The role of technology in sustainable development

Sustainable technology

Technology is sometimes portrayed as the antithesis of business sustainability, be it the demand data centres place on the energy grid, the carbon footprint of cryptocurrencies like Bitcoin, the e-waste generated by billions of obsolete smartphones and other devices, and most recently, the threat that AI represents to social sustainability.  

Paradoxically, we also hear terms relating to the climate crisis, like “the technologies aren’t developed yet”, parroted by lobbyists for oil & gas to try to justify the continued unconstrained burning of fossil fuels. From the same lobby, we read fear-mongering pieces about the ‘risks’ of EVs, designed to delay the transition from ICE vehicles to zero-emissions vehicles, by painting EVs as  ‘fire hazards’ (in contrast to always driving around with 50 LT of flammable liquid?).  

Technology, when leveraged intelligently, is key to accelerating sustainability at an individual, organisational, national and global level in support of the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). We are now closer to 2030 (the original target to achieve the UN SDGs then was in 2015 when they were launched, and the progress needs to be rapidly accelerated). UN Secretary-General Antonio Guterres spoke in March 2023 about Climate Action (UN SDG 13), that we need to “do everything, everywhere, all at once” and do it at “warp speed”.  

Eminent climate scientist Dr Katharine Hayhoe talks about climate change as a symptom of a bigger problem, in that we have treated the planet’s resources as infinite (spoiler alert: they’re not!), and she talks about the importance of “the power of and”, that “it’s not either or, it’s everything”, we need to embrace every tool and technology at our disposal to address climate change.  As Master Yoda said: “In a dark place, we find ourselves, and a little more knowledge lights our way”. To light your way, read on.

What is sustainable technology?

The term sustainable technology refers to technology created for or applied in consideration of environmental, social or economic sustainability factors. Sustainable technology addressing environmental, social, and governance (ESG) issues ranges from physical technologies like solar PV, rainwater harvesting, carbon-capture technology, EVs, and smart sensors. 

In addition, other IoT (Internet of Things) devices to software that allows us to monitor, track and optimise sustainability performance, such as The Global Footprint Network at an individual level, ESG rating platform Ecovadis at an organisational level, or greenwashing detecting AI/satellite data platform Climate Trace at a planetary level. 

Individual Action on Sustainability

The elephant in the room concerning individual action on sustainability is “Does what I do make any difference?”. It has been well-noted that the personal carbon footprint calculator was popularised by British Petroleum and shifted the onus of action from the producer of the polluting product to the consumer. People naturally ask if what they do makes any difference. Firstly, the answer is to ask yourself what your personal values are. For example, are sustainability, integrity, and respect important values to you? Then you have your answer. 

What we do as individuals not only keeps us aligned with our values; it influences those around us to take positive action too. If just one person follows your example, someone will follow theirs – there is a positive domino effect, so don’t think of your individual action in isolation. To quote clean energy advocate Assaad Razzouk, author of ‘Saving the Planet without the bulls**t’, – “It is incumbent on all of us to find a rooftop and then start shouting from it about climate change”.  

What are some of the technology decisions that we as individuals can take?

On the aforementioned rooftop, install Solar PV, which can replace electricity generation and water heating otherwise produced at least in part by polluting fossil fuel sources.  The price of solar PV has dropped dramatically over the past two decades, owing in large part to China (“but China!”) to a level where the return on investment is hugely compelling – the “economical choice is now the ecological choice”.  

To quote one solar company’s pitch, “Free money is falling on your roof every day; you just need a bucket to collect it, and there’s even a government grant for that”. Micro-generation for local consumption is a no-brainer, with the added benefit of selling excess clean energy back to the grid, contributing to UN SDG 7 Clean & Affordable Energy.

No discussion on the reduction of carbon footprint can avoid the topic of transportation.  Weary motorist commuters understand this best when filling up their vehicles, with remote workers benefitting from cost and time savings and “emissions avoided” from not commuting (More on that topic under “Organisations”).

A breakthrough in transportation is the switch from ICE (Internal Combustion Engine) vehicles to EVs (Electric Vehicle), which is reducing the consumption of fossil fuels dramatically and the total cost of ownership of a vehicle. In saying that, the initial purchase price remains higher than the ICE equivalent on average. Apart from zero tailpipe emissions, better local air quality, fuelling from home, cheaper fuel, less noise pollution, and a more relaxed driving experience, what have EVs ever done for us?  

