exports – fossil-fuels – at convenient disposal (no Silicon Valley, no Hollywood). Ergo, Russia is more exposed and vulnerable than the US, and therefore it is an even stronger supporter of both current international market conditions and the hydrocarbon status quo.     

On the eastern, ascendant flank of the Eurasian continent, the Chinese vertigo economy is overheated and too-well integrated in the petrodollar system. Beijing, presently, cannot contemplate or afford to allocate any resources in a search for an alternative. The Sino economy is low-wage- and labor intensive-centered one. Chinese revenues are heavily dependent on exports and Chinese reserves are predominantly a mix of the USD and US Treasury bonds. To sustain itself as a single socio-political and formidably performing economic entity, the People’s Republic requires more energy and less external dependency. Domestically, the demographic-migratory pressures are huge, regional demands are high, and expectations are brewing. Considering its best external energy dependency equalizer (and inner cohesion solidifier), China seems to be turning to its military upgrade rather than towards the resolute alternative energy/Green Tech investments – as it has no time, plan or resources to do both at once. Inattentive of a broader picture, Beijing (probably falsely) believes that lasting containment, especially in the South China Sea, is unbearable, and that – at the same time – fossil-fuels are available (e.g., in Africa and the Gulf), and even cheaper with the help of warships.

Opting for either strategic choice will reverberate in the dynamic Asia–Pacific theatre. However, the messages are diametrical: An assertive military – alienates, new technology – attracts neighbors. Finally, armies conquer (and spend) while technology builds (and accumulates)! At this point, any eventual accelerated armament in the Asia-Pacific theatre would only strengthen the hydrocarbon status quo. With its present configuration, it is hard to imagine that anybody can outplay the US in the petro-security, petro-financial and petro-military global playground in the following few decades. Given the planetary petro-financial-tech-military causal constellations, this type of confrontation is so well mastered by and would further only benefit the US and the closest of its allies.               
                                      
To complete the picture, both Russia and China are supporting the hydrocarbon status quo. Other major theaters are all too dependent geo-economically: on a supply end (Central Asian republics, Brazil, Canada, Mexico, Norway, Venezuela, etc.) and on a receiving end (India, Australia, South Africa, etc.) – none is geopolitically emancipated enough to seriously consider any significant tilt towards de-carbonization.

EU-genic or Dynamic?
Less explicitly, the EU (as the post-Westphalian concert of 4 Europes – conglomerate of the Atlantic, Central, Eastern and Scandinavian Europe) will turn consensual to the hydrocarbon status quo, too. If taking a closer look at any of the previous and current Brussels’ transportation and energy policy initiatives, it would clearly show us that the notion was primarily driven by the closest common security consideration denominator – as an attempt to decrease the external vulnerabilities, that includes those of an energy dependency (e.g. energy efficiency initiatives: EEP, Europe 2020, EUFORES, etc.).
Hence, the Union was first and still is most of all a peace treaty for the post WWII Europe recovery. Therefore, both settings (ECSC and EuroAtom) served the confidence building purpose, not as energy-related clearing house/s. The energy policy (suppliers for and composition of the primary energy mix, taxation, etc.) as well as the transportation (means and modes) strictly resides in the individual competence of the Block’s Member States (MS). Any change in the present status quo would assume the common platform of the MS via the Council of the EU (and the subsequent formalization of such a position, at least through the EU Parliament’s promulgation). The absence of such a commonly agreed policy means more of the hydrocarbon status quo. Lastly, it is not only that Atlantic Europe and Central Europe manage their respective energy inflow, its composition and external dependences differently (and selectively). The issue of the hydrocarbon status quo is closely related to the very question of the Euro (and the US dollar-alternate/reserve currency: the British Pound).

For the severely exposed Euro-zone (unsettled global financial crisis), it is a bitter choice between a petrol-pampered dollar (as a stability pillar) and the return to gold (meaning to the pre-Nixon Shock times, before the Bretton Woods consensus was renounced). Brussels and the European Central Bank (ECB) believe they can exercise an influence on the American dollar, via the US Federal Reserves, while nowadays gold resides everywhere – least of all in the US or EU reserves or their mines. Simply put, the post-Nixon currency/ies is/are negotiable; gold is a solid, non-corrosive metal. Also, one should never forget that the politically most influential segment of the Union – Atlantic Europe – shares the same ocean with the US, and all that comes with it (including the ‘monetary nationalism/exceptionalism’).   

