GOOD magazine’s Future Learning documentary has made the rounds. Check most blogs focused on design, education and innovative thinking and you’ll probably find it. Released in May of this year, the short is composed of several interviews from innovators in education. Their main question: How do we arm students with relevant skills for our rapidly changing world?

It’s an interesting question, and it’s one that has heavy implications for businesses. How do the relevant skills of students relate to what they’ll bring to the marketplace as adults? If we consider the constantly changing business environment, it can seem volatile and unpredictable. However, if we look at what students are learning today and use it to estimate what type of consumers and leaders they’ll be tomorrow, the environment becomes calmer.

It becomes easier to see what lies ahead. Dominating the lives of students is technology. Beyond technology is the energy used to run it. Yet, the future of energy is so mired in political and social conflict that is hard to move beyond the arguments and agree: things will change. In fact, things are changing.

Net Zero Schools
Currently there are 12 net zero schools in the United States. These are schools that make renewable sources of energy a part of their infrastructure, producing as much energy as they consume. Most recently the Colonel Smith Middle School in Fort Huachuca was added to the list. Similar to others, Colonel Smith not only builds with renewable energy in mind, but also teaches about its energy saving efforts. Students can even check a central dashboard from their iPads to monitor the school’s energy.

These schools not only indicate the trend towards energy efficiency, but create an environment in which “thinking green” becomes innate. The learning that takes place in these environments will affect the ideas and values the students have as they become adults. Companies that create environments injected with these same values will feel familiar to this cohort. When businesses connect with their customers and employees through values, instead of just products, a richer connection is made. Those that value counteracting their energy consumption stand to share more in common with young adults; creating a bond that more naturally leads to customer loyalty.

The Oklahoma Medical Research Foundation (OMRF) has just installed what is now the largest building integrated wind energy system in the U.S. The medical center, proud “to educate the state’s best and brightest,” is topped with a farm of 18 vertical wind turbines able to produce an estimated 85,500 kilowatt hours of energy annually—enough to power seven average-sized homes for a year. As a research facility, OMRF is setting a standard for higher education environments. Wind turbines are one example of how the physical landscape is changing as a result of innovations in energy.

For the youth coming of age in this environment, these turbines represent the future. The landmarks, and the businesses associated with them, represent the forward looking, innovative work environments that are most attractive to young job-seekers. The most relevant businesses will become a part of this changing landscape. Through considering the landmarks and icons that connect to energy conscious generations, companies can not only reduce energy costs, but harness the physical manifestation of an innovative message. Investing in the iconic turbine is more than a nod to reducing your energy footprint; it’s an investment in a symbol of the future.

At the recent American Chemical Society’s (ACS) 244th National Meeting & Exposition it was announced that the future of solar energy is here. A new solar cell has been developed that may change the game. Replacing the rare metals used in traditional solar cells, the newly developed cells use “earth abundant” materials making them more productive, affordable and flexible. As solar cells become cheaper, the barriers for their use also decrease. The chain of events is easy to predict. As the energy source becomes cost effective it becomes ubiquitous, entering schools and homes alike.  Much like personal computers became pervasive after the decreased price of microprocessors, solar will become a mainstay for future generations.

Understanding what students are learning and what environment they’re learning in gives us a peek into how the market tide could turn in the future. Before long, a new generation of consumers and industry leaders will be forging ahead. In order to keep step with this cohort, it is critical to understand their values and habits. The kind of energy that surrounds them is changing drastically. Businesses who embrace that change stand the best chance to stay relevant. Business as usual is no longer an option.  Not only can companies stay congruent with the times through aligning environmentally conscious values and symbols with up and coming generations, they can actually save money in the process. It’s a win-win.