Your house produces more energy than it consumes. You use that surplus energy to charge your electric car and if anything is left over, you feed it into the public power grid. If you ask Jeremy Rifkin, this is not a utopian vision, but rather a sober description of the future.
As the American futurist sees it, not only our energy infrastructure but also our logistics and communications infrastructures will be globally linked in a "Super Internet of Things". Natural resources, industrial production, recycling streams, homes, offices, businesses, vehicles, even people can be outfitted with sensors and their data fed into a global network.
The 69-year old polymath considers this to be nothing less than the third industrial revolution, as he writes in his l atest book, the "Zero Marginal Cost Society" . In this Internet of Things the marginal cost, i.e. the cost of every additionally produced unit, approaches zero, maintains Rifkin. Whether it’s about energy, logistics or communication: As soon as the relevant infrastructure is in place, it essentially doesn't matter whether you are serving ten, one thousand or one million customers. Additional customers cost companies virtually nothing.
The Internet of Things is driving the sharing economy as well as the economy of so-called "collaborative commons", according to Rifkin , who terms this development a "remarkable historical event". By 2050, he is convinced that the sharing economy will be the dominant economic paradigm, transforming capitalism in the process.
The disruptive impact of the sharing economy is already visible: Sales in the music industry are down and publishers are subject to massive pressure from self-publishing and blogs, at the same time as eLearning competes with traditional universities and solar collectors on our rooftops make us at least partially independent of power utilities and fossil fuels.
Rifkin is thoroughly convinced that in the future, cooperatives will be in the driver’s seat: "1.5 billion people on the planet are already members of cooperatives," he remarks, adding that France’s second-largest banking system consisted of cooperatives. In Germany he views renewable forms of energy as being under the control of cooperatives, who share their resources and profits. And soon he expects to see a 3-D printer in every school, says Rifkin.
3-D printers are an additional mainstay of Rifkin's vision of the third industrial revolution. Controlled by computer software, they can make virtually any kind of object, layer by layer. Given the right materials, they can already be used to make pasta, jewelry, smartphones, cars or even houses. Above all, 3-D printers could revolutionize industry, with scarcely any more warehousing costs generated, much less energy consumption in production and much less transport required, since most things could simply be printed on location.
Such ideas are also popular among politicians, and Rifkin is in global demand as a political consultant. He has advised numerous governments, including German Chancellor Merkel and the EU. He has been in this business since 1977, when he established his "Foundation on Economic Trends" – a think tank which advises national and international politics in interaction with business, the environment and climate change. The bases for this were laid in the Sixties when Rifkin, originally from Denver, Colorado, majored in economics and international relations. But Rifkin is also very prolific as a publicist, continually pouring his often bold theses into books that explain how technology and science are changing our society and economy. By now more his more than 20 books have been translated into 35 languages and are read at hundreds of universities and colleges.