It’s not that we use technology, we live technology.
— Godfrey Reggio,
director of experimental documentary films
In our previous issue of Cutter Business Technology Journal (CBTJ) on technology and sustainability, we concluded that there is no silver bullet to solving sustainability issues. Fundamentally, we need to change how we live — how we make things, how we use things, how we spend our time — to achieve a sustainable way of life. That requires changing many processes, from growing food to transporting people to providing entertainment. The hallmark of a sound process improvement effort is the ability to monitor and assess the current process and to use that information to make improvements. This ability is critical for the effectiveness and credibility of the improvement effort, and as we see in the articles in this issue, technology can play a key part.
To improve any process, we need to start with a process. In a manufacturing plant, process improvement always starts with mapping out the current process. For example, if an automobile manufacturer wants to reduce the cycle time of its paint operation, it would start by documenting the activities of the current process in a flow diagram and then move on to measuring the current cycle time. We need to start with an understanding of the current process in order to propose a change and be able to assess whether the change improved it. This seems obvious, but it’s surprisingly difficult to do. Even this relatively contained paint operation problem in a manufacturing plant turns out to be quite complex when we factor in all the different models, trims, colors, and so on, not to mention the supply chain implications for input materials.
Now imagine the complexity if we are trying to improve the process of measuring the carbon captured by forests. How do we map that process, and how do we measure how much carbon is captured? What if a farmer wants to increase yields over hundreds of hectares of planted crops in an unpredictable environment dependent on weather and susceptible to pests? What if a municipality wants to improve water quality in a waterway accessed by many other cities, factories, and households? Sustainability problems are so complex, it’s often difficult to even map out the process. And in the past, it has been virtually impossible to measure key characteristics in the process. But today’s technology is changing all that. Using drones, Internet of Things (IoT) devices, sensors, cameras, and so forth, we are now able to collect data in settings previously (economically and physically) unreachable — and collect the data frequently. That information is essential for designing effective process improvements, an endeavor that itself is often aided by artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML).
The ability to monitor and authenticate is also crucial for providing credibility to many sustainability efforts. Sustainability problems often arise because of externalities generated by human activities. The canonical example is carbon emissions. When we drive our cars, we benefit from the convenience but we emit pollution, and that cost (i.e., adverse health effects, climate change) is borne by others. In the past, externalities have been difficult to control because market mechanisms typically don’t work. However, the use of technology (e.g., blockchain, satellite imagery) to monitor and verify activities provides a method of ensuring accountability for actions, both good and bad. Once we have a credible way of authenticating who carried out what actions and the subsequent impact on the environment, we open up the possibility of using market mechanisms to internalize the cost of environmental impact.
In This Issue
The four articles in this companion issue of CBTJ on sustainability explore the ways that technology can be used to monitor and improve the sustainability of a wide range of processes, industrial and otherwise.
First up, we have an article from Cutter Consortium Senior Consultant San Murugesan, a frequent Cutter contributor and past CBTJ Guest Editor, who provides a broad overview of the many areas where we can use IoT to improve environmental sustainability, from energy management to food waste reduction. He explains that “the power of IoT lies in its efficiency, accessibility and controllability, and scalability in connecting disparate, distributed devices and appliances.” Many of the applications Murugesan describes rely on sensors to collect data in settings where previously it would have been prohibitively expensive (e.g., collecting temperatures from each room in a house) or infeasible (e.g., attaching sensors to crops to support precision agriculture). These sensors then feed information to data analytics software that can optimize decisions. His article gives us a sense of how pervasive IoT already is, and how much potential it still has.
Our next two articles describe innovative examples of how technology can help provide a means for individuals and organizations to counteract their negative environmental impact. The ability to offset our carbon footprints is now a widely accepted notion. We can offset carbon emissions from a flight between Boston and San Francisco by investing in any number of carbon reduction projects, such as planting trees or providing solar-powered cookstoves to developing countries. However, as with all good ideas, the devil is in the implementation details.
It turns out that whereas planting a tree may be straightforward, verifying that it was actually planted and determining the magnitude of the environmental impact of that tree is anything but. In our second article, we continue the trend of the last CBTJ issue with an interview of a top-notch expert whose company is helping to make great strides toward sustainability. Cutter Consortium Fellow Lou Mazzucchelli talks with Carlos Silva of Pachama, named one of the world’s “Most Innovative AI Companies of 2021” by Fast Company. Pachama uses satellite imagery and ML to measure the carbon captured by forests and how it evolves over time. This measurement allows us to determine whether a carbon credit that is traded on an exchange represents a “real” reduction in emissions. The verifiability and accuracy of such measurements form the foundation for robust carbon markets. Silva explains how the technology works to ensure the integrity of forest carbon credits.
A Renewal Energy Certificate (REC) is another mechanism for offsetting carbon emissions. As explained in our third article by Claudio Lima, RECs are issued to accredited generators of renewable energy (e.g., solar, wind). These credits can then be traded in energy markets where consumers looking to offset their own fossil fuel energy consumption can buy the credits. Since a REC is essentially a record of a quasi-observable event (i.e., renewable energy fed into the grid), this data is susceptible to manipulation and transaction errors. Similar to carbon markets, or any market for that matter, lack of credibility can undermine the effectiveness of the market. Lima explains how blockchain, a distributed ledger technology, can be used to ensure the authenticity of RECs and improve their market credibility.
Finally, Cutter Consortium Senior Consultant Helen Pukszta returns to CBTJ, exploring the use of drones for sustainability. From the critical application of precision agriculture to whimsical light shows, drones not only provide new functionality, they do so with a low carbon footprint. In precision agriculture, we see again that the data collection capability of drones coupled with sophisticated optimization algorithms can help farmers use natural resources more efficiently. In an unusual application that most would not think of, Pukszta goes on to illuminate the unintended environmental consequences of fireworks and the benefits of using drones for light shows.
As we have seen in this issue and the previous CBTJ, technology can and does play a significant role in sustainability. These articles have covered applications of digital technologies in energy, agriculture, natural resource conservation and restoration, supply chain management, smart cities, and many other fundamental areas of society. But I’m glad we close out the issue with a look at celebratory light shows — it reminds us that art is also important. From what we need to survive (food, energy, water, clean air) to what we need to live (creativity, play, dancing light shows), technology is entwined in all aspects of our lives. When it comes to sustainability, technology’s power and potential stem from its ubiquity.