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Terraforming – the future roadmap for sustaining Earthly life

Nisheeth Srivastava

This article was originally published in ET Insights and has been reproduced here with permission.

In an age of rapid change, how does one sustain the pace of innovation? In an age where sustainable innovation is key, could “terraforming” be the answer?

At a broad level, terraforming is about sculpting unique innovation landscapes with a view to scale, with special attention to ecosystem and evolution, and for fostering the spirit of a positive planet with focus on sustainability. Basically, it implies fashioning of an ‘alive’ innovation environment and ecosystem.

Terraforming … and relevance to innovation

Scaling internal innovations is a key challenge for organizations globally.  However, as COVID-19 led to the collapse of organizational silos worldwide, it rebuilt the innovation mindset among business CXOs – to create and launch differentiated and resilient new products and services rapidly.

As organisations focus on deploying business intelligence tools, frameworks, and communities to advance innovation, terraform (literally, “earth shaping”) programs could be key in coupling those with real market and competitive dynamics and insights, accelerating a vibrant innovation ecosystem, and be the precursor to the advent of an “Innovation Culture” within and across their business functions.

Terraformation is unique to each terrain, just like each organisation’s unique position and presence within their ecosystem. In that context, innovation isn’t about organisations being engaged on future technologies, but on intelligent new business models that are emerging lockstep with those changes. Notably, empathy for business KPIs as well as social sentience will become fundamental to driving sustainable innovations.

Channeling new vistas in science

Today, a new generation of disruptive technologies is shaping an engineering revolution. We are in the age of the Intelligent Industry, where digital transformation in the form of artificial intelligence, machine learning, automation, cloud, and space-based industries has led us to an era that closely mirrors science fiction than the factory-driven, industrial society of the past century.

As a concept, terraforming has sustainability at its heart, but its applications run wide and deep – from agriculture to large tech innovation. For example, we live with uncertainty over whether agriculture can produce food for all humanity. Terraforming affords a holistic approach to agricultural innovation based on creation of transdisciplinary, innovative ecologies perfected via evolution and innovation.

Aside from capabilities in farming, terraforming benefits sweep across fake news detection to mobility for physically challenged as well as senior citizens, to Lean technology solutions to reduce digital and thereby carbon footprint, etc. By building theoretical and conceptual frameworks used for cognitive dissonance and self-efficacy, it enables new-age modelling techniques via AI, human-robotic interactions (HRI), and multidisciplinary social science that are core to new-age solutions to age-old problems.

The idea is to augment mindsets of innovation practitioners with a means to store those learnings as an enterprise – in a manner that it continues to evolve sustainably. While terraforming in the last century was dictated by the course of urbanisation, in this software-driven era, the urge for technological advancement is propelling it as the planetary design initiative of the next century.

Redefining the future of humanity

Yes, it’s a near certainty that by the end of this decade, we will have descended on celestial surfaces beyond Earth – ‘terraforming Mars for human habitation,’ as Carl Sagan suggested. The scale of this cultural transformation is mediated by digital convergence, technological advancement, and global integration, but it will be rooted in our capacity to see the Earth as a whole system.

It is amazing the wide canvas terraforming can paint. There is general unanimity that by unleashing human energy through technology for an inclusive and sustainable future, terraforming is the avenue to transform the earth and make it more sustainable. In fact, the definition of the term can be widened to include areas and the realms of the socio-economic and, hold your breath, even the political!

It allows for bringing our collective learnings from across contexts, and at scale. For example, ethical distress created by hostile work environments and leadership issues are concerns that amplify conditions of role conflict, burnout, and alienation for employees. By terraforming practice environments, we can promote worker and organizational efficacy for better retention. These will have important implications for education, policy, and other practical implementations.

In a world racked by civil strife and war, terraforming politics towards a new world order to usher in newer sensibilities of peace could be the way forward. It could also enable practices that could serve as points of reflection for assessing the connection between race and diversity, caste and community, faith, and fraternity.

The future road map …

Innovation is a broad canvas. It is not just about engaging clients on future technologies, but also on clever new business models emerging alongside. This cannot be achieved without having deep sectoral empathy, appreciation of business KPIs, collaboration with start-ups, and belief in the concept of Open Innovation … together with a pulse on disruptive technology.

While terraforming has generated interest in the context of reaching Mars for human habitation, driving our planetary consciousness and identity, this transformation should be guided by technological advancement for global integration across sectors. Indeed, it should be rooted in an evolving capacity to see the Earth as a whole system.

Therein lies the true essence of Innovation, Sustainability, and Terraforming, and the roadmap to Industry 4.0!