Nathan Springer, Associate, Advisory Services, BSR

According to Tony Hsieh, the CEO of shoe company Zappos, collisions create results. “When cities double in size, productivity and innovation per resident increases by 15 percent,” said Hsieh during his plenary address at the VERGE conference in San Francisco last week. VERGE, organized by the GreenBiz Group, is a convergence of systems and technologies in energy, transport, and buildings that takes place through annual conferences held in cities around the world. The San Francisco event drew more than 500 people in attendance and approximately 5,000 views of the conference’s live stream online.

Featured on the second morning of the event, Hsieh discussed the recent relocation of Zappos headquarters from Henderson, Nevada, to downtown Las Vegas. The company designed its new building to increase what Hsieh called “collisionable hours” between the community, technology entrepreneurs, and employees. His goal was to create an environment where people, business, and civic life can collide and create serendipitous results.

While Hsieh focused on physical collisions, other conference speakers and attendees emphasized electronic collisions. Big data, exponentially increasing amounts of unstructured information, was seen as a problem of collisions. The challenge for business is to organize and make use of this data and to create interactions among the data that can be interpreted. Professional data miners like IBM and EMC suggested solutions that focus on the collision of data in a way that can lead to sustainability. Startup Honest Buildings proposed organizing the data produced by buildings through social networks so that every building would have its own profile, with publicly available energy, emissions, and user data. Dave Bartlett, IBM’s “building whisperer,” expressed his excitement around the vast amounts of energy, temperature, and occupant data that buildings can produce.

Yet, none of this can be accomplished without some organization. And that’s where platforms come in. It takes a platform to organize chaotic data, events, and places. For technology gurus, platforms such as the internet are where people can build infinite products, services, and solutions—many of which are unimagined by the platform’s creators. For many VERGE participants, the city is a platform where entrepreneurs such as Scoot Network's Michael Keating envision people riding on shared scooters.

While collisions enhance productivity and platforms generate collisions, the third element to drive solutions is an ecosystem. An ecosystem is the relationship of elements interacting on a platform that can align to generate positive outcomes. Silicon Valley may be the best example of a thriving ecosystem of entrepreneurs, investors, and technology experts that continues to drive the commercialization of technology solutions.

At VERGE, the critical ecosystem elements of policy, finance, and technology were in abundance, and a panel of venture capitalists emphasized the importance of aligning all three. "If it requires policy changes, we're not going to touch it. We want to be solving customers' problems today,” said Greenstart's Mitch Lowe.

Most who have passed Chemistry 101 think of the high energy that accompanies collisions. VERGE was a high-energy event, marked by new business alliances that can lead to bold new solutions. It was the platform people wanted and the ecosystem of business, government, and technology that the world needs.