It’s time for sustainability to get radical

If sustainability now demands radical solutions, we must fully embrace technology and use it to sustain the planet

In sustainability circles, we are often told small is beautiful, and slow and steady wins the race; resilience is a marathon, not a sprint, after all. The clichés of incrementalism have a reassuring ring of common sense to them, but what if they are wrong?

Faced with the sheer scale of world issues, such as urbanisation and climate change, and charged with the aspiration and grand ambition of the United Nations’ sustainable development goals (SDGs), what if little by little is simply not enough? Is it time to go big and get radical?

The short answer, on both counts, is maybe. For a start, the scale of the impact does not always match the size of input. In business and industry, seemingly minor process tweaks truly can deliver really substantial sustainability gains.

By way of illustration, Frank Piller, professor of technology and innovation management at RWTH Aachen University, cites a project story shared by Tim Eschert, the founder of New York-based artificial intelligence (AI) startup Fero Labs. The tale tells of a case when, helping a large European steel mill reduce waste in production, Fero Labs was able to generate a saving of 3 per cent that amounted to 180,000 tons of steel available to be used again. The solution was to prevent “mill scale”, which is a standard quality problem, but a major source of waste and energy consumption.

Interestingly, only one fix was needed. Professor Piller explains: “The trick was to use existing data, existing sensors, existing machinery, existing people, but a new prediction algorithm.”

Small opportunities to innovate are everywhere, says Manfred Kube, head of M2M Segment at digital security firm Gemalto. “Connected internet of things (IoT) technologies have huge potential to help industrial enterprises fulfil their sustainability goals,” he says. “The possibilities are practically limitless. We’ve even worked with agricultural firms to use IoT to develop smart beehives which monitor temperature to protect against mites that pose a threat to rapidly declining bee populations.”

More common potential applications of IoT in the service of sustainability might include use of connected sensors to gauge emissions, detect water leakage or reduce waste. Remote monitoring could also eliminate manual maintenance checks on machinery and field equipment, as well as enable fleet operations to track vehicle performance or even optimise routing based on real-time traffic-flow data from smart streetlights.

It is the cumulative effect that counts, says Mr Kube. “Individually, these activities can have a small, but significant impact. But combined together, they can form a co-ordinated IoT strategy which could revolutionise an industrial organisation’s approach to its sustainability responsibilities,” he says.

It is not just industrial or manufacturing sectors seizing the initiative. High street food and clothing stores at the head of the retail supply chain are also alive to the opportunity, says Mike Barry, director of sustainable business (Plan A) at Marks & Spencer. “We have seen this collective wave of technology and innovation leaving the lab and entering the marketplace – blockchain, AI, robots, 3D printing, drones – and all of those have tremendous power to make us more sustainable, says Mr Barry.”

It is the anticipated impact of market shocks and shifts that is really driving demand for radical solutions. “We can’t just keep getting iteratively better,” he says. “There are going to be some great big steps and disruptions ahead, and I should like to think M&S has created the capacity, the skills and the partnerships it needs to use that technology revolution to become a demonstrably more sustainable business.”

One prime example of tech-led innovation, currently prompting a fundamental rethink of the dynamics of more sustainable consumption, is mass customisation, says Professor Piller. “Producing on demand exactly what customers want, when they want it, can become a strong driver of sustainability: no overproduction, no unwanted products,” he says. “Another enabler is the emergence of adaptable products, smart products that can be changed and modified via software in the usage stage.”

The key is thinking not just different, but big. He adds: “I urge managers not to stop with operational efficiency when drafting their Industry 4.0 strategy, but to consider the effect on new business models. Sustainability demands radical solutions.”

When it comes to Industry 4.0, what is in danger of slowing the rate of sustainable application is not perhaps the speed of technological advance, but the relatively conservative and risk-averse culture of responsible business applying the brakes.

Traditionally, sustainability professionals are just not very innovative

New models call for new mindsets, argues international non-executive director and author Marga Hoek. “Traditionally, sustainability professionals are just not very innovative,” she says. “This needs to change, completely. We must embrace technology and use it to sustainability’s advantage.”

In her latest book, The Trillion Dollar Shift, launched at the recent World Economic Forum’s Davos summit, Ms Hoek discusses how business can successfully engage with the UN’s SDGs. In it she analyses prospects for a range of budding game-changers in the tech space, from medicine delivery by drone in Africa, to 3D-printed food and a robotic pig that tackles sewer sludge.

For Ms Hoek, embracing the dynamic and disruptive business opportunities heralded by the dawning of the fourth industrial revolution is not just desirable, but essential. Industry 4.0 is effectively a sustainable business imperative. She concludes: “We can only reach the SDGs if we are willing and able to make good use of radical innovation, and the accelerating power of ICT and technology. It makes the global goals more achievable.”

Ultimately, the call is for radical alignment in pursuit of these shared goals. It’s time for tech to get sustainability – and for sustainability to get tech.