Technology, Sustainability and Our Future

As technology grows in this ever developing era, our planet earth suffers the consequences of its rapid progress. We took a look at the ties between tech and sustainability to try to gain insight into the world we are creating and what we can do for our future.

During the last century, the emergence of new technologies has transformed and irreversibly changed our world. From economic to social aspects, we’ve witnessed a drastic increase in the adoption of innovative tools around the globe. Technology has long been considered a driving force for human progression: from the invention of the telegraph in 1844 to computers in 1937, the rise of the global internet during the late 80s as well as the launch of Google in 1998. It really is amazing to think that these later achievements were only made possible due to constant research and continuous development throughout the centuries. As the old saying goes: “Necessity is the mother of invention”, and it has been one of the main reasons for the steadily increasing progress of technology.

According to the Tech Nation Report 2020, the United Kingdom is Europe’s top scaling tech nation, increasing its lead in the world with a record investment of £10.1bn in technology in 2019; its technological success (and current boost in funding) is evident worldwide. Nonetheless, it is important to note that there are still a number of countries that are being left behind when it comes to technological advancement. During the last decades modern technologies and innovative tools have been critical in ensuring this gap is lessened and sustainable development can reach and benefit everyone across the globe.

When one talks about sustainability, it is hard not to picture the environmental challenges we have been faced with. Over the course of human history, and particularly since the Industrial Revolution in the late 18th century, technological advances and innovation allowed humans to exert a greater influence over natural resources. The ever growing population has later resulted in a heavier usage of raw materials, an increased amount of production and with this the inevitable growth in CO2 emissions. Resource depletion is one of the many negative impacts of advancement in technology. During the second half of the twentieth century awareness of the impact of human activity on the environment was raised and sustainable development came into view. Many companies have since started to ‘go green’; to implement new ways of production in order to reduce pollution and product waste.

In this way technology has lately been an ally to sustainability; with a variety of digital platforms, apps and devices developed to create alternative ways of tracking down resources, lowering consumption and providing more effective and efficient ways of manufacture. For instance Philips, one of the largest electronic companies, has long shown its commitment to reduce waste by using digital technology to capture more information on its product life cycle. Moreover, research by PWC points out that “using AI for environmental applications could contribute up to $5.2 trillion to the global economy in 2030, a 4.4% increase relative to business as usual.” These digital solutions, enabled by the ‘Industrial Internet’, are known as “digital efficiency” and their aim is to provide outcomes that are beneficial to the environment and yet can foster economic growth.

The fact of the matter is sustainability is not just about ecology. It is also an important tool to create better social and economic settings and thus finding solutions to some of the most pressing obstacles we are faced with right now. Take a look at the M-Pesa mobile money transfer service in Kenya, for example. This has empowered people all across Africa to make financial transactions without a bank. Another case would be the production of lightweight portable sensors for healthcare which were introduced around developing countries to help those who don’t have easy access to hospitals. This shows that while technology has been associated with rather luxurious products, it also plays a vital role in providing basic support for those in need.

So that leads the way to 2020 which has brought us a whole new bouquet of challenges. In January 2020 major industry-leading companies were adopting new measures to reduce their carbon footprint, fast forward to the 11th of March, COVID-19 was declared a global pandemic. Its implications led to a worldwide, social and economic disruption, a true humanitarian challenge with an immediate effect on all of our personal and professional lives, globally. As the world went into lockdown many businesses were forced to stop or pause their ongoing operations and productions and come up with, where possible, new digital and virtual solutions. Due to social distancing measures, work from home became the “new normal” for many office workers and technology has been an immediate response to this new reality. Statistics show that Zoom, an online platform for video meetings and conferences, has risen in daily downloads from 56,000 in January 2020 to 2.13 million in March 2020.

Now that all of the attention has been centralised on tackling the virus, where does sustainability stand? We have witnessed a rapid and substantial reduction in transport usage, light and power savings, as well as a prompt transition to e-platforms for education and health. The circumstances of the pandemic have forced many of us to reduce our purchase and consumption habits. Consumers have been doing their bit in helping the planet get a little greener in the last six months but what about major companies? When sales and profits have gone down, is there room for sustainable growth?

Starting from May 2020, many companies have made the move to reopen and restart their activities, implementing new strategies within the established rules. However, the future is still uncertain and leaders around the world are struggling to find prompt and efficient solutions. According to McKinsey’s latest briefing materials (July 6, 2020), there are five forces shaping our next normal: metamorphosis of demand, altered workplaces, changes in resiliency expectations, regulatory uncertainty and evolution of the virus. Readaption and restructure have come to stay.

With this in mind, one might take a guess and expect sustainability to be left behind and pushed to the back of this year’s agenda. In the last week of July 2020 we at YLD asked our community on Linkedin and Twitter if they thought that sustainability was still on the agenda of leading technology companies, bearing in mind the impact of Covid-19. The results proved interesting showing that 60% believed that sustainability would remain an important topic — one companies would continue to act upon — while other 40% thought there actually won’t be much room left for sustainable development, either in budget or agenda due to the pandemic. Although the percentage of answers does not differ dramatically, it shows that the majority of our audience would like to widen the discussion about sustainability. With this in mind we decide to dive into what big companies have to say on this matter, their pledges and see if and what has changed since the start of the year.

