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Tech and sustainability: How companies are getting started

Sustainability can seem like a very distant goal. But there are ways to make it more achievable.
Written by Mark Samuels, Contributor
Image: Getty Images

Professionals are finally waking up to the importance of environmental action -- 87% of business leaders aim to increase their company's sustainability measures during the next few years, according to tech analyst Gartner.

By 2026, 75% of organizations will increase business with IT vendors that have demonstrable sustainability goals and timelines and will seek to replace vendors that do not, Gartner predicts. Yet a desire to change direction is simply the starting point. So, how can organizations use technology to turn long-term ambitions for sustainability into practical steps forward? Here are a few ideas to start with.

Create a prioritization framework

Athina Kanioura, chief strategy and transformation officer at PepsiCo, says that establishing a strategy and a set of priorities is a critical first step to delivering sustainability.

Many organizations will already have long-term goals in place for delivering environmental benefits and a sense of how technology might help reduce carbon emissions.

Delivering on these bigger environmental aims will mean creating a set of mini objectives for people across the IT department and out into the business. But if deadlines and working relationships aren't established effectively at the beginning, targets will be missed, and effort will be wasted.

"You can get lost in the details with sustainability," she says. "You must think of the bigger picture. Start with your long-term commitments and work backwards."

Also: PepsiCo is working with startups to tap new sources of innovation. Here's how it does it

Kanioura advises other professionals to create a prioritization framework, which maps all the things the team will need to focus on along the way.

"Think of whatever your company has to deliver between now and 2030," she says. "I use a prioritization framework for everything. It shows your ability to deliver, the complexity you'll need to deliver, and the potential financial impact." 

With the framework in place, split the work into manageable chunks. And if your target is the end of the decade, don't be scared about delivering early.  

"You might do the math and realize that it will take approximately five years to complete the work. If we have a 2030 target, we're not waiting to start until 2025 -- we're starting this year," she says.

"But be realistic about the effort that it takes to deliver those commitments and split it into chunks, so the work doesn't become overwhelming. Otherwise, everything can become extremely costly."

Deliver some tangible wins

Zarah Al-Kudcy, head of commercial partnerships at Formula 1, says while motor racing involves cars zooming around a racetrack at high speeds, the cars account for less than 1% of the sport's overall carbon emissions footprint, with 40% accounted for by logistics and the movement of F1's teams around the world during the race season.

Also: Business travel, energy consumption in the spotlight as sustainability jumps up the agenda

"To give you a hard example, we produce our international broadcast for every single race and that work entails having a production team on site, as well as all the camera rigging. We have 25-plus cameras, and then you have your production team, signage, lighting, and audio."

Al-Kudcy says leading from the front involves using digital technology -- and in F1's case, that means cutting emissions through remote operations and working to ensure it doesn't have to transport so many people or as much freight around the world. 

"Over the past two years -- and COVID-19 was a big accelerator of this because we obviously needed to limit the number of people travelling around -- we ended up moving a lot of those broadcast processes to the cloud."

Produce long-term benefits

Andrew Briggs, strategic manager for sustainability and green infrastructure at Stoke-on-Trent City Council, says a reduction in carbon emissions involves an integrated approach.

The council formed a strategic collaboration with Siemens in April 2017. Almost six years on and the two organizations have worked on a series of energy-saving projects that are helping to cut emissions and reduce costs.

"We spent quite a bit of time talking about what the future might look like and trying to build some proposals that were based on understanding the implications going forward," he says. "So, there was a lot of time spent up front and then we started to think very carefully about how we program those things together."

Also: How to trade in your old tech for Amazon gift cards

The council has invested £6.24 million in the initiative so far, which includes a £4.34 million grant from the UK's Public Sector Decarbonization Scheme, council funding, and private sector investment. 

The project covers a range of measures across 11 council buildings, including the introduction of three combined heat and power systems to generate electricity on-site, air source heat pumps to heat swimming pools, and a city-wide LED lighting upgrade. 

The scheme also includes the introduction of Siemens' Desigo building-management system, which allows the council to control the other technologies they've introduced, and the power used.

The projects across 11 public buildings in the city have reduced annual CO2 emissions by 1,415 tons and saved the council £628,258 per year in energy costs. Overall power consumption has been decreased by 4,07,272 kWh, while gas consumption has fallen by 2,864,974 kWh.

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Briggs says any attempt to make sustainability work is a long-term game -- and the council continues to search for ways to improve energy performance and reduce carbon emissions. 

"What we want to do is go back and look at all of the other buildings and other assets that we've got," he says. "We'll take another look at all our buildings in the context of a world that is another five years or so on from when we started this work."

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