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Applying technology to sustainability challenges

James Robey, Capgemini CSO, discusses the tech’s impact on mitigating environmental damage and maximising efficiency of resource-dependent operations

Dr James Robey, Global Head of Environmental Sustainability, leads Capgemini’s sustainability programme across 40 countries and is responsible for the delivery of a new ambition to help its clients save 10mn carbon tonnes through leveraging technology. In this column, he gives his perspective on how technology is the key to solving global sustainability challenges

Technology is changing our world, and it’s bringing new challenges and opportunities for sustainability.  Our industry, Information Technology, currently accounts for around 3% of global carbon emissions, 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, particularly when you add to this the expected increase in internet usage and the predicated 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, 2019’s Earth Overshoot Day, the day we have consumed this year’s sustainable allocation of resources and start consuming next year’s is July 29th, the earliest it’s ever been.

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 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 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, provides 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. 

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At Capgemini, we are using the data we generate to help us with our sustainability programme. We have been using smart metering in our offices which have enabled 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 (currently accounting 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 visibility 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 any human intervention.  For example, we have now 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.

These new technologies and innovations address environmental challenges at various intersections in an organisation’s operations. Combined, they offer real potential for technology to be used as a key lever to address global sustainability challenges. 

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.

Digital transformation must be part of part of the solution – not the problem.

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