Back in 2015, Heads of State and Government at a special UN summit released the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development with seventeen goals to adopt by all UN Member States. During the UN’s Commission on Science and Technology for Development (CSTD) virtual meeting in June 2020, the sentiments of this 2015 agenda appeared to be echoed when Shamika N. Sirimanne, head of the CSTD Secretariat stated it is important to “(…) discuss how we can foster international collaboration in science and technology, not only to tackle and recover from the virus, but also to address other pressing sustainable development concerns, which range from climate change to inequality”. Whilst some twenty years ago the majority of companies seemed to simply “go with the flow” rather than actually move on concrete actions, the last decade has proved to be a more decisive one. The steps that big enterprises are taking now depict a sea of change showcasing their commitment to lessen the effects of climate change by increasing their actions regarding sustainability. The topic has after all this time been acknowledged by the C-suite table and a number of top tech companies have started to release their commitments and set ambitious targets trying, it seems, to even outdo one another in this respect.

Since April 2018 Apple’s retail stores, offices, and data centers have been powered by 100% renewable energy sources to balance out its global consumption. The company is also known for using its newest disassembly robot, called Daisy, to deconstruct and recycle iPhone’s high quality materials. Earlier in July 2020, Apple announced its commitment to be 100 percent carbon neutral for its entire supply chain and products by 2030. To achieve carbon neutrality means that your carbon dioxide emissions from operations such as manufacturing and travelling are effectively cancelled out by balancing carbon emissions with carbon removal. Shifting towards the use of renewable energy (e.g wind and solar power) has also shown the reduction of carbon dioxide emissions. As ambitious as it sounds, Apple released its 2020 Environmental Progress Report with details on how they are still committed to the plan “to reduce emissions by 75 percent by 2030 while developing innovative carbon removal solutions for the remaining 25 percent of its comprehensive footprint”. On top of this Apple decided to provide a roadmap for other companies to help them reduce their carbon footprint. Tim Cook, Apple’s CEO, stated “businesses have a profound opportunity to help build a more sustainable future, one born of our common concern for the planet we share”.

Likewise, at the end of July 2020, Microsoft announced that they are testing hydrogen fuel cells for backup power at data centres. This feat is the latest milestone in the company’s commitment announced earlier in the year to be carbon negative by 2030 (this means that a company aims to remove more carbon emissions from the environment than they emit on a daily basis). The pathway Microsoft will follow is highlighted in the graph below. Whilst aiming for carbon neutrality is undoubtedly a massive step for leading tech companies, Microsoft shows the need to jump higher and to take further steps towards removing the overall emissions in the environment. On top of this Microsoft has continued to prove its long term commitment to creating products that are recyclable and produced from a responsible sourcing of raw materials.

According to Forbes, Intel was one of the first companies to quickly respond to the COVID-19 pandemic, with “(…) a commitment of over $60 million to accelerate access to technology for patient care, speed scientific research, and enable online learning for students and support local communities”. In May 2020, Intel released their 2030 Strategy and Goals, including a ‘RISE’ strategy that relies on corporate responsibility “(…) to create a more responsible, inclusive, and sustainable world, enabled through technology and our collective actions”. With a post pandemic world in mind, Intel seems to have set high standards for other leading companies to follow. Tech companies such as Amazon, Samsung, Huawei and Lenovo have likewise shown their commitment to progress in their businesses in order to achieve UN Sustainable Development Goals. This tendency, although highly ambitious, is indeed an important step for sustainable development not only in technology but around all the other industries.

According to GatesNotes, “in the next decade or two, the economic damage caused by climate change will likely be as bad as having a COVID-sized pandemic every ten years. And by the end of the century, it will be much worse if the world remains on its current emissions path.” The same applies to the loss of life, as “by the end of the century, if emissions growth stays high, climate change could be responsible for 73 extra deaths per 100,000 people.” However, as Bill Gates explains, these stark facts are not what we should focus on; “the key point is that, if we learn the lessons of COVID-19, we can approach climate change more informed about the consequences of inaction, and more prepared to save lives and prevent the worst possible outcome”. There is a pressing need to create new tools to lessen the greenhouse gas emissions in agriculture, build ever more sustainable houses and buildings as well as develop and produce things in the most efficient way possible.

The fact that climate change seems far in the future doesn’t mean we shouldn’t act now — quite the opposite, we need to accelerate our efforts. Although the year of 2020 has brought us many difficulties we are pleased to see big enterprises and leading tech companies strongly committed to a highly technological yet sustainable development. The poll we ran on social media demonstrates that we as consumers are all eager to pave the way to a more cohesive and sustainable world.

The power of helping our world does not rest solely on the shoulders of the big corporations however — there are still ways smaller businesses can help too. One of the many ways for a tech company, for example, to become more sustainable is to switch to running serverless. Driven by transformative cloud technology, serverless computing ensures organisations don’t overuse electricity. We might not be aware of it, but data centers are great consumers of electricity, actually accounting for a massive 2% of total global energy use with a strong prediction of growth to 4,5% in 2025. There is a pressing need to lower consumption levels and in this way serverless architecture is an efficient solution to adopt as no physical servers and data centres are needed. This is actually something we at YLD have some great experience in — moving companies to this type of structure has effectively helped various clients of ours reduce their carbon footprint whilst becoming more streamline as a business and future-proof. If this is something your company would like to learn more about specifically feel free to contact us and we would be more than happy to see if this is the right fit for you.

One last thing to bear in mind is when it comes to sustainability it isn’t only companies who can make a difference, we as individuals can too. According to Ovo Energy, if every email user in the UK sent one less email a day we would save 16,433 tonnes of carbon a year — the same as 81,152 flights to Madrid. With this it is clear that we share responsibility, as consumers but most importantly as businesses. Smart use of technology can save money and bring efficiency to our energy consumption, increase production levels and help us move forward. Small steps lead to big changes and it is up to all of us to create a greener, more sustainable future and we can do this by harnessing the power of technology.

Technology and sustainability: what does the future hold? was originally published in YLD Blog on Medium, where people are continuing the conversation by highlighting and responding to this story.

Written by YLDAugust 24th, 2020

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