Can Tech Leadership Lead Industry-Wide Sustainability Efforts?

Part Two of iResearch Services’ report, ‘How Sustainable is the Technology Sector?’, which encompasses 550 technology executives in 11 countries, is out now.

As part of the report’s theme ‘Green pioneer or greenwasher?’ – we interviewed industry experts about their views on how tech can pioneer sustainable innovation.

Speaking with expert Bruno Sarda, Principal of Climate Change and Sustainability Services at EY, we gleaned some insights into how tech leadership can pave the way for making real sustainable change not just in the sector, but globally.

What drives sustainable tech innovation?

“I think the application of technology in service of sustainability in every sector actually has been one of the great sources of innovation for the tech sector,” he told us as part of the report.

The rapidity of product cycle development in the tech sector has been a force for change unlike any other.

“Technology companies are innovative and are blazing new trails, literally creating things that hadn’t existed before,” said Bruno.

“This agility and ingenuity allows them to address sustainability more quickly than auto or aircraft manufacturers, for example, which have long product development cycles. Good sustainability ideas those companies had seven or eight years ago might not have hit the market yet.”

Although Bruno doesn’t see a great deal of unique competitive advantage in sustainability these days, as everyone is focussing discussion in this area, he does see corporate collaboration as a way of making big strides in sustainable changes. Sustainability is the key issue that he has seen bringing companies together to drive new, collaborative ways of working.

“Sustainability has been a great platform for collaboration”, he says.

“We’ve seen companies that otherwise would not be in the same room on any topic other than sustainability discussing how to reduce hydrofluorocarbons gases and in refrigerant, vending machines and so on; all kinds of other standards.”

Data challenges

Innovations in artificial intelligence and Big Data are at the forefront of the discussion about a great deal of new technology, in areas ranging from healthcare to finance.

“There’s an enormous amount of data out there,” said Bruno.

“However, this promise of Big Data is just that – and the challenge is how to make it more useable and more actionable.”

The increasing push in the science and technology sector for open data, and the possibilities that this creates for data sharing and ecosystems, is a promising area for sustainability research. Capitalizing on the insights we glean from sustainability data, and following through with concrete change, is the challenge we now face.

However, one of the areas in which concrete progress is being made is in how AI and Big Data can enable matching demand for computing power with available renewable energy to improve energy efficiency.

Bruno said: “Now we’ve seen really innovative tech companies consuming green energy when it’s available and by matching, at least on an hourly basis, using a lot of real-time technologies and a lot of Big Data and artificial intelligence, to start matching supply and demand. It’s an innovative use of technology to help decarbonise the sector.

“Tech was very early in building out corporate drive for renewable energy adoption. You’ve seen big tech companies actually now develop energy practices, and even now become formal energy market participants in the power grid.”

Sustainability and the cloud

Cloud companies are among those in the tech sector that are hanging the face of how renewable electricity is used. As Bruno noted, we’ve seen several of the big cloud operators develop innovative renewable energy practices.

Emanuel Kolta, Senior Analyst at GSMA, also pointed out that the continued development of cloudification, and its concurrent reduction in physical waste, is a another way that innovations made in the tech sector have driven global sustainable change.

He said: “[The cloud] wasn’t a green initiative. That was just a side effect. But it can help the industry in many ways to be more green and sustainable.”

However, cloud companies have their own sustainability work to do. Transparency of supply chains is a key factor when accounting for corporate carbon footprints, and in avoiding greenwashing, but the Cloud currently has a significant information void.

As Alex Nicholson, Senior Director of Social Media and Impact at Pegasystems, told us: “The largest cloud providers do not break out your footprint as a user. It’s a huge problem.”

Tech leadership vs governmental guidance

Emmanuel Kolta told us that the power of governments and international bodies can drive change, too.

He said: “We need to utilise bodies like the UN, and the European Union is really successful in many ways. If the market is big enough – like 500million people in the EU – they can change things.

“One of my favourite examples is the EU’s achievement to make sure that every phone has to use the same plug by 2023 – so obviously that will save so much e-waste.”

“It’s hard to fight against huge lobbying power, to be honest!” he added.

COP27 is on the horizon in autumn 2022, and governments from around the world will be working on coordinating collective global climate action, particularly in light of the energy crisis.

It’s another imperative from our experts, that global guidance needs to be developed to set sustainability metrics for the tech industry.

As Emanuel explained: “I think the whole topic of sustainability is global. So we have to speak about this globally. It’s a global market but the industry still has to comply with country-level regulations.”

Whether change is pushed through from the industry itself or from governmental legislation, there are clear examples of the tech sector driving sustainability for the good of wider society. With the climate emergency only getting more urgent, the industry’s ingenuity and quick-thinking is needed now more than ever.

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