Page last updated at 08:21 GMT, Sunday, 24 May 2009 09:21 UK

Hello clouds, hello sky, hello future

By Tim Bowler
Business reporter, BBC News, San Diego

Fire technology conference in San Diego
Blue-sky thinking comes easy in the balmy environment of San Diego

What will be the technology of the next few years that will help lift the global economy out of its current recession?

That's the question that venture capitalists, Silicon Valley entrepreneurs and technology gurus alike have been pondering this week in San Diego.

The 19th Century Hotel del Coronado is playing host to this year's Future in Review, or Fire conference - a meeting that has become increasingly important for technology-savvy futurologists.

However, Fire is unlike many other IT meetings. It is most definitely not about the latest fashions in consumer electronics.

The impact of clouds on global warming, environment-friendly alternative fuels, safe water and the future of the personal computers versus cloud computing have all been high on this week's agenda.

The conference is the brainchild of Mark Anderson.

Talking in between sessions, he said he viewed the current recession on as a opportunity - a chance to reset the global economy.

New economy

"We let Wall Street get out of hand, there was too much financial engineering and not enough bridge engineering," he said.

Now he says the efforts by governments around the world to combat climate change are presenting businesses with a tremendous opportunity.

"That's a huge new area and you don't have to be an optimist to understand how much money is going to be made there," he said.

One company hoping to benefit is Clear Fuels Technology. It has designed a flexiible way of producing different biofuels, using a range of waste products from wood-processing plants and sugar mills.

Chief executive Eric Darmstaedter explained the idea was to produce biofuels which would stand up to environmental scrutiny.

"Five years ago all biofuels were good, now all biofuels aren't good. There's the food-versus-fuel debate and there's also the debate about using different energy crops."

Mark Anderson, Fire conference chairman (Pic: Fire/Sandy Huffaker)
Mark Anderson set an ambitious agenda for the conference

"But in order to use those crops, say, you would have to got to cut down a forest and replant. So you've got this lifecycle greenhouse gas analysis you have to do to see what is really acceptable now."

Despite the abundance of web visionaries and start-up kings, one of the most arresting ideas came from the office printing firm, Xerox.

For a company so intimately tied to the printed word, Xerox's chief technology officer Sophie Vandebroek was resolutely upbeat about the future, even in an age of electronic information.

"We noticed that more than 45% of what is printed in a day in the office or home goes into the recycling bin, or worse, the waste basket," she told me.

"What our researchers came up with is a paper that you print today and then in a couple of days, it's blank again. You can put it back into your printer and print again."

"For those who love the feel and touch of paper, and we know many people do, it's a great innovation."

Information overload

Many participants spoke about the challenge of the information explosion.

Nova Spivak is a technology visionary and entrepreneur, who co-founded one of the first Internet companies in 1994, EarthWeb.

He is one of those focusing on the changing nature of information flow in the modern world.

"We're moving from a web that was like a reference library, to a web that's increasingly like radio or television," he said.

Sophie Vandebroek, chief technology officer of office printing firm Xerox (pic: Fire/Sandy Huffaker)
Xerox's chief technology officer backs a new way to save paper

"It's a web that's a stream. It's a place where in many ways consumers will be a little bit more passive, they'll be able to lean back and having information coming at them, rather than having to actively search for it."

Spivak says that much of the innovation in the next decade will be focused on filtering this increasing flood of information that is coming at us.

There is a potential downside to all this - a world in which some could rush to embrace every bit of information that comes their way.

"I think it will be a gonzo world of speed-freaks trying to stay awake all the time so they don't miss anything," he said.

"It will be a world in which people are going to be absolutely terrified to be offline and not monitoring the stream even for a few minutes.

"I think they're going to burn a lot of calories out of sheer paranoia."

Not surprisingly, he accepts that opting out of this brave new world may prove increasingly popular.

"Luxury may be redefined. Instead of access to these technologies, it may be the ability to not use them for a couple of hours," Spivak said.

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