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August 7, 2008

The Politics of Scarcity

Debra Goldfarb

Whenever I am asked what I do for a living, I respond with “I get to hang out and talk with the smartest people in the world.” It is, by the way, the coolest aspect of what I do and while it sounds corny, every day I get to reach into new ideas. I had a recent conversation with a colleague under the auspices of delving into the future of high-performance technology and breakthrough applications, and it somehow morphed into a discussion on the topic of scarcity. More precisely, we began to talk about scarcity of natural resources and how it will ultimately transform behavior, technology, politics and the global economy on a mass scale. As I thought deeply about our discussion, it was clear to me that over the next ten years the world would experience shifts on a scale we have yet to even contemplate.

Now this may seem obvious to most of you on a number of levels. Certainly we are all, in our own little ways, making transformations to our daily lives. For me, I traded in my beast of an SUV (I grew increasingly frightened people would start throwing blood on me); I drive less; put energy-efficient lightbulbs in my home; recycle everything and the list goes on. And if anyone missed world history, a lot of wars have been fought over geography and the access to, or scarcity of, natural resources. But what I am referring to here is much more fundamental. We are simply running out of things. And some of the stuff we do have has had the unfortunate consequence of poisoning our planet. There is only so much water, oil, minerals, food, trees, diverse ecosystems, etc. An interesting data point comes from my husband, who happens to be an environmental engineer who specializes in water. According to him, desalination is one of the fastest growing practices at his firm. The future of our society will grow increasingly centered on controlling and managing natural resources — how they are acquired, produced and used.

In the U.S. this reality poses some interesting political and social challenges. We do not have an industrial policy and the notion of controlling and/or metering natural resources on a grand scale is counter to our cultural and political DNA. Outside of the U.S., the world looks very different, and we are seeing initiatives aimed at trying to manage to these new realities take shape.

So what does all of this mean to our community? Well, a lot. It would be banal to state the obvious — that new data sources, applications and industries will emerge — many of which will require HPC-scale resources, know-how and technologies. That much we can envision. Necessity will drive much of this change. What is less obvious is the rate of change and the “butterfly effect.” Intellectually, we can see that everything is interconnected, but the consequence of those interrelationships is unknown. Those of us who have spent a career modeling adoption trends will have to throw old assumptions out the window. There is no precedent on which to base the future. Technology focused on advanced analytics and predictive modeling at a “systems” level will increasingly become a critical component to our decision-making process.

Over time, clean technologies will permeate everything, from the mundane, such as washing clothes and dishes to the more complex and esoteric, such as the availability and demand for ultra-light electric automobiles. The requirement to reduce our carbon footprint will give rise to widespread adoption of novel techniques, such as congestion pricing, to reduce the number of cars on the road and shift our behavior toward mass transit systems. It won’t be enough to have an energy-efficient sticker on your refrigerator, server or car – every component will have to be compliant. Cloud, SaaS and other internet-delivered services will take center stage — again, adoption out of necessity.

Clearly, one blog doesn’t change much on its own, but every one of us has a responsibility to do our own small part. From the little changes in our personal lives (which may seem so inconsequential, but on a mass scale become enormously significant) to opening the dialogue and raising awareness about how critical our community is to the future of our planet.