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Sustainability megatrends: The unstoppable force of technology and innovation

Break Bread.

By Susanne Baker

Technology, if deployed correctly, could deliver a 24% reduction in annual emissions and £122bn in economic benefits in the UK be 2030. Adopting green digital tech is a huge business opportunity, promising to help organisations and systems become leaner and more efficient. A vital move if the UK is to succeed in a new worldwide marketplace.

Renewable technology is already offering solutions to energy demand and generation questions, but it is the new applications, deployed across all sectors and in the home, that will deliver a reimagining of how society works – as explored in the previous article in this megatrends series.

One of the more obvious buzzwords that is being used (with little realisation or fanfare by many) is ‘cloud’. As backend services like CRM software, accounting, email and HR move into web-based services, huge efficiencies can be found. ICT-related energy has moved to centralised, streamlined data centres from costlier and less efficient on-premises servers that are often too big for a business’ demand. For example, the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GESI) estimates an 863GWh saving, representing 421,000 tonnes of CO2, if 80% of businesses switched systems like CRM, data and email servers to the cloud.

Smarter systems

Another trend that is driving business change and sustainability is the Internet of Things (IoT). This describes a system where everyday devices and objects automatically exchange information from sensors over a network. It is revolutionising society’s ability to collect, store and analyse data to produce informed “smart” insights.

IoT has the potential to deliver efficiency savings across the economy. An early adopter is Milton Keynes, a local authority which is actively exploring adoption of smart technologies. This year, it is due to launch a city-wide transport information service that continuously describes real-time movements of people and vehicles across the City. It will include embedded timetables, car parking, bus and cycleway information, estimates of congestion and crowd density in different parts of the city helping to Milton Keynes keep traffic flowing. The data, in turn, will be used to develop predictive traffic models to help cut anticipated future congestion.

Elsewhere, homeowners can now use IoT technology to control their thermostats through their phones, helping to cut energy use. In the future, IoT-enabled devices, appliances and microgeneration promise to help balance demand on the grid. Farmers can analyse long-term weather patterns, soil conditions and historic yield information to more effectively deploy fertilisers, and manufacturers can use sensors to optimise production – which is already being heralded as the fourth industrial revolution. Smart logistics has transformed retail operations by optimising delivery routes and distribution points by analysing average journey lengths, mileage, driver behaviour and combining this to plot the most effective delivery schedules.

Social transformation

All of these things may seem sector-specific and small in scale but they have great potential inform us. When the data from all of these smart applications and connected devices is combined and analysed to produce actionable insights, significant cost savings and CO2 reductions can be realised across the economy.

Technology isn’t all about applications, though. It is about infrastructure too, such as the UK Government’s plans to bring superfast broadband across the country. The roll-out promises sustainability benefits that are probably not initially very obvious but it can be transformative.  In Cornwall, for example, BT estimates that almost 600,000 tonnes of CO2 will be saved by 2020 from reduced journeys, better home working and being able to do more online following the roll-out. Nationwide, this amounts to millions of CO2 reductions.

Down the line, we’re on course for even bigger changes in our society. Artificial Intelligence (AI) will see machines able to improve and optimise business. Robots and drones could become a more commonplace feature of logistics systems. Driverless cars equipped with AI could revolutionise mobility. Those with an interest in sustainability need to take note of this as, while AI will help create a new set of compliance tools, the evolution of these technologies will undoubtedly bring changes to employment. We could see a new strand of sustainability focused on a sustainable workforce and the provision of sustainable full-time jobs could become an issue as big as the environment among a business’s stakeholders.

The main driver of change for businesses will always be cost, but environment managers, CTOs, CSR-minded shareholders and finance directors all benefit when better and more efficient tech is rolled out in operations. New technologies are recognised now as more than just a compliance tick-box, or a press release, but as an essential component that makes organisations – and wider society – better off.