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Lens two: Accelerating towards sustainability 


As consumers, governments and investors demand greater environmental accountability from companies, going green has gone from optional to a business imperative. Technology will present both challenges and opportunities in the drive to embed sustainability in more activities and practices.


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Scanning the signals 


The concept of sustainability — using natural resources that are renewable, or in a way that will not lead to their depletion; reducing the ecological footprint of the business; and avoiding contributing to outcomes such as global warming — is gathering unprecedented mindshare in political, economic and market circles. Making sustainable choices is something an increasing number of consumers do as a matter of course, and that businesses are incorporating directly into commercial strategies. 


Technology is a major contributor to climate change and a large number of tech companies are attempting to address this, whether by building energy-efficient data centers, adopting renewable energy sources, or developing applications that consume less in both their creation and ongoing operation. Technology can also help make our everyday lives more sustainable, by for example supporting smart cities that optimize traffic to reduce pollution.


The move to a sustainable world is accelerating, and the trend has wide business implications. Signals here include: 


  • The emergence of sustainability in government policies, for example the Green New Deal or the European Green Deal
  • The increasing prominence of ESG standards within organizations, and the movement of funds into ‘ethical’ investments and away from companies that pollute or have a negative sustainability posture
  • Technology providers touting their ‘greenness’ or other sustainability characteristics
  • Organizations adopting carbon neutral or similar environmental impact reduction pledges. For example, upon winning the naming rights to Seattle’s rebuilt sporting arena, Amazon dubbed the facility “Climate Pledge Arena,” aiming to make it the first net-zero carbon building of its kind in the world. Microsoft has set the goals of being both water positive and carbon negative by 2030


The Opportunity


Consumers want to feel good about their impact on the world and will increasingly factor sustainability into their decision making when choosing a brand or supplier. That will require businesses to examine the environmental costs of their products and operations, and adopt more sustainable strategies and technologies in response. 


Rather than a box-ticking or compliance issue, sustainability should be understood as a contributor to business goals. Advances in sustainability such as reducing energy consumption often lower costs and can be a win-win for a business's bottom line. 

Sustainability has also gained considerable momentum in equity markets under the environmental, social and governance (ESG) banner, with many major investors and portfolio managers instituting ESG targets or requirements. Green credentials can therefore ultimately enhance a company’s valuation and ability to attract quality investment.

Picture of windows in a building with lights onPicture of windows in a building with lights on

What we’ve seen

Through our Cleantech, Energy and Utilities practice, we work with clients to tackle inefficiencies that lead to waste and overconsumption. A case in point is Fresh Energy, Germany’s first digital electricity supplier, which drew on our expertise in platform development to create a versatile and scalable ecosystem that combines smart meters, a mobile app and machine learning to give customers complete visibility and control over their electricity usage. Greater availability and transparency of data provides the basis for both Fresh Energy and its customers to make more responsible electricity consumption decisions.

Trends to watch: Top Three


Adopt

Green clouds. One of the best sustainability steps a business can take is adopting a greener approach to data centers, which models predict could take up over 10% of the global electricity supply by the next decade. Encouragingly more cloud and data center providers are documenting and reporting sustainability metrics and practices. Take advantage of this and establish an environmental impact baseline for your data center infrastructure, by actively measuring and considering criteria such as carbon emissions and water consumption. Pursue resource conservation goals by creating collaborative environmental initiatives with cloud, colocation, edge and hosting service providers.


Analyze

Green software engineering. Awareness is growing that programming languages and practices have a direct bearing on energy consumption and the environment. Choose where possible languages and technology stacks as well as algorithms that reduce the amount of carbon produced by software. The Green Algorithms website can help developers estimate the costs of their code in “tree months” of carbon. Consider using Approximate Computing, a more energy-efficient technique that aims to produce ‘good enough’ rather than 100% accurate results.



Anticipate

Blockchain for sustainability. The adoption of blockchain by more industries is beginning to provide unique sustainability opportunities by increasing transparency and traceability throughout supply chains. This promises to enable companies to improve their sourcing and recycling practices, and to give consumers greater visibility over the environmental inputs of the products they buy, supporting the shift to more sustainable lifestyles.

Trends to watch: The complete matrix

Technologies that are here today and are being leveraged within the industry.

  • Digital twin
  • Gesture recognition
  • Privacy-aware communication
  • Personalized medicine
  • Accessibility
  • Affective (emotional) computing
  • Brain-computer interfaces
Technologies that are beginning to gain traction, depending on industry and use-case.


  • Biometrics
  • Computer vision
  • Voice as a ubiquitous interface
  • Facial / expression recognition
  • AI-driven interaction
  • Mobile AR
  • Wearables
  • Ambient computing
  • Automated workforce
  • Touchless interactions
Still lacking in maturity, these technologies could have an impact in a few years.


  • Enterprise XR
  • Smart systems and ecosystems
  • Human-machine collaboration
  • Intelligent assistants, agents and bots
  • Natural language processing
  • Increasing role of decentralized workforces

Advice for adopters


  • Measure, monitor and move to reduce your environmental impact. An accurate and regularly updated reckoning of the energy consumption and carbon footprint of your operations, including the technology aspects, will make it clear where action can produce ‘quick wins’ in terms of controlling resource consumption and lowering costs. Practices like green cloud optimization can produce real-world improvements to energy usage, efficiency and by extension the balance sheet. 
  • Consider sustainability throughout the tech supply chain. With most enterprises depending more than ever on a vast network of external providers for data center, cloud and other technology solutions, it’s important to take a close look at your suppliers to ensure they share your sustainability commitments. Many leading tech companies are making sustainability a priority, and the amount of competition in the space means there’s no reason to choose providers with environmentally questionable practices. 
  • As a leader, model the change you want to see in the world. Ensure sustainability goes beyond rhetoric or far-off targets, and becomes a first-class concern in the things that you build and the services you offer to customers today. Communicate this regularly throughout the organization, so everyone from developers to customer-facing staff understand it’s a key strategic consideration. 
  • Be explicit with your customers about the specific measures you’re taking to accelerate sustainability in your own organization. This is an important step in presenting your values as an enterprise and fostering dialogue with your customer base. What’s more, using descriptive norms has been shown to have a positive effect on purchasing decisions.

By 2022, businesses will… 

… put sustainability at the heart of their strategy, so it’s manifested not just in what they say, but how they create products and services, and interact with suppliers and their customers. As the urgency around climate change grows, visible and consistent commitment to sustainability will be a leading indicator of business performance; one that can’t be sacrificed for the sake of profitability or short-term returns.
George Earle

Global director, ThoughtWorks

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