Consider this – a significant percentage of all oil is used to transport oil.  By contrast, switching your car’s fuel to electricity, your fuel is transmitted instantly along power lines to where it is needed. Combine this with solar PV on your roof and a home charger, mitigating against transmission losses, and you are starting to achieve a multiplier effect of your actions. 

In transport, we now have the option when booking a taxi via Apps such as FreeNow and Uber to select a zero-emissions vehicle, and for city-dwellers, the option to be completely car-free is now more appealing than ever, with progressive mayors embracing the 15-minute city concepts, and these Apps effectively providing “transport-as-a-service” for a new generation who don’t necessarily associate car ownership with social status.

For our electricity usage, we can actively choose a 100% renewable energy provider. In the EU, electricity providers who list as being 100% renewable energy have to procure “REGOs” (Renewable Energy Guarantee of Origins) matching the MWhs they sell. Therefore, every individual who switches to a renewable provider is helping accelerate the transition to clean energy production by increasing the demand for REGOs and thus, for more renewable energy.

Furthermore, we can make informed choices on what we buy and more importantly, what we refuse to buy. Technology such as the “Buycott” App can help inform our choices in line with our personal values.  You can sign up and indicate what matters to you – climate change, habitat loss, social justice, and scanning a product’s barcode on the Buycott app will tell you if the company behind the product contravenes any of your stated principles. 

For example, if a hazelnut spread uses palm oil, causing deforestation and the loss of habitat for endangered orangutans; if a fast-fashion item is manufactured using sweatshops; or if a company behind a product has displaced an Indigenous community.  Think of such an App as your own personal CSDDD (Due Diligence Directive) compliance tool, or borrow a line from the movie Michael Collins, “The one weapon we have at our disposal is our refusal”.

Building Smart Communities for the benefit of all

Individuals do not live in isolation. They live in congregated communities whose long-term survival depends on respect for one another, which may entail setting aside personal interests for the greater good of the community they live in. Technology has enabled the creation of “Smart Cities” which use technology and data collection to improve the quality of life of its residents whilst ensuring sustainable development. 

In practice, however, the emphasis of Smart Cities has largely been on making buildings and transportation systems more efficient to reduce carbon footprint.  We will see an increasing shift in emphasis from Smart Cities (denoting buildings) to Smart Communities (emphasising human beings). The first real step in this transition has been the shift to remote working brought about by the pandemic, but many other activities are expected to be disrupted by technology.  

This includes the usual suspects such as ride-sharing, intelligence traffic management systems and parking (largely enabled through IoT technology) and waste management systems, to name a few.  We believe that the very concept of Community will be disrupted. In particular, we tend to think of a community as a unit of the congregation that is restricted by geographic boundaries. 

Technology enables us as individuals to break down these boundaries and interact in multiple communities in both physical and virtual worlds bound with a common set of values and rules that secure the sustainability of these communities.  Think of social justice groups that crowdsource and crowdfund to influence policy-makers on environmental and social issues.

We expect to see the proliferation of applications designed to improve the quality of life of people across four main areas namely (i) health, (ii) wealth, (iii) education, and (iv) relationships.  Technology has the power to break down geographical and socio-demographic boundaries, enabling more equal access (SDG 10).  

Such solutions are most effective as the virtual user interface becomes a closer version of the real physical environment it represents, thereby enhancing the user experience and usability by all demographics.  This will be rendered possible through the rise of the digital twin (the creation of virtual replicas of physical environments) and Augmented Reality and Virtual Reality (the creation of an immersive environment that amplifies the user’s experience). 

In addition, through gamification (enhancing the engagement of users with the simulated environment) and Artificial Intelligence (particular machine learning or deep learning systems that can adapt and/or generate content that is highly user-specific). Moreover, Distributed Ledger Technology can become a lifeline, particularly for citizens of disadvantaged regions who do not have access to traditional banking solutions (SDG 10).

Organisations as the drivers of sustainability

Technology presents opportunities for enabling organisations to become key drivers for achieving sustainability goals in six main areas, including:

  • Designing Product and Service Ecosystems in compliance with the principles of the circular economy (SDG 12).
  • Developing and linking value chain activities and processes across the supply chain ecosystem (SDG 9).
  • Connecting smart assets for improved utilisation, efficiency and longevity (SDG 9).
  • Redefining transportation, warehousing and logistics systems for the movements of goods and services (SDG 11).
  • Strengthening and building the social and moral fabric of the communities the organisation represents to generate well-being, happiness (SDG 3), productivity (SDG 8), knowledge (SDG 4) and innovation (SDG 9).
  • Building organisational intelligence to manage all the moving pieces. Much more about this in our upcoming book, “Digital-Led Sustainability”.

