Data Sustainability – the new frontier

Mihai Cristea 21/06/2021 | 16:45

The volume of digital information stored in data centres is growing, accounting for 2 percent of global electricity consumption, and that figure could quadruple to 8 percent by 2030, according to figures cited by Bloomberg and presented in Wunderman Thomson’s “Future 100 2021” report.

By Romanita Oprea

 

Every email sent and every Google search performed, whether on a computer or on a mobile phone, has an environmental cost. In an increasingly online world, that burden mounts up like waste in a landfill. According to a March 2019 report by the Shift Project think tank, digital technologies are responsible for 3.7 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions—a similar amount to those generated by the airline industry. Moreover, according to the study, console waste is a related issue, due to the minerals used in the manufacturing of gaming systems and the difficulties around safe and eco-friendly disposal.

A 2020 study by researchers at Lancaster University in the United Kingdom forecast that a large-scale switch to streaming games rather than using consoles could prompt a 30 percent increase in gaming-related carbon emissions by 2030. Microsoft and Google are addressing this issue, both claiming that their data centres are carbon-neutral. Microsoft is working towards renewable energy solutions in its Azure data centres, citing a 2018 in-house study that showed cloud computing could be “up to 98 percent more carbon-efficient than on-premise solutions.”

Big Data is also expected to play a key role in sustainable development in the public and institutional sphere, in what can be described as the transformation of Big Data into Sustainable Data. “The ‘data revolution’ has been around for almost a decade and will keep accelerating. The amount of data that can be collected will impact every single activity on this planet, in both public institutions and corporations. We have to be aware that until the pandemic hit and before the 2030 Sustainability Agenda was introduced, most sustainability actions were PR/image-driven,” says Adrian Enache, CEO at Omniperform.

However, with the emergence of standards, reports, and more importantly, tools that could bring transparency to sustainability efforts, Big Data sheds light on the future. “More and more funds and investors are bringing attention to financial rating by taking it through the filter of sustainability and fulfilled objectives. And luckily, technology and the data revolution are here to make it easy to confirm whether it is happening. So, positive pressure will come from sources of funding or access to capital as well, and that is something that keeps the world spinning,” Adrian Enache adds.

In turn, public sustainability policy expert Titus Lipovan confirms that the radical innovative breakthroughs we have experienced in the past decade and the openness to change that our societies have shown in recent years lead us to believe that Big Data can definitely become Sustainable Data. “But only as long as the process of collecting, analysing, and disclosing data is carried out under the principles of good democratic governance, especially in terms of sustainability and long-term orientation, the rule of law, ethical conduct, openness and transparency, and last but not least, accountability,” Lipovan argues.

As environmental issues become real for many countries, both the private and public sectors need to find solutions for sustainable development. At the moment, companies are at the forefront when it comes to utilising huge amounts of data and turning them into value.

“And if we look at existing solutions for social and environmental issues that cause concern in the public sector, we can easily understand how using Big Data can also have a beneficial impact with visible results for governments. However, implementing a data-driven system requires specialised professionals, a change of mindset, new data protection regulations, and time, all of which make the process more difficult and complex. Hence, even if the benefits are undeniable, implementation may be arduous and we cannot expect immediate changes,” explains Anca Muraru, founder of Gaiance.com.

 

Looking in

Big data can assist a business owner in understanding the end-to-end impact of their operations. They can now look at their raw material sourcing, product disposal, and even employee travel, then determine the most effective way to reduce waste throughout the value chain. “The capacity of big data analytics to enhance decision-making has broad appeal. Environmental organisations have employed these solutions to improve their practices and refine their methods. Many technologies now exist that support conservation projects, such as Aqueduct’s mapping tool,” said Emily Folk for datafloq.com.

With Aqueduct’s mapping tool, users can monitor and calculate water risk anywhere in the world, all from the comfort and convenience of their laptop. They can sort through parameters like quantity and quality, as well as regulatory issues — a key piece of information with value for future initiatives.

“Among the many benefits of big data for sustainability, its function in the enforcement of regulatory practices is also notable. Countries around the world can keep track of their emissions, reaching renewable energy goals as they raise standards of sustainability in all sectors, such as agriculture,” added Emily Folk.

Companies and conservationists alike can employ big data to improve their practices. If we consider the fact that 2015 alone had more data recorded than the entire history of mankind until 2014, there is no doubt that Big Data will become a powerful tool for monitoring sustainable development as interest in social, environmental, and economic global advances grows. So, what measures should be taken in that regard? According to Adrian Enache, almost half of the countries being tracked by the Global Sustainable Development Goals Indicators are yet to have Big Data systems which are able to deliver reliable data. So, the need for private-public partnerships to implement better strategies to acquire, interpret, and standardise data are critical to these countries. And the pandemic has further affected data collection activities, especially in less-digitalized countries.

“In terms of objectives, we have to keep our eyes on the 2030 Agenda and prioritise them based on our country-wide cultural specifics and urgencies. The list is more than self-explanatory on how to act by using the volume of data we can track, record, interpret, and correlate towards our objectives. And by building strong partnerships between public institutions and the business environment, these objectives can be reached faster and have much more impact,” says Omniperform’s CEO.

