January 18, 2011


The Future Is Closer Than You Think

Keywords: Newsletter 

JFS Newsletter No.100 (December 2010)

This is the hundredth issue of the JFS newsletter. A Japanese proverb goes, "Every journey begins with a single step," and we have realized this milestone today by writing each issue, one article at a time.

On this occasion, I looked back at the previous issues, from the first to the ninety-ninth JFS newsletter. The articles reveal the evolution and major trends in environmental efforts in Japan in terms of quality and quantity, in the nearly eight years that have passed since the first issue.

Here are some examples of the major trends I noticed:

  • from an emphasis on production technologies, to an emphasis on systems, mechanisms, and other "social technologies"
  • from initiatives by the national government and individuals, to initiatives centering on local efforts by municipalities and non-governmental organizations (NGOs)
  • from the efforts of one company or municipality working alone, to collaboration and co-creation by multiple stakeholders
  • from the perception of people merely as consumers, the perception of people as having enormous impact through their values and lifestyle choices
  • from the efforts of a limited segment of society, to a variety of efforts by people in a wide range of age groups, careers, and fields

Through such changes, I think the various mental models that made us feel that "this is just the way things are meant to be" were shaken loose a bit. I get the sense that many new technologies, initiatives, and possibilities are sprouting from fertile soil now that people realize that "things can be different from the ways of the past."

In this 100th issue, I would like to share with you my sense that the "future is closer than you think." I encourage you to develop your own images of the future, because we are in a time when "things can be different from the ways of the past." This is a fun exercise, and I believe visioning helps to make dreams come true.

Imagine that you are now at some year later in the twenty-first century.

You now know that, electricity was once generated at huge coal-fired and nuclear power plants, and transmitted through grids all the way to the end-users (losing energy along the way). But that is history now. The industrial use of electricity still requires stable and large electricity supplies, which still depend on large power plants, but it is now common for citizens to generate their own electricity to meet the needs in their own lives.

Actually, generating your own electricity is easy today. For example, we do this at gyms where people peddle stationary bikes to stay healthy. I heard that in the old days, people used to peddle bikes just to work out, and wasted that kinetic energy. But now we store it. To a stationary bike we now attach a small "power storage case," which converts the kinetic peddle power into electrical power and stores it. It's just like a dynamo-driven lamp that we use when riding a bicycle after dark. The lamp operates by converting friction energy into electricity. Generating power with a bicycle is what we have been doing for a long time. It's really simple and easy.

Even ordinary bicycles have small power storage cases attached to handlebars. It is a win-win-win situation: (1) we can reduce the use of cars and gain the equivalent amount of carbon credit, (2) we can use the electricity that we generate ourselves, and (3) we can work out and stay fit!

Riding bicycles is not the only means of generating electricity. For example, personal solar power generation is now widespread. Now that photovoltaic panels are smaller, they are installed not just on roofs of houses but also on apartment balconies. We also have folding solar panels. On a sunny day, after unfolding the panels, we can generate power while having a nap or playing sports outside. When we go home in the evening, our power storage case is fully charged.

Also, wind power generation has evolved in two very different ways. One is the large-scale wind turbine that generates a large amount of power. The other is the tiny, portable wind turbine that looks like a pinwheel, which many people wear on their heads, just like hair accessories. Caps and hats usually have a fitting for these little wind turbines. They can generate power even with the little breeze created when we walk, and it is hooked up to a power storage case so every little bit of power can be stored.

This way, we can store electricity in various ways and use it by plugging the power storage case into any electronic device we want.

I commute all the time by bike, so I generate almost all the electricity I need to use to power my computer. On days when I don't ride my bike, I can use the electricity I stored the week before.

Mr. Watanabe in the sales department in my company comes to mind. He commutes to and from his office by bike two-and-a-half hours each way, and he generates a very large amount of electricity. When someone is short of electricity, he always generously shares his power with a smile, and everybody likes him for this reason. In former days, those who had money were popular, but nowadays it's the ones who have lots of electricity.

Under this system today, children don't stay inside for hours at a time to play video games. Because they have to generate their own electricity to power their games, they need to run outside for two hours to be able to play inside for one hour. Children look healthy compared to the past when they stayed indoors a lot.

I will go for a jog after finishing this article. A nice breeze is blowing, so I will put my wind power generator on my head. It is a sunny day today, too, so I will also put on my sun-visor fitted with solar panels. And I never leave without bringing my power storage case with me.

Generating our own electricity using natural sources is very easy, and it's enough to cover our daily needs. Why did people ever depend on electricity generated using imported fossil fuels? Or hydropower from huge dams that also had huge human impacts? Or nuclear power that came with so many negative consequences?

From our imagined year in the future, it will be difficult to believe we ever did things the way they are done today. Why don't you try your hand at creating the future, by imagining today how things could be several years from now?

Written by Junko Edahiro