Digital Technology and Sustainability: Positive Mutual Reinforcement

Date: August 8, 2018

strategy + business

Get the balance right between these two concepts, and your business can thrive. For more insight, see “How to Balance Digital Expertise and Sustainability.”

Most business leaders would like to run an environmentally sustainable company, one that does little harm to the natural world and that leaves its employees and customers healthier. Few companies have been able to put that ideal into practice because they haven’t had the data. But now they do.

Enevo, a Finnish company that makes devices for “smart” waste disposal, could not exist if it weren’t for the Internet of Things. Its devices feature embedded sensors and analytic software. They enable waste companies to plan pickups when waste bins are full, rather than at set time periods, making collection of waste more efficient and reducing costs.

In traditional industrial terms, digital technology and environmental sustainability seem mutually exclusive. The factors that propel them are unrelated. One is driven by sweeping technological change brought about by the Internet of Things, artificial intelligence (AI), and robotics, all promising to transform global manufacturing, industrial processes, and labor. Put simply, it’s about efficiencies.

The other is driven by a combination of climate and environmental degradation and geopolitical instability, all of which demand a new approach that prioritizes resource conservation and environmental governance — and in particular redoubled efforts to de-carbonize the atmosphere. Businesses increasingly recognize that it will be impossible to meet the world’s growing demand for products and services purely through a linear increase in production and consumption. People won’t be able to address the ecological and social challenges of the day without fundamental business model innovation. Moreover, unsustainable practices such as the release of toxic emissions can no longer be hidden.

But the two concepts, digital technology and environmental sustainability, are often mutually reinforcing. And we would go further: Without digital technology, it is hard for companies to ease their pollution footprint or manage waste. Without a full understanding of sustainability, the energy drawn by computers can be wasted.

Bringing digital prowess and sustainable practices together should be at the forefront of strategic thinking for any business — as a way to differentiate itself and gain long-term viability among customers, regulators, and the communities where businesses operate. In fact, it may even be essential.

Combining Digital Expertise and Sustainability
In practical terms, the two concepts, properly combined, can bring myriad benefits. In a report (pdf) published in January 2018, PwC identified 80 ways in which AI technologies could be used to benefit the environment, including optimized energy system forecasting; demand-response charging infrastructure in transportation; analytics and automation for smart urban planning; “hyperlocal” weather forecasting for crop management; and supply chain monitoring and transparency (see “AI Applications for Climate Change”).

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