Given the complexity and pervasiveness of sustainability challenges in organisations, we have seen the growth in importance of the Chief Sustainability Officer (CSO) role. One of the early challenges that CSOs faced was the lack of visibility of the sustainability performance of their organisation and a large proportion of time spent on administration.  

An analogy used was ‘Painting the Golden Gate Bridge’ in that each year, they spent many months on administration, manually collating data on spreadsheets, to produce the annual carbon footprint and sustainability report, including voluntary disclosure to e.g. the Carbon Disclosure Project, only to be back at the start again next year before they knew it.  

The Golden Gate Bridge analogy is that painting of the iconic bridge is never finished by the time they get to the “end”, where they started needs to be painted again.  The major issue for CSOs is that all this time spent on collating information for the sustainability report is the essential time taken away from driving de-carbonisation and other sustainable transformation initiatives. 

Instead of executives being forced to strain their eyes at rows on a spreadsheet or read between the lines of what a PowerPoint is saying (and trying to avoid saying!), intuitive Dashboards showing near real-time data versus target initiatives, with trend projections, are increasingly being used to present real-time facts at sustainability meetings, allowing organisations to embrace a “living strategy” for their sustainability programmes.  

The late, great renewables pioneer, Eddie O’Connor, had a sign above his desk which read, “Don’t give me the good news.  Don’t give me the bad news.  Give me the facts.  Facts are friendly”.  When it comes to choosing automated, objective, real-time dashboards versus static, subjective presentations, as the Mandalorian says: “This is the way”.

With the advent of the Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive, there will be further obligations not only on the in-scope large organisations but also on SMEs, who form part of the larger organisations’ supply chain emissions.  SMEs are less well-equipped to handle the additional compliance burdens driven by such reporting requirements.  

In the past years, we have seen several Regtech and Sustainability Solutions, such as Watershed in the US, grow exponentially.  More recently, the Irish Government has submitted plans to set up an International Regulatory Innovation Supercluster (IRIS) in the North West Region. This offers a breeding ground for enterprising startups and service providers to develop holistic technology solutions. The solutions will focus on addressing ESG Compliance requirements of organisations across several industries.

In the north of Ireland, we are seeing start-ups, such as CarbonFIT, experience exponential growth, with Carbon Management and Sustainability Reporting platforms set to become as ubiquitous in organisations by 2030 as ERP packages have been now for decades. Technology is perfectly suited to accelerating the data acquisition and reporting function, with IoT (Internet of Things) devices automating environmental data capture for CO2, energy usage, water usage, waste measurements, etc.  

Similarly, workflow and robotic process automation tools automate the transfer of data from one system to another, performing calculations and conversions and ensuring that all systems that require the data are synced to the ‘system of record’.  The advent of “Saas 2.0”, combining software-as-a-service platforms with built-in expert recommendations, is democratising access to sustainability expertise for organisations of all sizes. 

Examples include the widely-used ESG certification platform Ecovadis, which scores and benchmarks organisations on their ESG standing and includes improvement recommendations on how to “get on the podium” and achieve a bronze, silver or gold rating. Another technology is the Digitopia Saas 2.0 platform, which highlights the importance of a strong technology foundation as a springboard to accelerate sustainability.

Digitopia’s Digital Maturity Index and Sustainability Maturity Index offerings provide expert guidance on how to accelerate an organisation’s technology and sustainability journeys in tandem.  The pandemic made “remote working” mainstream, a concept that companies (in some cases vehemently) resisted pre-pandemic, as it took away their control over what their employees were doing ‘on the clock’.  The learning from the pandemic was that with the distractions prevalent in the office environment being removed, many people were more productive. They were focused on deep work and finding better, permanent solutions to business challenges than they were when in permanent reactive mode. Often, this came through working asynchronously at times that better suited them than the old-school 9 to 5 that was originally adopted from factory work for office work. 

