CEF Spotlight

Fortran Forward: Imagining Tomorrow’s Sustainability Innovations

By Mitch Jackson, VP for Environmental Affairs & Sustainability at FedEx.

Show me someone who predicts the future and I’ll show you someone who’s generally correct some of the time, but specifically wrong all of the time

When I was in college, my very first program in my Fortran computer programming class was done with punched card readers. For young readers, this was a device wherein the programmer sat at the machine, typed out each line of code on a single punched paper card, assembled the many cards in their proper order, and ran them through the compiler for the computer. And, then, did it again. And, maybe again. Okay, confession time: very likely again. Why, you ask? Because the card reader missed a card; I missed a card; I didn’t have them in the right sequence; I had a typo in the code; the code was wrong, or whatever. Now, give me some allowance here. It’s been a long time. Remember, punched card readers! And, I might not have it exactly right. But, I remember the general outline. And, I remember the varied emotions – from getting it wrong, from getting it right…from getting it done.

I was lucky though. After that first program, we switched to computer terminals for our programming – linked, mainframe terminals. Manna from heaven, my friends – there to feed a student his needed nourishment – if you doubt that, think about the fact that a mainframe terminal was considered a salvation.

And, it’s important to note that I was an engineering major, not computer science. I enjoyed programming, but I didn’t enjoy it, if you get my drift. I could do it, but didn’t feel that I was a gifted programmer. So, I did what I needed to do, and then moved on to what I needed to do next: physics (thank you, Isaac Newton), chemistry, statics, dynamics, thermodynamics, three courses in calculus (another tip of the hat to Newton), differential equations…anyway, you get the point.

I then moved to desktop computers like all the rest (although, I had already owned an Apple II Plus). First, Macintosh computers, then, PCs. Their only real link was the office network, which was mainly for printing. But, they say you never really forget your first love. So, it was back to the Mac eventually. Then the iPhone, and, ultimately, the iPad.

Then, lo and behold, we’re back to where we started, at least in part – a linked infrastructure between devices. But, a much better one this time – one that provides for mobility and easy access to information through the internet for everyone. Computing from wherever I am, regardless of the device, rather than being chained to a terminal in a university computer lab – one in which I spent many late nights back in the day, I might add. Want proof? I wrote this piece using both a laptop and iPad. Location didn’t matter, and neither did the device. As long as I had the network and a device, not the device, I was fine.

As a result, the network and tools used are not exactly the solutions we envisioned in the past, but they are close. The seeds were planted when we were moving from punched card readers to linked mainframe terminals. In essence, the flowers grew; it’s just the blooms that resulted are a different shape and color from what we specifically imagined. And, I suspect that those in the future will be the same, …er, different…I think you know what I mean.

So, this piece is not really about sustainability. But, then again, it is, in a way. An article I read recently reported that carbon dioxide emissions in the United States were at a twenty-year low due to increased natural gas usage in the power generation sector. It’s clear that this was not the solution that was anticipated ten years ago. Experts didn’t even see it as such a near-term possibility several years ago when the push for cap-and-trade legislation (which passed the U.S. House of Representatives, but not the Senate) was raging. And, it’s likely not the complete, final solution, if there is such a thing. But, it is part of the solution, at least for now.

What is the reason for the failure to clearly see this? It’s a function of how we tend to predict the future. In general, I think we can often glean the basic outlines of how things will progress in the future. But, I don’t think we can ever really get the specifics right – exactly when it will occur, how it will do so, and all the trigger events that are necessary to bring it about. When we do get close on the prognostications and achieve success by our actions, though, it’s something like enlightened serendipity (I like this phrase much better than dumb luck because I don’t really believe in dumb luck). We are enlightened enough to know we have to innovate or change, with a general goal in mind – and, serendipitous enough to have it sometimes succeed.

I do think that the successes we achieve today are from the innovative thinking from yesterday. And, those of tomorrow will be from the innovations we dream up today – even if the reality varies a bit from the dream. I most certainly hope this is true.

Mitch Jackson is Vice President for Environmental Affairs & Sustainability at FedEx, where he develops the sustainability strategy and vision to ensure that FedEx minimizes its environmental footprint while still delivering outstanding customer service. With FedEx for more than 20 years, Jackson was named to the 2010 Top 100 Thought Leaders in Trustworthy Business Behavior by Trust Across America. He was also named to Ethisphere Institute’s 2009 list of the 100 Most Influential People in Business Ethics and is a past chairman of the Global Environmental Management Initiative.
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