However, besides Japan, Brussels will remain a main promoter of the “Kyoto II” mechanism. The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change (UNFCCC) with its protocol from Kyoto of 1997 placed China and India in the “emissions tolerant” Annex II, so both subsequently ratified the Instrument. The US and Russia were situated in the much less forgiving Annex I. Past the collapse of the Soviet Union and contraction of the post-Soviet economy and demographics, Kremlin knew it could easily meet the pre-1990 emissions target. Still, it was bargaining until the end of 2004. With the 17% pollution allocation, Russia’s ratification was sufficient enough to activate Kyoto, which eventually entered into force shortly after, in 2005.

The EU’s formal support to the Kyoto protocol and “spirit of UNFCCC/IPCC” has several reflex levels. Without ambition to elaborate it all in detail, let us just note that the Union’s reasons are of political (declared principles) and economic (pragmatic) nature. As the conglomerate of states committed to the supranational principle rituality, it is natural for the Block to (at least declaratively) support any multilateral endorsement, which assumes the supranational notion as well as the full horizontality of implementation and monitoring of compliance mechanism.

The Kyoto provisions of the late 1990s were in perfect harmony with the two grand strategy roadmaps of the EU: the Lisbon (2000) and Goteborg (2001) – hence, the EU’s voluntary self-endorsement via the Emissions Trading Scheme (ETS). This virtue out of necessity was clear: in the globalized competitive world, the Union of modest economical and of no demo-graphic growth has only the option to become a knowledge based economy, re-architectured as the fair and balanced post-industrial society. Both strategies were gradually abandoned, the Block enlarged (to Eastern Europe, mostly the states whose economies also contracted past the breakup of the Warsaw Pact lager countries – meaning, who are able to meet the Kyoto targets), and the Union’s post-industrial Green-tech renewal waits for better days.

How swift is the shift?
Brussels is well-positioned, but it will not be a global frontrunner in any technology shift. For such a (hydrocarbon de-psychologization) turn, it has neither an inner coherence, visionary strength, nor an external posture. The EU’s economic growth is very symbolic, despite all the huge territorial enlargements of the past decade. Actually, the Union’s growth could be portrayed as negative in many categories. It always serves as a good reminder that a Europe of (economic and demographic) growth was a Europe of might. Europe without growth is a Europe of principles (or to say: of administrative frameworks’ colonialism). The Eastern enlargement of the EU was this very virtue out of necessity: a last territorial expansion, exceptionally based not on coercion but on an ‘attraction’ of the EU’s transformative power.  

Within the OECD/IEA grouping, or closely; the G-8 (the states with resources, infrastructure, tradition of and know-how to advance the fundamental technological breakthroughs), it is only Japan that may seriously consider a Green/Renewable-tech U-turn. Tokyo’s external energy dependencies are stark and long-lasting. After the recent nuclear trauma, Japan will need a few years to (psychologically and economically) absorb the shock – but it will learn a lesson. For such an impresive economy and considerable demography, situated on a small landmass, which is repeatedly brutalized by devastating natural catastrophes (and dependent on yet another disruptive external influence – Arab oil), it might be that a decisive shift towards green energy is the only way to survive, revive, and eventually to emancipate.

An important part of the US–Japan security treaty is the US energy supply lines security guaranty given to (the post-WWII demilitarized) Tokyo. After the recent earthquake-tsunami-radiation armageddon, as well as witnessing the current Chinese military/naval noise, Japan will inevitably rethink and revisit its energy policy, as well as the composition of its primary energy mix. That indicates the Far East as a probable zone of the Green-tech excellence and a place of attraction for many Asians in the decade to come.