Companies are now more aware of their total scope of CO2e emissions. This includes Scope 3 Categories 6 Business Travel and Category 7 Employee Commuting, for which they are ultimately responsible. Enabling remote working for those who can, even for part of the week, is reducing the gridlock and air pollution in our cities in support of SDG 11 Sustainable Cities and Communities. Having a company policy that only allows for zero emissions company-provided vehicles, bike-to-work schemes, providing EV Chargers at the office, and promoting active travel leveraging technology (e.g. Sweatcoin) are also positive steps an organisation can take. 

Organisations can utilise sustainable technologies to de-carbonise their operations.  They may harness artificial intelligence in conjunction with IoT sensors to assess and determine the areas in their business that currently produce the highest emissions or most waste. Through these insights, they can identify areas for optimisation and process improvements to minimise their emissions and reduce their environmental impact. 

Examples include the use of data for monitoring commercial flights and road transport, where data points provide a regular scorecard for each pilot or driver on how efficiently (or inefficiently) they undertook their journey versus the optimal route and opportunities for improvement. When utilising technology for sustainability, organisations must also consider the footprint of the technology itself – factors spanning from resources used to the provider of the materials and the potential output through the technology’s life cycle.

Therefore, sustainable technology encompasses a philosophy or mindset when creating and implementing technologies that look at its total carbon footprint. An example of a contradiction would be attempting to build a “sustainability verification” system on the Bitcoin ecosystem, with its’ huge energy footprint due to its’ “proof-of-work” algorithm, which has a huge number of nodes performing complex calculations.  

Other blockchain ecosystems have emerged, such as Vechain, that are embracing not only the power of the technology for traceability, transparency and immutability but also their responsibility to minimise or offset the carbon footprint of their own technology. In this vein, organisations can benefit from embracing the cloud when building technology solutions.  The top renewable energy procurers in the past number of years have been the top cloud providers – Microsoft, Amazon, and Google.  

Microsoft has committed to net zero across all Scopes of emissions by 2030 and committed to removing all their historical emissions by 2050.  Google has matched renewable energy purchases by the hour to their energy consumption for several years consecutively. So, organisations can benefit from piggybacking on the positive commitments and direct actions of BigTech.

Intergovernmental/Planetary Challenges and Opportunities

As we have seen from successive “COPs”, achieving consensus among the nations of the world is proceeding at anything but “warp speed”, which is what we need to be doing.  One tech breakthrough, announced at COP-26 by Al Gore, was Climate Trace. Utilising multiple primary data sources, including satellite data, and applying AI algorithms for the first time presents us with an accessible view of CO2e emissions globally.

This identifies the biggest polluters and has shone a light on the under-reporting of emissions by some countries and fossil fuel companies.  Having the truth on the side of those fighting for de-carbonisation is the most powerful weapon against the oil and gas lobbyists who appear to be multiplying at successive COPs.  As Eamon de Valera said: “The truth will always stand, no matter from what direction it is attacked”.  

AI algorithms can also be used to identify the most suitable lands and soils to facilitate climate-friendly business models. Real-time crop monitoring, coupled with automated corrective actions (e.g. to maintain pH or humidity levels), can facilitate controlled environments for the growth of high-value crops such as vanilla and saffron outside of their traditional geographies, which are threatened by the climate crisis. 

The advantages of technology can be realised in the fashion industry with virtual “try-ons”, reducing the all-too-frequent shipping and returns from online shopping. Moreover, in food supply chains, through leveraging blockchain technology for traceability “from farm to fork” and in improving healthcare outcomes by applying AI to large datasets to identify trends and shift focus from cure to prevention.

Machine learning has also been harnessed to support efficiency in power generation. Deepmind AI, a machine learning platform owned by Google, can predict wind patterns up to 36 hours in advance to ensure wind farms are optimised accordingly. Technology can be used to improve demand: supply matching for electricity generation. 

Think of millions of EVs that are “primed” to take charge when renewables are at their most plentiful (and electricity is cheapest), preventing curtailment of available renewable energy generation.  Conversely, these millions of “batteries on wheels” can be leveraged bi-directionally, feeding stored clean electricity back to the grid at times of peak demand (and prices), displacing the need to fire up gas plants.  

Call to Action – getting started

If you’ve read this far, you’ll want to know where’s the best place to start on your digital-led sustainability initiatives. There are three levels at which you can use technology to accelerate sustainability.

Measure (Level 1 – Bronze)

As Peter Drucker says: “What gets measured, gets managed”. This level includes gaining insights on current sustainability performance by leveraging technology through data acquisition (and identifying/closing data gaps), establishing baselines, and determining targets and measurements to manage the process of improving your sustainability standing.

