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A Sustainable Future: Science Fiction?

  • Dimtri de Vreeze · Member of the Board Royal DSM

  • 29 March 2018

Much of our world today is science fiction come true

Automatic sliding doors, a norm in most 21st century buildings, were just a wild possibility when science fiction author HG Wells included them in his 1899 novel The World Set Free. 3D printers, which in Star Trek’s “Replicator” made items such as food appear out of thin air, have come off the screen and into multiple industries and applications today – from automotive and aviation to medical applications such as dentures, bones and even human organs and body parts using groundbreaking 3D bioprinting techniques. The world's first lab-grown burger was also cooked up over five years ago – not by a 3D printer but by scientists at Maastricht University in the Netherlands.

"Communications will become sight-sound, and you will see as well as hear the person you telephone," said Isaac Asimov, American professor of biochemistry in 1964, imagining what the world would be like 50 years on. By 2014, most people's smartphones contained apps like Skype and FaceTime. Asimov had envisioned the smartphones too, under the term “miniaturized computers”, alongside flat-screen TVs and self-driving cars – all now realities.

As we enter the Fourth Industrial Revolution and the age of AI and robotics, more science fictions will of course come true. The speed of change will accelerate, fueled by vast leaps forward in both technology and science.

A sequel to science fiction?

But given that this century also holds one unified global challenge, and that is climate change, could the new science fiction-like innovations we pursue today also have a more profound impact, addressing climate change and ensuring the world’s longevity?

What if I told you that ‘science fiction,’ contrary to conventional interpretation (mine above included), isn’t meant to predict, but instead provide an ongoing visualization of worlds where possibilities are limitless? It may seem to foretell, but at the core of science fiction lies an openness to anything. An attitude we must all adopt as we address the significant challenges our world is facing by exploring the possibilities for a more sustainable future. Because unless we do that, all other opportunities that science fiction holds have little room to be realized or enjoyed.

Materializing the possibilities for a sustainable future

Eco cities. Green cars. Transformation of energy systems. Nothing will impact how these concepts are realized, and their capabilities, more than the materials we use. Materials science will be the epicenter of innovation amidst rapid change and disruption, paving the road from idea to reality – science fiction to truth.

The advanced materials business is already playing a central role in catalyzing inventions making a material difference in addressing climate change and building a brighter future. There’s a rapid shift towards lighter, stronger, smaller, greener, safer, smarter materials. From higher performance materials that power electric, connected and autonomously driving cars with a reduced carbon footprint to fully recyclable carpets and anti-reflective coatings making solar panels more efficient, affordable, viable and sustainable.

Imagine a world where instead of consuming power, our buildings and vehicles generate power. Where a circular economy is the global economy. Where tomorrow’s innovations safeguard today’s world. We need materials science now more than ever, not just to innovate for change and evolution, but to innovate for survival and preservation.

While today’s science fiction writers paint human colonies inhabiting new planets, lets help our scientists write the scripts that protect our existing one for future generations. Everyone should have the fundamental liberty of a green, sustainable planet Earth to call home.