What Will Sustainability Be Like for New and Emerging Technologies?

September 3, 2021

Written by 6GWorld
World in green being held by a hand
CATEGORY: Exclusives

Did you know that the world population was around 1 billion in 1800 and has increased 7-fold since then? It was 2.5 billion in 1950 and grew to 7.7 billion by 2020. The UN  projects that the number will hit 10 billion in 2050.

This exponential population growth has led to increased farming, which led to deforestation and greater greenhouse gas emissions. Today we need more power, water, and other natural resources to support such an industrial and technological growth. And the consequences of global warming on ecosystems and communities are evident.

That’s why, now more than ever, consumers and businesses need to invest in environmentally sustainable and socially responsible practices, like using clean energy and paying living wages, to secure a liveable future.

According to Matt Hatton, Founding Partner of Transforma Insights, the topic “sustainability” encompasses several aspects of our daily lives.

“We’re talking about electricity usage, about fuel consumption, about water, CO2 emissions, e-waste and so forth. These topics are interlinked – carbon dioxide comes from electricity and fuel usage [for example]. And the enterprises have a huge role to play in reducing that, and technology is the thing they bring to bear on it in many different ways,” he said.

Real World

The relationship between technologies such as artificial intelligence, the Internet of Things and sustainability is quite complex.

Certain solutions, like televisions supporting on-demand content, contribute to wasting more electronic components, which is also known as e-waste, and power consumption by local content engines, remote servers, and connectivity.

Other solutions such as vehicle fleet management and heating, ventilation, and air conditioning (HVAC) systems have associated benefits in terms of fuel and electricity consumption. According to Hatton, IoT represents the interface of new technological environments to the “real world”, and it is in the real world where most energy is used, and most savings can be made.

“Physical things in the real world really are the biggest drain on resources. Limiting that through the remote monitoring and control of those issues is critical,” explained Hatton.

“I’ll give you an example. We’re expecting IoT solutions will reduce electricity consumption by over 1.6 petawatt hours. So, [one of the solutions is] using IoT to more efficiently generate and distribute electricity, things like smart metering, smart grid, more efficient energy generation,” the expert explained.

There are both positive and negative environmental impacts with technological innovations such as AI, automation, blockchain, sensors, data analytics etc. There are also some challenges associated because it’s not just about the energy savings. The net impact of new technologies in their manufacturing, distribution, and end-of-life phases is generally negative, while many solutions generate a net benefit during live operations. You’ve got to consume energy resources in the production and distribution of these things to reap the benefits.

“There’s a lot of opportunity with AI to help with reducing the burden on people to do tasks. But it’s a bit more difficult to point at real-world examples where that might have significantly reduced carbon footprint, for example. And if you think about something like blockchain, this came out as probably the biggest negative impact because it consumes something like nine times the energy that it saves.”

Practical Examples

Technological innovations can allow businesses to lower resource consumption, decrease pollution and carbon emissions, as well as reduce e-waste — all while also boosting their bottom line. How can companies leverage these technologies to expand on sustainability as well as drive business results? Matt Hatton gives us some examples.

“Google has done a lot of work on artificial intelligence. It’s one of the leading lights, but the interesting thing is always how you apply it. They have applied AI to the cooling of their own data centres using a system of neural networks. So replicating a certain number of scenarios, training their AI on those scenarios, and developing a more efficient framework for how they do the cooling. And the result was a 40% reduction in energy use, which is quite a dramatic thing,” he said.

Hatton went on to give another real-world example. “In the UK, the West Yorkshire police used a set of telematics devices to track vehicles, speed, mileage, and so on. The result was a significant reduction in miles travelled, CO2 emissions and so on.”

Companies clearly have a responsibility to society to implement environmentally sustainable practices, but these practices do not have to be at odds with business goals.

Renewable energy enterprises represent a source of new jobs. Using less energy and plastic in production offers an opportunity to grow profit margins. For example, Swedish telecom operator Telia doesn’t publish just an annual report anymore; since 2014, it provides an “annual and sustainability report”.

Business leaders are increasingly familiar with emerging technologies and are weaving sustainability goals into business strategy and operations. Are they connecting the dots between how the innovative technologies they use to run their companies can also be their best solutions for more meaningful sustainability?

“Imagine a scenario where everybody has an electric vehicle on their drive and that uses a battery, which can be charged or discharged in peak and off-peak times, allowing us to eliminate some of those peaks and troughs in the grid. The interesting thing is that it demonstrates the complexity that we’re talking about, with the really transformational things that we’d hope for enterprises to be deploying.

“The complexity isn’t so much in finding the technologies, it’s about the business aspects, the commercial relationships, the behaviour change rather than the technical side,” Hatton said.

What’s Next for the Telecommunications Sector?

The mobile telecommunications industry, with each network generation, from 2G, 3G, and 4G, and now 5G has contributed massively to meeting the demand for mobile services and creating business opportunities. 5G is expected to further improve the average GDP because of the extended growth of mobile data traffic and network efficiency.

However, the biggest value of 5G will not come from connecting humans only, but from its ability to provide seamless connectivity to various infrastructure, machines, and devices. To realize 5G’s full potential, 5G deployment requires a more complex network with more powerful network elements, IoT end nodes and gateways. Addressing energy consumption optimisation right at the early stages of 5G deployment is a timely and effective way to make 5G as sustainable as possible.

“Efficiency of the networks is one of the critical factors driving the standardisation initiatives. For 5G, you can debate whether that also creates additional demand on the network, but in terms of being more efficient in delivering it, it’s certainly there. And I would expect that to feature quite prominently in the development of 6G,” Hatton explained.

“I really see the telcos being, in a way, leading lights in this driving for sustainable development goals. Notwithstanding even the applications that they’re supporting in terms of IoT, which are helping to drive down all of that fuel, water, and power consumption.”

Environmental sustainability done right should align profits with people and the planet. This mindset requires a long-term outlook and regard for environmental impacts in cost-benefit analyses. Achieving this alignment is an investment in a future economy where businesses can thrive.

Our awareness of environmental issues, and our ability to address those issues, has slowly evolved over the last century from land conservation to protecting people and nature through policymaking, and eventually to finding market-based solutions to reduce environmental impact. Hatton thinks that governments can and should play a significant role in this area.

“Governments need to take a strong role. It needs direction, and it needs a level playing field. I think it’s the regulatory [aspect] or the political [aspect] even that’s really going to set the tone for how things develop over the next decade. You can’t just leave it to the market to decide.”

Environmental sustainability is everyone’s responsibility to conserve natural resources and protect global ecosystems to support health and wellbeing, now and in the future. Because so many decisions that impact the environment are not felt immediately, a key element of sustainability is its forward-looking nature. So, what would be the journey between now and 2030 look like?

“We’ve seen some amazing strides in the technology tools [in the last decade] that have come up to support a whole lot of change, a whole lot of adoption of new applications and services. What we’re seeing [today] is a lot more useful tools out there, available to be applied to some of the environmental challenges that we have,” Hatton opines.

“The path to getting those really innovative technologies up and running and applied is long and tough and involves the alignment of a lot of different stakeholders. All of the various areas [IoT, smart grid, AI] require quite a lot of transformation, both in the regulatory environment and in terms of user behaviour. I think it will be something of a slow slog to get those things aligned and take advantage of all these marvellous technologies that we’ve invented,” he concluded.

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