How can technology drive sustainability?

24 January 2018Laura Silva

Digital Academy Intern, Laura Silva, kicks off a series of blogs exploring the relationship between technology and sustainability.

I’ll confess up front, I’m a bit of a sustainability geek. I’ve always been a big dreamer and have wanted to change the world for the better since I can remember. Having recently graduated as a management student, I’ve been lucky enough to indulge that passion with on-going academic debates and discussion around climate change and organising sustainability-based initiatives at my own college.

Now I’ve embarked on my career as a graduate in Cognifide’s Digital Academy and am  currently immersed in the world of technology. My interest in the world of tech spiked when I started my Masters degree a couple of years ago. I was lucky enough to be pulled from Italy into an incredibly challenging and thought-provoking academic environment in the heart of London, undoubtedly one of the world’s major tech hubs.

The longer I spend at Cognifide, the more I realise that sustainability and technology are not mutually exclusive. In fact, they are increasingly bound together in a symbiotic relationship that can only flourish in the future. But it’s up to us to understand this relationship, to nurture it and to anticipate ways in which it can grow.As technologists we are in a privileged position to explore the potential for technology to be a key sustainability enabler. In fact, I’ve already started exploring how new technologies such as Blockchain, Artificial Intelligence and Analytics, among others, might contribute to making the world a more sustainable place. I’m planning to make this research the focus for a series of blogs, all of which will seek to answer the fundamental question; how are the digital innovations that are disrupting our daily lives going to play a role in sustainable transformation?

However, before racing forward, it’s always a good idea to look back. In this case, to when technology started to drive development.

Technology and development: a long-term love affair

Technology has always been a key driver of human improvement and economic growth. The World Economic Forum cites direct job creation, contribution to GDP, emergence of new services and industries, and business innovation as just four of the key contributions of technology and innovation. This applies historically to innovations such as the steam engine, but never more so than today when entire industries are being disrupted by tech-centric newcomers with a new take on the market.

Attributable to the Greeks, the roots of the word technology are ‘techne’, an art or skill, and ‘logos’, a word, saying, expression or discourse. So, in its original meaning, technology was “an expression or discussion about, or advancing, some kind of art or discipline”. Centuries later, its essence could be expressed as creating, developing, or concretely applying something that somehow improves or revolutionises the current state of things.

Technology as a catalyst

So the relationship between technology and development has always been a constant, even though the technology has changed beyond our wildest imagination over the years. And that relationship is arguably stronger than it’s ever been today. The internet and the boom have reshaped communities and society; changing the way people interact with each other and powering the development of new institutions such as global tech companies, Google and Facebook. At the same time, they’ve paved the way for the rise of smaller “disruptive innovators”, able to challenge traditional and established businesses through revolutionary technologies.

The most interesting point, however, is not just that technology continues to drive change and development, but that recently it has had an enormous effect on the rate of that change. Radical societal changes have always happened because of technology. Today these changes are happening at a much faster pace because technology has been democratised and innovation has become mass market. Today, we see thousands of new concepts and ideas being brought to market on a daily basis. Just think, 20 years ago the first mobile phone was gaining in popularity. Today we are comfortably talking about self-driving cars and 3D printing all kinds of things that could only previously be laboriously manufactured.

Technology and sustainability: a new way of thinking

This role of technology as an enabler and accelerator of change and development brings about a new and crucial responsibility. Today, even more than before we need to make sure that development is sustainable, and that technological enhancements happen in this perspective.

Why? Firstly, because we have to. We have never been as fragile as we are today. Everyday we hear shocking statistics about how we are destroying our planet and exponentially consuming more resources than we should. Symbolically, last year’s Overshoot Day, the date when humanity’s annual demand on nature exceeds what Earth can regenerate over the entire year, fell on 2nd August. In 1971, it fell on 21st December.

Secondly, from a business perspective, those who can demonstrate a sustainable purpose and preventative action will undoubtedly benefit from a new and more relevant competitive advantage. The Economist recently stated the obvious: “bosses are under increasing pressure to take a stance on social issues”. This is not new news but  approaching the issue with a digital touch, rather than through a marketing campaign, could result in something far more original and effective.

This series of blogs will explore some of the ways in which technology is driving the sustainability agenda. Everyone talks about digital transformation, I’d like to talk about the sustainability transformation that digital will enable. Check in next month when I look at how Blockchain and cryptocurrencies are already driving sustainable communities and a more transparent ecosystem.

Author: Laura Silva
Published: 24 January 2018

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