When Jessica Matthews attends board meetings for Scenic Hudson, an environmental nonprofit that has been fighting for the environment since 1963, she knows she's going to get noticed.
"I'm the only black person. I'm one of maybe a handful of women. I'm the only person under 35," Matthews told Fortune. "And it has always been incredibly surprising to me how easy it is for people to be Seeing as an environmentalist is breaking up with a group of people who I think are very well suited to environmental work. "
The experience is nothing new to the double Harvard graduate – but it points to a reason why sustainable infrastructure is still not a basic human right even in the US.
The American Society of Civil Engineers gave US infrastructure a D + – that's a "D for a dog," Matthews likes to say – while data from the Galvin Electricity Initiative shows the US has more blackouts than the US every other developed country. According to the company's research, the US would have to invest $ 4.59 trillion by 2025 to improve the country's infrastructure. While these facts pose a nationwide problem, according to a study by the Environmental Protections Agency's National Center for Environmental Impact Assessment, black and brown communities actually carry the brunt of our aging infrastructure.
According to Yale researchers, people with paint are three times more likely to die from pollution-related diseases, and it is people with paint who make up half of the 9 million Americans who are forced to live near landfills and hazardous waste sites. By including people of color in sustainability talks, Matthews believes that infrastructure improvement efforts will make a difference.
Matthews started Uncharted Power in 2011 to pave the way for building sustainable infrastructure in communities with insufficient resources.
The company's solution to cost-effectively upgrading the infrastructure begins under our feet. Uncharted Power has developed pavers – the same kind you would see on a sidewalk or street – that could include a power cord, data collection hardware, and servers to transmit the information gathered at each location. Uncharted Power believes cities can use the data they collect to sell to companies that want to use their information to promote their own business. For example, they choose their location based on pedestrian traffic data and finance their infrastructure development by monetizing their data. Matthews tested the system at their New York state facility. Now Uncharted Power wants to work with cities that need to improve their infrastructure. Matthews spoke to Fortune about their mission to make access to electricity more affordable and sustainable.
Jessica Matthews, CEO of Uncharted PowerUncharted Power
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Of the Soccer You evolved as a Harvard student to harness kinetic energy. So far your work has centered on energy efficiency. How has your approach to sustainability changed in the last ten years?
Uncharted Power has essentially focused on two main areas of operation in the company's history. The first is infrastructure and the second is education. Indeed, whether the company started, believe it or not, the assumption was that the latter was the biggest problem. I mistakenly assumed there were smarter people out there who could fix the clearly infrastructural problem, but the problem was that they lacked inspiration. They lacked the understanding or belief that they could have agency in this area.
That's why we made energy-generating play products at the beginning. The idea was to bridge the gap between the people who I think are most effective in this area because they feel the pain the most and believing that they can do something and run with it. We used the game as a bridge to achieve this.
And over time, our understanding of the problem has evolved. We found that society did not have the tools to build a new type of infrastructure that was more sustainable and easier to scale in these types of communities. We started building intellectual property in power transmission generation to see how you can rebuild the grid – what hasn't been updated in 150 years. We are preparing not only how electricity will be used today, but also how electricity will be used tomorrow.
It's no secret that our infrastructure needs a major overhaul. What are some barriers to progress when it comes to understanding and fixing the problem?
First and foremost, it is more expensive to design sustainably, and it is more expensive to design so that there is no obvious loser in the situation. Only in the US do we see an annual infrastructure degradation of about $ 200 billion. Very few people sit here and say, "I'm very excited about poisoning the blacks there." I mean, as if there could be. But it's more like, "Why do I have to think of everyone?" I just want to make money and get on my jet and just live my life. " Correct? Or: "Life is easier when I don't have to see them and can pretend they don't exist."
The most important thing we need to do is figure out how to change the narrative from a conversation about "This is right and this is wrong" to a conversation about "How to Make More Money". Doing good and doing good cannot be mutually exclusive for us in order to have a chance in hell to create the world in which we want to live.