(Based on the public lecture “Asia – Pacific: The Hydrocarbon Status Quo and Climate Change”, Chulalongkorn University, Mahachulalongkorn/MEA Think-Tank; Thailand, Bangkok 04 OCT 2011)

References:
1.    Muhic, F., (1983), Teorija Drzave i Prava (Theory of States and Law), Svjetlost Sarajevo;
2.    Cleveland, W. L., (2000), A History of the Modern Middle East, WestView Press, Oxford;
3.    Bajrektarevic, A. (2005), Destiny Shared: Our Common Futures – EURO-MED Human Capital beyond 2020, Crans Montana Forum, Monaco;
4.    Maalouf, A., (1984), Les Croisades vues par les Arabes (The Crusades Through Arab Eyes), Schoken Books, NY;
5.    Engdahl, F.W. (2004), A Century of War: Anglo-American Oil Politics and the New World Order, Pluto Press London
6.    The UN Development Program: Human Development Report 2011 (IHD Index, Poverty and Inequality);
7.    The World Bank – World Poverty Index, (2005 PPP), Statistics: 1990 – 2010;
8.    Wright, L. ( 2006), The Looming Tower, Random House New York
9.    Bajrektarevic, A. (2010), Arctic and Antarctic – Security Structures Surrounding the Two Poles, Geopolitics, History and International Relations 2 (2): 218-219, Addleton Publishers 2010
10.    Diamond, L. (2008), The Spirit of Democracy: the Struggle to Build Free Societies throughout the World  /Thinking of the Hybrid Regimes/, Times Books – Henry Holt Publishers  
11.    Bajrektarevic, A. (2011), The Melting Poles: between challenges and opportunities, Central European Journal of International and Security Studies, CEJISS 1/2011– Special Edition: Arctic and Antarctic Meltdown
12.    IAE, International Energy Agency – World Energy Outlook 2011, IEA Paris 2011;
13.    The UN Framework Convention on Climate Change, UN FCCC/1992/84, GE.05-62220 (E) 200705 and the Kyoto Protocol to the UN FCCC of 1998, UN Office of Legal Affairs;
14.    The UN Climate Change Conference, Durban 2011, Reports November – December 2011 (COP 17, Bali Action Plan and Cancun Agreements), Secretariat of the UN FCCC, Bonn Germany
15.    Stieglitz, J. (2002), Globalization and Its Discontents, Penguin Books
16.    Krayushin, V.A. (1994), The Exploration of the Northern Flank of the Dnieper-Donets Basin – Key findings (research paper submitted for the VII Intl. Symposium on the Observation of the Continental Crust through Drilling) DOSECC, Santa Fe, New Mexico, 1994
17.    Brzezinski, Z. (2004), The Choice, Basic Books (Perseus);
18.    Fukuyama, F. (2004), State Building, NY Cornell University Press;
19.    Mawdsley, E and McCann, G. (2011), India in Africa– Changing Geographies of Power, Pambazuka Press/Fahamu;
20.    Kagan, R. (2003), Of Paradise and Power, Vintage Books New York
21.    Primakov, Y.M. (2004), A World Challenged, Brookings Institution Press/Nixon Center
22.    Kissinger, H. (1999), Years of Renewal, Touchstone- Rockefeller Center;
23.    Ivanov, I.S. (2002), The New Russian Diplomacy, Brookings Institution Press/Nixon Center
24.    Leonard, M. (2005), Why Europe Will Run the 21st century, Fourth Estate London
25.    Ignatius, D. (2008), America and the World – Zbigniew Brzezinski and Brent Scowcroft by David Ignatius, Advanced Uncorrected Proof Text, (September 2008) Basic Books Washington
26.    Friedman, G. (2009), The Next 100 Years, Anchor Books/Random House NY;
27.    Future Conflict Studies (2009), Understanding Human Dynamics, Report of the US Defense Science Board Task Force, March 2009;     
28.    Mulgan, G. (2006), Good and Bad Power – The Ideals and Betrayals of Government, Penguin Books
29.    Bajrektarevic, A. (2011), The Hydrocarbon Status Quo – Euro–Asian Imperatives, Geopolitics, History and International Relations 3 (2), Addleton Publishers 2011
30.    Bajrektarevic, A. (2012), Why Kyoto Will Fail Again, Geopolitics of Energy, 34 (1), CERI Canada 2012

Modern Diplomacy Advisory Board, Chairman Geopolitics of Energy Editorial Member Professor and Chairperson for Intl. Law & Global Pol. Studies contact: anis@bajrektarevic.eu

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Science and society: Mind the gap

MD Staff

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International regulations are failing to keep up with the mind-boggling pace of new scientific discoveries and potential “cowboy” applications.