At this level, you will have up-to-date dashboards presenting your CO2e emissions by scopes and categories, waste by category and water usage, as well as data on positive contributions such as “avoided emissions” through any existing initiatives such as installing solar PV and impacts of remote working.

Sustainability is a journey, so you will have established both short-term and long-term targets that are measured against and the ability to see if you are on track, taking into account factors that allow for changes in the organisation (e.g. expansion into new markets, of headcount and/or product portfolio).

The Corporate Sustainability Reporting Directive has a measure of GHG emissions intensity – total Greenhouse Gas emissions vs Net Revenue.  Breaking this measure down by product groups is a great way to identify areas for improvement, which brings us to the next level – optimisation. 

Optimise (Level 2 – Silver)

Digitalisation relates to optimisation and automation, making systems and processes run more efficiently. A simple example is reducing paper usage through the use of electronic document signing such as Docusign for contracts. The pandemic expanded the type of contracts that no longer require a “wet signature”, and the savings extend from the trees, water and energy used to manufacture the paper to the ink used in printing to the transport to all parties required for signature.  

With the internal workings of organisations, many approval processes, such as travel or leave approvals, were originally established using word-based forms for approvals that were printed out and signed, which can be easily replaced through electronic forms and approval workflows or through setting up the process within the organisation’s ERP system.  

With either Microsoft 365 or Google Apps being used by most organisations, there are native Apps for forms and workflows available to use immediately, and within most ERP systems, there is plenty of untapped functionality below the surface that is waiting to be configured. 

Migrating applications to the cloud, particularly to Saas applications and shutting down legacy on-premise servers is a trend that will continue to accelerate for obvious reasons such as total cost of ownership, security and uptime guarantees. However, it can also have a positive impact on your carbon emissions.  

While directly reducing your Scope 2 emissions for electricity, Tier 1 cloud providers such as Microsoft, Google and Amazon Web Services are among the largest procurers of renewable electricity globally and are accelerating the transition to renewables.  Microsoft is committed to NetZero across all scopes of emissions by 2030 and to removing all historical emissions by 2050.  This is a stronger commitment than most nation-states.  

Companies can also improve optimisations by streamlining their technology ecosystem. This means mapping out your current technology ecosystem, identifying any functionality duplications and overlaps, and then reducing and streamlining what you have.  

We have seen organisations with multiple distinct document management technologies in use where one would meet all their needs.  This situation evolved originally due to siloed thinking and low cooperation. Then, achieving consensus on a single technology that all functions migrated to not only saved them money and reduced their energy costs but also improved cooperation, governance, and security and broke down the siloes.  Once an ecosystem is established, an organisation can accelerate in embracing new lines of business solutions and business models, as the strong foundations are in place.  This brings us to the ‘gold’ transformation. 

Transform (Level 3 – Gold)

The ‘gold’ level is transformation, which refers to leveraging technology and using it to make genuine changes to business models in support of sustainability. The term ‘sustainable digital transformation’ involves harnessing technology to transform a company’s business model to a more sustainable one that benefits the organisation and the wider community.  

One example is the non-profit EnergyCloud, leveraging IoT technology to divert surplus night-time renewable energy to Irish homes in fuel poverty to heat water tanks. Another organisation, FoodCloud, are leveraging technology, including the instant notifications and location tracking capability of mobile devices, to reduce food loss and waste through timely and localised surplus food redistribution.

Microsoft has already implemented an approach in one of their Irish data centres to make their banks of UPS (uninterruptible power supply) batteries available to the grid, storing renewable electricity and making the energy available at peak times, displacing fossil fuel generation of electricity, in a model that can be replicated to any data centre (where there is a security of energy supply) and with it helping to transform the media narrative on data centres towards what they are – critical infrastructure.

Final thoughts – the power of technology to accelerate sustainability 

Technology holds immense potential to drive sustainable development and accelerate climate action. It serves as a catalyst for transformative changes across industries and societies by harnessing innovations in renewable energy, smart agriculture, water management, waste reduction and informing consumer behaviours. 

Ultimately, technological advancements provide powerful mechanisms to help meet sustainability goals, address environmental challenges, and ensure a healthier planet for future generations. We need to embrace “the power of and” using all means, technological, behavioural and nature-based, at our disposal, and we need to do it at warp speed to address climate change (SDG 13) and all 17 SDGs.  There is no more time to lose.

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