A Conversation With Jack Plunkett, Market Research Publisher

JackPlunkett-Post.jpgA frequent public speaker and lecturer at industry events and on college campuses, Jack W. Plunkett is the CEO and publisher of Plunkett Research, Ltd., a company that provides industry information and market research in printed and, increasingly, electronic formats. A resident of Houston, Plunkett serves as an advisor to several corporations and non-profit institutions in and around the city. Here, Plunkett discusses why it's important that sustainability efforts quickly achieve operating efficiencies that make them literally self-sustaining, the costs associated with transforming yourself from a print-only publisher to one with digital products, and why access to fresh water is going to be the biggest single problem that we face this century.

What do you say when people ask you, "What do you do?"

I say "I'm an analyst," which leaves most people with a totally blank look on their face. So I then continue to explain that I founded a firm, Plunkett Research, Ltd., more than 20 years ago with the goal of analyzing trends in business, technology, and demographics. We focus on explaining developments that will create the greatest changes within a business or technology sector over the midterm, five to 15 years. For example, we recently introduced a new Plunkett's Games, Apps & Social Media Industry Almanac, and we will soon release a major report on the green technology industry. Meanwhile, we write and publish large, annual versions of books on such fields as energy, infotech, biotech, and health care -- in total about 20,000 pages yearly. I love what I do because I get to learn constantly and interact with fascinating people in emerging fields. The fact that both globalization and technology have accelerated dramatically over the past couple of decades has made my work all the more demanding and interesting. Thanks to globalization, we have to study -- and sell to -- markets around the world, while the rapid adoption of digital media meant we had to develop ebooks and a serious Internet-based subscription system in addition to our printed volumes. Printed editions now account for less than 25 percent of our volume. In 1995 it was 100 percent.

It's also an immense intellectual challenge. We have become reasonably well known for explaining potentially difficult technical and financial trends in a manner that readers of most types can understand, even if they have no particular expertise in that domain. This means that my team and I have to understand, and be able to intelligently discuss, concepts like nanotechnology, globalization, or solar power -- not from a deeply technical perspective, but from a point-of-view that will be useful to a broad base of readers, including business professionals, investors, and graduate students. How will developing concepts change the world around us? How will consumers, governments and industries be affected? Which logistic, technological, or social challenges will result? Which investment and trade opportunities will arise? Our typical subscribers are schools of business and engineering at top universities, where students use our data for projects and case studies, as well as consultancies, government agencies involved in trade, investment firms, and business development people at major corporations.

What new idea or innovation is having the most significant impact on the sustainability world?

The idea that sustainability eventually has to be able to sustain itself. Thanks to the financial difficulties of governments in the developed world, and the challenges faced by financial backers since the Great Recession of 2008-09, there's a growing focus on backing long-term winners, rather than pursuing sustainability simply as a statement about how green and caring a corporation is, or how eco-sensitive a government agency might be. That is, renewables, recycling, and green efforts in general may need a donation from industry or an investment from government to help pay for research or initial development and installation, but eventually sustainability efforts have to achieve operating efficiencies or a return on cost that makes them literally self-sustaining. Over the long haul, the result will be that green technologies and efforts become a cost-effective, evolved way of living and doing business, rather than a bottomless financial pit looming beneath a well-intentioned hope. A lot of efforts are going to fail in this process, and a lot of consolidation is going to be forced. America has been rushing into a vast variety of renewable projects and backing a plethora of unproven technologies. Most of them simply won't work on a self-sustaining basis.

For example, two of America's giant, generously-funded solar-cell companies went bankrupt in recent weeks, including Evergreen Solar in Massachusetts, and Solyndra in California. Solyndra alone had received more than $500 million in federal loan guarantees and about $1 billion in private financing. Both had made faulty assumptions about global markets for the basic commodity, silicon, used in standard photovoltaic cells. As demand increased, silicon prices soared at first. But that high demand encouraged new suppliers to enter the market, and silicon prices collapsed to a level closer to historic norms. These two companies thought they had a competitive edge through new technologies that relied on less silicon. Meanwhile, competition from Chinese solar-cell makers forced market prices for solar equipment to plummet. The Chinese government has been supplying vast financial support, directly or indirectly, to their solar-cell manufacturers, including low-cost factory sites and loans. We do have some tremendously exciting new technologies in America that may achieve long-term success on a cost effective basis. For example, one of my favorites, a California firm called eSolar, has developed a concentrated solar power model that is relatively cheap, easy to install, and operates at high efficiency. They attracted General Electric as a backer in recent weeks. We have firms working on fantastic water conservation technologies in America, and brilliant battery and energy efficiency concepts based on nanotechnology. We need to find the best, most efficient technologies and move them ahead, relying on sound concepts rather than political influence or special interests.

What's something that most people just don't understand about your area of expertise?

People often remark to me that our company's costs must be much lower now that we deliver most of our published data electronically rather than in printed book form. Nothing could be further from the truth. Printing a book is a relatively simple, inexpensive process. Building and maintaining a subscribers-only website, with multiple servers, backups, relational databases, custom user tools, redundant power and Internet lines, along with the engineers and experts to keep it up to date is an immense cost.

What's an emerging trend that you think will shake up the sustainability world?

Over the next 20 to 30 years, the world is going to be blindsided by challenges and shortages in the area of sustainable water. Agriculture and industry are water hogs. Someone is going to make an immense fortune by solving or improving on this problem, while making the world a better place. There is vast opportunity to apply advanced technologies to improve this situation, including emerging technologies like remote wireless sensors to monitor conditions and water use in fields and factories. In fact, billions of remote wireless sensors, transmitting local data to computers where they will be analyzed by specialized software, will revolutionize many of the world's day-to-day processes. You'll hear people referring to these sensors as "smart dust." The price for such units will plummet to inconsequential amounts, while the emerging field of predictive analytics will utilize these new data sources to make the world more efficient and sustainable.

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Nicholas Jackson is a former associate editor at The Atlantic.

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