Sustainability & Technology: Building Innovative Solutions — An Introduction

Posted November 17, 2021 in Cutter Business Technology Journal
Deishin Lee

Technology is, of course, a double-edged sword. Fire can cook our food but also burn us.

— Jason Silva

We all know that technology has improved many aspects of our lives; drones help farmers grow crops more efficiently, medical devices save lives, and information technology allows us to stay connected to loved ones during a global pandemic. In fact, when faced with grand challenges, we often look to technol­ogy for a solution. Some would argue that the grand challenge of our time is learning to live sustainably within the carrying capacity of the Earth. And indeed, technology — artificial intelligence (AI) and machine learning (ML), in particular — shows enormous promise in tackling the complexity inherent in sustainability problems.

One way technology can help us move toward a sus­tainable future is through improving the efficiency of existing processes. For example, consider the problem of managing traffic flow to reduce congestion, and hence fuel consumption and emissions. A problem like this requires a detailed model of the process (roads, traffic lights), real-time monitoring of traffic and road conditions using sensors and cameras, and sophisticated algorithms that use data to predict traffic density in the near future and change traffic lights accordingly. Today, we are at a stage of technological development where the modeling, monitoring, and optimization required for managing traffic flow and many other applications (e.g., precision agriculture, supply chain logistics, warehouse operations) are all ready for prime-time, full-scale deployment.

Technology can also enable new business models that use resources more efficiently. Often, resources are wasted when there is a mismatch in demand and supply; we can’t get the right product or service to the right person at the right place at the right time. Coordination is particularly difficult in settings where timing is critical. Technology-enabled platforms, however, can solve this coordination problem. Ride-sharing platforms like Lyft and Uber match people seeking rides with people who can give rides, using the real-time location services and transparency provided by smartphone technology. Similarly, platforms for material exchanges can match buyers with sellers of excess inventory that would otherwise go to landfills. These materials could be anything from food (e.g., Spoiler Alert) to construction material (e.g., Loop Rocks). In contrast to typical supply chain relationships where buyers and sellers are in the same industry, these platforms can foster cross-industry partnerships that find innovative uses for excess inventory.

However, we all know that there is no free lunch. In the process of enabling new business models (sustainable or not) and making existing processes more efficient, technology leaves its own environmental footprint — and this can be significant. Making sensors, devices, servers, and supporting digital infrastructure requires raw material extraction, manufacturing, distribution, and installation. During the usage phase of its lifecycle, technology requires an energy source. The more com­plex the problem, the higher the processing power, the more data, and the higher the energy consumption of AI and ML solutions. Finally, at the end of life, elec­tronic devices are arguably even more environmentally harmful, often ending up in landfills, resulting in an environmental double whammy: valuable material that could be recycled is wasted and becomes a pollutant.

In This Issue

The challenge is how to leverage technology to move us toward a more sustainable future, while mitigating its own impact. This issue of Cutter Business Technology Journal (CBTJ) explores the dual sides of the technology sword — the potential for environmental benefit and harm — and, in true karmic spirit, how technology can help itself be more sustainable.

In our first article, returning CBTJ contributor Jacek Chmiel draws attention to the increasing energy consumption by the electronic devices integrated into our daily lives. In addition to the ubiquitous mobile devices we all carry around, there are billions of devices (employing the Internet of Things and the Internet of Everything), not to mention back-end servers, all of which consume energy. Exacerbating this problem are ML and distributed ledger technol­ogies (DLTs), such as blockchain, that require intensive computing cycles, and use even more energy. The good news is that a greener software development strategy can have significant impact on energy usage of electronic devices. Chmiel explains the challenges to implementing this strategy and how organizations can overcome them.

Next, Rohit Nishant and Thompson S.H. Teo further explore the environmental impact of AI and ML. Specifically, the applications where these technologies add the most value are those that require heterogenous data in complex settings (e.g., optimizing smart cities, modeling climate change). In the process of creating value, these large AI and ML models require energy-intensive computing, leaving a huge carbon foot­print. To counteract these concerns, Nishant and Teo offer the “Align, Reduce, Measure” (ARM) framework for mitigating the environmental impact of AI and ML algorithms. The framework encompasses the organiz­ational structure, addresses data heterogeneity, and measures results to create accountability.

Our third article goes beyond mitigating negative environmental impacts. Simon Schillebeeckx proposes a focus on regeneration as a way for small carbon footprint firms (e.g., consulting, financial services firms) to make a positive sustainability impact. As Schillebeeckx highlights, service industry firms can proactively contribute to the regeneration of common pool resources, such as forests and lakes, which often become neglected or overused due to the “Tragedy of the Commons” effect. What makes regeneration different compared to more traditional donations to a conservation nonprofit like the World Wildlife Fund is the use of digital technology that enables an organization to lay claim to the eco­system benefits it generates through its support. The digitization of benefits claims provides a transparent accounting system for environmental benefits, so to speak. Schillebeeckx explains how transparency and accountability can lay the foundation for firms to work together to preserve and restore common pool resources.

Next, we hear directly from a global humanitarian organization on how it is using technology to increase its social impact. Cutter Consortium conducted an interview with Dejan Jakovljevic, CIO and Director of the Digitalization and Informatics Division of the United Nations (UN) Food and Agriculture Organization (FAO), on how FAO uses technology to reduce world hunger. Jakovljevic tells us how FAO has embraced digital technologies to not only improve its own internal processes but also to develop tools for its members. He explains how FAO transformed from a traditional sequential project management process to a nimble, risk-taking process better suited to addressing the needs of our rapidly changing world. As an example, Jakovljevic highlights how FAO’s digital capabilities enable the organization to adapt quickly to real-time data with cross-disciplinary “tiger teams.” The organization has also invested in cutting-edge technologies, such as its geospatial platform, Hand-in-Hand. It’s inspiring to learn how FAO has co-evolved its organizational processes with tech­nological advances to better serve its humanitarian mandate.

Finally, Cutter Consortium Senior Consultant Curt Hall presents intriguing examples of how corporations and governments use AI and compatible technologies to move us toward a more sustainable world. Coming back full circle to Chmiel’s piece, Hall explains how many companies are using AI to reduce the energy consumption of … AI(!) and other digital technologies. He illustrates innovative technology-based solutions being developed for tracking carbon emissions and presents a selection of companies targeting key infra­structure areas for carbon reduction initiatives (e.g., data centers, transportation, waste management).

No Silver Bullet

As the breadth of ideas presented in this issue of CBTJ suggests, there is no silver bullet when it comes to sustainability. Complex problems call for multifac­eted solutions. We are fortunate that both hardware (devices) and software (algorithms) technologies have dramatically improved their capability and flexibility. But we need more. We need scientists, engineers, entrepreneurs, and citizens to bring their different perspectives to bear on the sustainability problem — to creatively apply the power of technology — without burning ourselves on the technological flame.

About The Author
Deishin Lee
Deishin Lee is Associate Professor of Operations Management and Sustainability at Ivey Business School, Canada, and a Cutter Consortium Fellow. She focuses on innovative operational and supply chain models that use raw material resources more effectively to reduce waste and improve environmental sustainability. Ms. Lee has studied the optimization of joint production operations of firms that sell their waste streams and food supply chain… Read More