Applying technology to sustainability challenges

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Technology is changing our world, and with it bringing new challenges and opportunities for sustainability.

Technology is changing our world, and with it bringing new challenges and opportunities for sustainability. Our industry, Information Technology, currently accounts for around 3% of global carbon emission – more than Spain, Italy, France, and Portugal combined. If it were a country, the sector would be the third-largest electricity consumer in the world – sobering facts, when you add to this the expected increase in internet use and the predicted annual growth of connected devices by 12% per year over the next decade.

This rapid explosion of technology is compounding other sustainability concerns associated with the growing population and urbanisation. It’s also contributing to rising rates of production and consumption of everything from energy to consumer products, leading to depletion of natural resources and damage to our fragile ecosystem. According to the Global Footprint Network, we are already using 1.7 earths’ worth of resources annually – that’s more than nature can regenerate each year. Put another way, in 2019, Earth Overshoot Day – the day by which we have consumed the year’s sustainable allocation of resources and start consuming next year’s is July 29 – the earliest it’s ever been.

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However, the potential for technology to contribute to solving environmental issues far outweighs the unintended negative impacts it may cause. Innovation in data generation and analytics, coupled with artificial intelligence (AI) and advanced robotics, as well as cloud computing, have opened the door to many positive impacts for sustainability.  According to the Global e-Sustainability Initiative, GeSI, technology has the potential to contribute to all 17 of the UN Sustainable Development Goals – including over 50% of the 169 sub targets.

The most significant development of the fourth industrial revolution in terms of sustainability is the increasing ability to generate, capture, and transmit data – particularly from the IoT (internet of things) and our connected devices. The implications for what we can do with this data are huge and will be a critical feature for the sustainability agenda.

Advanced analytics, enabled by the increase in quality and quantity of data from connected devices in an operation, provide organisations with much greater insights into their efficiency. This can help identify opportunities to reduce environmental impacts across the operation, for example from energy consumption patterns, which can be adapted accordingly. In the same way, the intelligence from customer experience can be used to improve the manufacturing process, producing only what we need.

At Capgemini we use the data we generate to help us with our sustainability program. We have been using smart metering in our offices to enable the tracking and alteration of switch-off patterns, particularly based on new knowledge about the patterns of building use outside standard working hours. We also use data to analyse employee travel patterns to help us reduce our travel impacts, which currently account for just over 60% of our carbon footprint. The data allows us to identify specific high-volume travel routes, which means we can create alternative strategies, such as investing in enhanced communication technologies to replace the need for frequent national and international travel.

The abundance of data also means that we will have greater traceability of our goods, helping companies ensure they are sourcing sustainable resources, and improving transparency for consumers. Over time, this data will enable more connected consumers who will make decisions based on an increasing amount of information about the products they buy.

AI developments can also contribute significantly to the sustainability agenda, enabling organisations to make far greater use of these growing datasets, with algorithms that can learn how to optimise operations and implement changes without human intervention. For example, we now have the ability to analyse the health of machinery and send triggers on maintenance actions, at the best time; ensuring optimal efficiency as well as reducing the embodied carbon from needless repairs or broken assets.

Robotic process automation (RPA) has a significant role to play too. It can help improve process accuracy, reducing wasted or defective products and rework, cutting down on wasted materials or the need for extra energy and inputs to rework a process or re-make a product.

As organisations embed these technologies into their business to improve all aspects of operations to drive growth, they will need to think about how they can be applied to drive much smarter growth enabling them to transform sustainably and perhaps even create new business models.

The digital transformation must be part of part of the solution – not the problem. Learn more about our environmental sustainability commitment and impact.

This article was first featured on Chief Sustainability Officer Magazine.

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