As we go about our daily lives we never quite know what is around the corner. Is there anything we are doing—a technology we are using–which could one day cause us harm or threaten our existence?

When scientists discovered the ozone layer was being depleted, policymakers eventually heeded the dire warnings of damage to the environment and human health, and a global agreement was reached to take remedial action.

Science is double-edged in that it can bring enormous benefits to humans, but at the same time it can create things we did not intend, with harmful consequences.

Today, scientists are using new tools like 3D printing, artificial intelligence and increasingly powerful computers, microscopes and satellites to better understand our world. They are discovering possible solutions to challenges we know about and are uncovering emerging challenges.

While innovative science holds out the possibility of solving many of the climate change and ecosystems challenges we face, we must be careful not to unleash a Frankenstein. Thus, it is important that society at large understands the global implications of new discoveries and governments agree on regulations in line with the precautionary principle.

Under this principle, stringent risk assessment and the inclusion of diverse stakeholder perspectives should be applied in the development and handling of innovative applications and products. The precautionary principle states that when human activities may lead to unacceptable harm that is scientifically plausible but uncertain, action should be taken to avoid or diminish that harm.

Part of UN Environment’s work is horizon-scanning for the latest discoveries with potentially global implications. To this end, it works with scientists and organizations across the world to highlight the most important emerging challenges for decision-makers in government, business and civil society and provide them with the knowledge and options to act quickly.

At the micro-level, there have been some amazing discoveries recently. Take seed preservation, which is vital given that the world is losing plant species at an unprecedented rate, with about one in five thought to be at risk of extinction.

The Global Strategy for Plant Conservation requires that 75 per cent of threatened plant species be conserved ex situ by 2020. But seed banking (where seeds are dried and stored in a vault at minus 20°C) is not an option for many threatened plants such as oak, chestnut and avocado trees. These trees have desiccation-sensitive seeds which are killed if dried. According to models published in the journal Nature Plants, 36 per cent of critically endangered plant species, 33 per cent of all trees and about 10 per cent of medicinal plants fall into this category.

So alternative techniques are needed. Researchers are investigating cryopreservation for these hard-to-store seeds, which include staples such as coffee and cocoa. Cryopreservation involves removing the plant embryo from the rest of the seed, then freezing it at very low temperatures in liquid nitrogen.

Meanwhile in the United States, scientists have demonstrated how they can generate small quantities of electricity from a mushroom covered in bacteria.

Researchers at Stevens Institute of Technology in the United States used 3D printing to attach clusters of energy-producing bugs to the cap of a button mushroom. They made the mushroom “bionic” by supercharging it with 3D-printed clusters of cyanobacteria (a group of photosynthetic bacteria) that generate electricity, and swirls of graphene nanoribbons that can collect the current. The mushroom, a fungus, provides an environment in which the cyanobacteria can last several days longer than on a silicone and dead mushroom as suitable controls. Such discoveries herald the possibility of harnessing bacteria in new ways for clean energy generation in the future.

Synthetic biology

One challenge identified by UN Environment and partners is the advanced genetic-engineering technology known as synthetic biology. Did you know that scientists can modify microorganisms like E. coli by rewriting their genetic code to turn them into tiny living factories that produce biofuel? Or that Baker’s yeast can also be reprogrammed to derive an antimalarial drug called artemisinin, which is normally sourced from the sweet wormwood plant?

Synthetic biology is defined by the Convention on Biological Diversity as a further development and new dimension of modern biotechnology that combines science, technology and engineering to facilitate and accelerate the understanding, design, redesign, manufacture and/or modification of genetic materials, living organisms and biological systems.

However, the intentional or accidental release of genetically engineered organisms into the environment could have significant negative impacts on both human and environmental health.

Synthetic biology has been identified as an emerging issue with potentially global implications. As such, it will feature alongside governance of geo-engineering, permafrost peatlands, maladaptation (actions that may lead to increased risk of adverse climate-related outcomes), the circular economy of nitrogen, and landscape connectivity in UN Environment’s flagship Frontiers Report due to be released in March 2019.