 

At the same time, Titus Lipovan believes that the most important measure that must be taken is shifting the current focus on the quantity of recorded data to the quality of the data – what we really need to record and how to standardise the means of disclosing this data, in the most ethical and transparent way, to all stakeholders. Plus, another important measure is sustaining the technological transfer into practical strategic management tools, in both the public and private sector. “Technological developments are already allowing sound and reliable data collection, which allows us to improve the analysis of unregulated information. For example, AI applications include machine-automated analysis and forecasting which can process SDG-related big data identifying accurate patterns and can produce data for complex non-financial KPIs; blockchain can generate traceable SDG information for sustainability reporting through permanent audit trails and can ensure compliance with health and safety standards and import regulations through a documented chain of custody,” says Titus Lipovan.

From the regulatory point of view, the European Single Electronic Format (ESEF) already states that starting from 1 January 2020 all listed European companies are required to label their financial reports with XBRL (EXTENSIBLE BUSINESS REPORTING LANGUAGE) tags.  XBRL is a reporting tool developed to improve the exchange of information among systems that can use predefined tags and can offer real-time transparency around the implementation status of SDG targets, as well as a holistic approach to integrated reporting by interweaving SDGs and financial data.

 

Awareness and solutions

So, how can companies be more aware of sustainability when it comes to the data they create and work with daily? According to Lipovan, in the next two years, many companies will be engaged in the first major update of their sustainability strategies. This represents a key opportunity for any businesses to make their first mature step into sustainability: that of identifying and integrating sustainability strategies, a standard framework for sustainability reporting like SDGs, GRI (GLOBAL REPORTING INITIATIVE) or Global Compact, for example. “This way, the data that will be created will help them in the process of monitoring their strategies, building their Sustainability Reporting, and positioning themselves as active and responsible players in the worldwide sustainability ecosystem,” he adds.

Solutions come as a response to a need – of reducing waste, increasing profits, improving the wellbeing of employees or minimising costs. Therefore, even companies that may not be interested in sustainability can become more aware of the environmental costs they produce while aiming to improve their image and respond to customers’ desires. Within the company, by analysing the waste they produce and the energy they consume, among other factors, data analytics can help them reduce costs, improve productivity or reduce carbon emissions.

“As for the products companies sell, acknowledging and taking responsibility for the lifecycle of a product is becoming really important. It starts with the soil used to grow the raw material, the water that’s being used, and the employees’ working conditions, followed by end-to-end supply chain management, measuring CO2 generated by transportation, all the way to how the product is used and how it gets disposed of. Even though the product’s lifecycle wasn’t taken into consideration in the past, nowadays it cannot be ignored, nor should be the potential for optimisation. I’ve already seen discussions about blockchain-based product lifecycle management systems that could be implemented,” says Anca Muraru.

Consumers are becoming more aware of the environmental issues companies generate and they are opting for more transparent and environmental-friendly alternatives. In the future, this will become the norm and companies that choose to proactively implement changes will surely gain attention.

 

The road ahead

Since 2015, when the Sustainable Development Goals were announced, we’ve seen companies that have taken them seriously and started developing solutions for one or more of the 169 targets of the 17 goals. Some of them are using Big Data analytics or blockchain technology to develop their products and services. For example, AID:Tech, a company that provides digital identity solutions, decided to work within SDG 16.9: “by 2030 provide legal identity for all, including free birth registrations.” Energyly, a company that uses energy analytics and insights to help reduce power usage, focuses on SDG 7: “ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all.”

Moreover, Anca Muraru notes that ReGen Villages is a great example of using artificial intelligence and machine learning algorithms to create a neighbourhood that is self-reliant and produces surplus energy, clean water, and organic food. It’s the perfect combination of technology and nature at their best with the aim of providing a healthy and sustainable lifestyle for all its residents. As a plus, their system could be synced with other ReGen communities which could learn from one another.

“I think that in the future we will hear more about the circular economy, where nothing is wasted. That means keeping resources in use for as long as possible, getting the highest possible value out of them and, when they can no longer be used, recover and regenerate. We are already seeing Big Data being used to prevent deforestation, illegal fishing or natural disasters and I think more companies will be getting involved over the next few years. However, I think this is still an emerging field and we have a long way to go before we see big improvements. Some failures and mishaps will occur, but I consider Big Data to have an important role in sustainable development,” Gaiance.com’s founder concluded.

Big data has always been focused on “hard” data, on non-human factors. It has always been about quantities, materials consumption, hours of work, energy use, and many others. As Adrian Enache points out, the future lies in soft and more impactful data as well, such as productivity per employee, health status, and even preventing business failure due to burnout or employee motivation drops. The “not-so-visible” factors that bring innovation and make a company a leader in an industry. “In a ‘data revolution’ movement, a ‘data quality’ revolution is just beginning. This will add more and more refined data that will help us achieve our goals towards a fully sustainable world, which we want to leave to our children,” Enache says.

But Titus Lipovan makes an even stronger argument: in the near future, sustainability, big data, and technology must converge. And this convergence will impact both public and private institutions as stakeholders, as well as the whole process of generating, recording, and analysing sustainability data. “Communicating each actor’s sustainability approach will boost external and internal communication and the credibility of sustainability reports, will offer a live content & progress updates, and will help stakeholders understand the costs and impact of actions in real time,” he explains.

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