There are many unintended consequences if not every community has a part of the conversation. With the National environmental lawWhat consequences do you see recently changed by the current administration to allow for faster construction?
At first glance, infrastructure is something that people need. It also brings jobs – accessible jobs.
The problem we have, if we withdraw these standards, we run the risk of doing things wrong. We run the risk that there are some environmental issues that won't be immediately apparent, but you will see them across the board.
Think of NIMBY. In the more affluent communities, there are lobbyists who make sure that the infrastructure they need is not being built in their community. This is why most of these warehouses, most of these manufacturing facilities, most of these industrial complexes that serve very wealthy cities are never in town. But there is no one who lobbies or really cares about the poorer group that lives near them.
Take Houston for example. Houston is a really interesting place because there is quite a lot of industry there, only the oil and gas industry should suggest that the people should be wealthy there. But the air quality on the outskirts of Houston is so poor that the life expectancy of most of the people who live there is between 10% and 15% below the average person.
These people live with respiratory diseases and nobody talks about it. And when I say people, I'm not just speaking from a data perspective. My partner's family lives in Harris County, outside of Houston. His stepmother: respiratory diseases and asthma. His father: rare respiratory diseases. It's 100% because they know the air is only bad. And 100% because they know that nobody cares that the air is bad for them. It feels like saying the same thing over and over, but if we don't create standards we will see that certain groups just get the industry drain. Time and time again, we find that it is usually the underfunded communities that reach the short end of the staff when we compromise, as is the case with 45 [US President Donald Trump's] new efforts.
How do you make people care? How do you get people to act?
You can't underestimate the power of white guilt. I think there are a lot of people out there who can feel the lack of fairness and these are the people you start with. You need to come up with some kind of package and create a streamlined method for them to reduce their feelings of guilt by investing and supporting what you do. And there's nothing wrong with that. I mean, I grew up Catholic so guilt is a way of life.
I believe that the key for people trying to create this synergy around environmental protection, climate change and racism is to organize your problems into something that is actionable. You need to create a streamlined methodology that people can engage with, whether it's an investment or a donation. There must be something. It is human nature to look for the most efficient way to relieve guilt.
I think it is important to also shape things from a macroeconomic point of view. This shouldn't be about charity – charity is not sustainable in my opinion. It doesn't help anyone to have communities where people feel like they live there is a death sentence. It doesn't help anyone to have a situation where a whole generation of workers feel so subjugated because they don't have access to clean water.
How do you create a fairer system?
I love what we created with the Uncharted Power system because while it seems like a simple paper solution, it ultimately comes down to three things: We essentially need to create an ethical google for energy infrastructure. We have to come in and say we want to create a platform that streamlines the way people use their infrastructure and the way we manage it, just as Google created all of these amazing digital infrastructure platforms that the The way we deal with digital technology is rationalizing the world. They don't charge us anything for that. They're not saying that only the wealthy communities get Google Hangouts – they figured out how it can be for everyone. There is a lot to learn there and a lot that was simply not properly adopted in the infrastructure.
What we could [is] do, we built this platform that allows us to build these comprehensive, sustainable power grids, and financed it by essentially creating this platform to establish a common location and communities and cities help monetize their data. Just as Google sells ad space, we're working with communities to help them sell the colocation space for 5G antennas and other on-site smart city technologies to fund these projects without asking the city to take on more debt.
That was a huge innovation for us and it took us years to get there. We are currently starting a local pilot project. From there, we hope that we can scale this model and show people this new way of thinking about building critical infrastructure for underserved communities without affecting their bottom line. If there are cities that need improved power and data infrastructure but are struggling with funding, we want to talk to them.
More needs to be read Coverage of the energy sector from capital::
- "Lights Out": A new book explores how and when things fell apart at General Electric
- An electric revolution is coming for American truck traffic
- Comment: To recharge the American labor market, build a green power grid
- As plastic waste continues to increase in the world's oceans, efforts to contain pollution are failing
- Is oil giant BP finally ready to think outside the box?