UN Environment

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New year, new smart home innovations for your interconnected life

MD Staff

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Smart home products made major strides in 2018. More people than ever now use connected devices in their homes, and smart home hubs are constantly adding new integrations and capabilities. Research from Statista predicts that by the end of 2018, more than 45 million smart home devices will be installed in U.S. homes, fueling an exciting new phase for the smart home industry, offering consumers new and improved smart technologies and giving rise to a totally interconnected, easy-to-control environment termed the “smart home.”

This innovation looks to continue in the new year with increasingly intuitive products that make life more enjoyable and interconnected. Here are the new smart home products ready to change the way we live in the new year, coming out of the 2019 Consumer Electronics Show (CES).

Laundry made easy

The calendar might have changed, but your laundry needs haven’t gone anywhere. Thankfully, smart home technology is making the chore a little easier with LG’s Ultimate Laundry Room.

The LG Styler is a first-of-its-kind steam clothing care system certified as asthma and allergy friendly(R) by the Asthma and Allergy Foundation of America (AAFA). The Wi-Fi enabled smart LG Styler reduces wrinkles and odor and refreshes garments with the fastest cycle on the market today — as little as 20 minutes — thanks to the gentle power of pure steam technology. Furthermore, LG TWINWash(TM) with SideKick(TM) pedestal washer, an industry-first innovation for laundry, allows users to tackle small loads that are a big deal and can’t wait or wash two loads at the same time.

With LG Styler for daily refreshes, the innovative LG SideKick(TM) mini washer for small loads that can’t wait, and LG’s award-winning top and front load washers and dryers, the LG Ultimate Laundry Room suite of products can be started, stopped or monitored from anywhere using LG’s SmartThinQ(R) app. Users will receive notifications when a cycle has finished, or they can download new cycles, check energy usage and quickly troubleshoot minor issues using Smart Diagnosis. For added convenience, these home solutions can also be controlled with simple voice commands using the Google Assistant.

Smarter home with smart displays

Laundry is just one example of how smart home technology is making life easier. By adding other connected appliances and devices, you can develop a true smart home ecosystem in which seamless integrations produce valuable efficiency. One of the best ways to anchor your ecosystem is with a smart display like the new LG XBOOM AI ThinQ WK9 Smart Display. The advanced smart display builds on the capabilities of a Google Assistant speaker with the added convenience of a touchscreen display and, in partnership with Meridian Audio, delivers high-fidelity sound, precise vocal definition and accurate bass, despite its compact size.

In addition to its audio and video capabilities, the WK9 enables control of other LG ThinQ products such as LG TVs and home appliances, plus more than 10,000 smart devices from over 1,000 brands that work with Google Assistant. By establishing a go-to hub for all your smart home devices, you can increase connectivity and create a fully integrated smart home environment.

Stay connected on-the-go

As innovation continues, smart home technology is branching outside of the home itself. With new products, you can receive notifications regarding your home from anywhere, making sure you never lose touch with the most important things in your life. The first full-screen smartwatch with mechanical hands, the LG Watch W7 allows you to connect and control your smart devices. With two mechanical hands and a micro gearbox, users can enjoy the full WearOS smartwatch experience with the essence and mechanism of a true timepiece. With mobile connectivity, your life becomes easier no matter where you are.

Smart home technology is all about making our lives easier and more comfortable. Whether you’re just doing laundry, looking to power your whole home, or even taking that control on the road, new smart home products provide a level of convenience that’s changing the way we live.

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From Steel to Smartphones, Meet the World Economic Forum’s New Factories of the Future

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BMW Group, Regensburg Plant, Germany

The World Economic Forum today announces the addition of seven new factories to its network of “Manufacturing Lighthouses”, state-of-the-art facilities that serve as world leaders in how to successfully adopt and integrate the cutting-edge technologies of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

The Lighthouses join a group of nine others, which were unveiled in 2018. All were selected from an initial list of 1,000 manufacturers based on their successful implementation of Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies in ways that have driven financial and operational impact.

The wider purpose of the community is to help overcome the practical challenges being experienced by industries in advanced and emerging economies when upgrading technology. Earlier work by the Forum identified that more than 70% of businesses investing in technologies, such as big data analytics, artificial intelligence (AI) or 3D printing, fail to move beyond the pilot phase. In response to this, all Lighthouses in the network have agreed to open their doors and share their knowledge with other manufacturing businesses.

