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People, place, possibility: The story of the century to come

When we think about cities of the future, there is one thing we can be certain of, they will look radically different.

World Built Environment Forum Summit
23 April 2018

It’s an uncertain future. Rapid urbanisation, climate change and resource scarcity are some of the biggest challenges we face.

But at the same time, new technology has given us the opportunity to transform how we do things. Whether that involves buildings, energy, or infrastructure, we have the chance to change things for the better.

What can we learn from someone who has been at the forefront of exactly this kind of transformation?

JB Straubel is Chief Technical Officer at Tesla and part of the founding team. He told the World Built Environment Forum London Summit about the importance of harnessing innovation in order to join the ranks of the disruptors, not the disrupted.

Changing the world, one car at a time

Barely 15 years old, Tesla has transformed the car market, overtaking many of its much more established rivals in the process.

But when Tesla’s founders were thinking about setting up the company, they weren’t thinking about building cars. They had much loftier ambitions – they wanted to accelerate the world’s transition to sustainable energy, as Straubel explains:

“It was the environmental challenge posed by burning fossil fuels that was the inspiration for us. Our mission was broader than cars, it was how can we as a new company effect change? This is very different to most car companies. The world needs a very different solution to transportation if we are to make our existing world sustainable.”

And no one is in any doubt that the modern world has a pressing problem. As cities become denser and larger, the problems wrought by fossil fuels – air pollution, quality of life and ultimately, global warming – will only get more acute.

The present picture is somewhat gloomy. Despite all our efforts, the concentration of CO2 emissions in our atmosphere is accelerating.

But this also presents us with a massive opportunity, and one that Tesla has leapt on.

“The continuing rise in CO2 emissions points to how much work there is to be done,” states Straubel.

“But it also points to the new opportunities there are to launch new products and start over, a chance to reinvent the way we have done things in our energy infrastructure. We don’t get many chances like this. But it requires a different way of thinking.”

Transforming mindset

“People’s mindset shouldn’t be a reason not to go in the right direction,” he says. “In some cases, particularly when it comes to technological innovation, people just don’t know what it’s capable of so it’s important to have the commitment to do something.”

When Tesla embarked on its journey, early efforts at commercialised electric vehicles were viewed as nothing better than glorified golf carts. The company would have to set about changing this opinion if it were to succeed.

In the end, Tesla’s timing was perfect. The price of the lithium ion battery was reducing dramatically, and the company was poised to take full advantage. “It allowed us to create a car with range and power that could actually compete,” he says.

Its first car, the Roadster 2008, broke the mould and had a big impact on the global opinion of electric powered vehicles.

Key lessons in innovation

As Tesla continued to innovate, it began to redraw the car from the ground up.

“This is a key lesson for innovation in all areas,” he states. “The Model S was built from the ground up. Our designers had a lot of freedom and flexibility to build the car.

“The problem established industries have is that they follow a rule book, but you really need to throw that away and challenge assumptions,” he adds. 

This is something, says Straubel, that we need to apply to the entire transportation system.

One of the greatest criticisms levelled at early electric vehicles was that they couldn’t go terribly far without needing to recharge.

Tesla solved this problem by creating their own supercharge network and rolling it out across the US and abroad.

“The network has ended up being a valuable part of the product. It’s a key insight into what’s happening with electric vehicles but also transportation in general – everything is becoming networked in a system.”

The future is electric

Tesla sees the future of cities as electric, but this won’t be without its challenges.

Providing charging points in a dense city environment is a challenge, and Straubel says this is one of the things they are hard at work on. “There must be better ways to interface between building infrastructure and new technology vehicles,” he says. 

In addition, Tesla is also trying to make its cars cheaper and more accessible, “customers are very hungry for this new technology” he says. 

“I would argue that our cities need to become all electric, that is what will enable sustainability.”

Putting its money where its mouth is, Tesla’s latest foray has been into energy generation, creating solar powered systems linked to Tesla batteries, so that homeowners have complete control over their energy use, selling the energy back to the grid or living off the grid altogether.

It’s a fundamental shift in energy infrastructure.

“In the future, it won’t make sense to build giant centralised power plants, energy will be a distributed system, analogous to how smartphones and cellphones leapfrogged the telephone,” he argues.

In fact, he concludes, if utilities don’t change the way they operate they will be left behind in this new age of the consumer.

“The stone age came to an end not for lack of stones, and the oil age will come to an end not for lack of oil. Innovation is going to make products better and better.”

The World Built Environment Forum facilitates industry leading discussions harnessing the enormous potential of the 21st century's people and places.