The new Lighthouses represent a range of industries and geographical locations, with four factories located in Europe, two in China and one in the Middle East. Importantly, the list also contains a medium-sized business, the Italian-based Rold. One frequent challenge highlighted by businesses is that they lack the scale and resources to implement advanced technologies cost effectively.

The new Lighthouses are:

BMW Group (Regensburg Plant, Germany): This car plant manufactured approximately 320,000 vehicles in 2018. By using the custom BMW internet of things platform, it incurred time and cost, but the result has been cut the time to deploy all new applications by 80% leading to, among other things, a significant reduction in logistics costs and 5% reduction in quality issues.

Danfoss, Commercial Compressors (Tianjin, China): This factory makes compressors for refrigerators, air conditioning units and other products. By using its full digital traceability system and digital tools such as smart sensors, visual inspection, auto monitoring system etc. to improve quality control, it has improved labour productivity by 30% and decreased customer complaints by 57% within two years.

Foxconn (Shenzhen, China): “Lights off factory” – This factory, which specializes in components for smartphones and other electrical equipment, boasts a fully automated manufacturing process with machine learning and AI driving auto optimization of equipment, smart self-maintenance and real-time status monitoring in smart production. Its Fourth Industrial Revolution-first approach has resulted in efficiency gains of 30% and lowered its stock cycle by 15%.

Rold (Cerro Maggiore, Italy): This 240-employee business makes locking mechanisms for washing machines and dishwashers. As the only SME in the Lighthouse network, its use of Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies such as smart watches, rapid prototyping and digital dashboards has helped improve turnover by between 7% and 8%.

Sandvik Coromant (Gimo, Sweden): This producer of cutting tools and solutions has created a digital thread through its production processes that has significantly raised labour productivity. One example is its ‘touchless changeover’ which allows design patterns to be changed automatically, even during unmanned shifts.

Saudi Aramco Uthmaniyah Gas Plant (Uthmaniyah, Saudi Arabia): The giant’s gas processing plant has become a leader in a number of Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies including the use of Advanced Analytics and Artificial Intelligence solutions via Saudi Aramco Fourth Industrial Revolution Center, the use of drones to inspect pipelines and machinery (cutting inspection times by 90%) and wearable technologies such as digital helmets that help workers cut the time it takes to make inspections and repairs.

Tata Steel (IJmuiden, The Netherlands): This plant of 9,000 employees is putting its people first, creating an Advanced Analytics Academy to help workers come up with solutions to reduce waste, and improve the quality and reliability of production processes. This work has resulted in a significant improvement in financial results.

The Lighthouse programme has been conducted in collaboration with McKinsey. In conjunction with the expansion of the network, the Forum today also publishes a white paper, Fourth Industrial Revolution: Beacons of Technology and Innovation in Manufacturing, which showcases findings from the project to date.

“Lighthouse factories are found in companies large and small, in all industries and regions. Rather than replacing operators with machines, lighthouse factories are transforming work to make it less repetitive, more interesting, diversified and productive. Rather than staying within the factory walls, Lighthouses build a broad innovation system with business, government and civil society. Beyond local pilots, Lighthouses create value and resilience through the supply chain, and agility and responsiveness for customers. Technology, deployed wisely in our manufacturing and production system, can create a better, cleaner world. We hope this network can be a source of inspiration to help break out of productivity stagnation and deliver the maximum positive benefit for society,” said Helena Leurent, Head of the Shaping the Future of Production System Initiative at the World Economic Forum.

“These 16 Lighthouses represent a turning point. We are now seeing the start of the second phase, as Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies are penetrating the core of all industries, and our platform of 16 Lighthouses is the clearest sign we have,” said Enno de Boer, Partner and Head of McKinsey’s Global Manufacturing Practice, which collaborated with the Forum on the project. “However, these leaders have a two-year head start ahead of companies that are still sorting out how to scale. We are running the risk that the value creation will be centered around a few ecosystems, rather than disseminated across entire industries. The race has clearly started.”

The extended network of “Manufacturing Lighthouses” will be officially presented at the World Economic Forum’s Annual Meeting 2019, taking place on 22-25 January 2019 in Davos-Klosters, Switzerland, and convening under the theme, Globalization 4.0: Shaping a Global Architecture in the Age of the Fourth Industrial Revolution.

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