Can a hyperconnected world be really sustainable?

Truth be told, we know from long time ago that we’re not doing enough. Collectively speaking. July’s highest heat followed the hottest June on record since 1850. The effects of climate change are all around us, we’re living a global system crisis and the industry needs to act now. But somehow we’re still seeing net-zero as a long-term target. Emerging technologies are part of the problem and oddly-enough a possible solution to decarbonize. In this scenario, what are we talking about when we talk about sustainability?

Referencing Raymond Carver’s short story is kind of a cliché, but somehow talking about sustainability is like talking about love in the age of dating apps. We want a better world as badly as we want a partner, but we are hardly willing to change the way we live. This is the price of an individualistic culture.

The problem is the situation has also grown really urgent in the digital arena. Responsible for 3.5% of greenhouse gas emissions in 2019, the figures for digital have surpassed the aviation sector (2.5% in 2018). According to a report from The Shift Project, between 2015 and 2019, global energy consumption in the digital sector increased by 6.2% each year, owing in part to rising sales of wireless devices such as smartphones, tablets, laptops, printers, TVs, and other industrial devices.

As we approach 2025, forecasts show that emissions from the digital economy will rise by up to 5.5% with connected devices playing a crucial role.

John Elkington, author, advisor, serial entrepreneur and an authority on corporate responsibility and sustainable development, thinks that we face a “global systemic crisis” and that unfortunately UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDS) are not the answer. “We should work with markets”, pointed out the author of Green Swan during the Exponential Day organized by ACCIÓ, the Catalan Agency for Business Competitiveness. For him, there are three horizons of change involving “Responsibility, Resilience and Regeneration.” Now, companies need to decide “what side of the History they what to be on.”

And yet, that is easier said than done. Companies look for efficiency and profit. IoT and emerging technologies can surely help optimize energy usage, monitor emissions, improve assets management, optimize transportation, and also water usage. But they are also gas producers. So, how do we find a balance?

“The sustainable implementation of technological developments such as Generative AI and the Internet of Things is essential to ensure its own permanence and ours. At stake is our existence,” says Mons Badia, President of the Col·legi d’Ambientòlegs de Catalunya (COAMB, association of environmentalists of Catalonia). “In other words, the only way to implement greater connectivity is to guarantee the sustainability of the energy and natural resources involved in the process,” she adds.

While the average person produces about five tons of CO2 per year, training a single AI model can emit 626,000+ pounds of CO2 equivalent, that’s to say as much carbon as five cars in their lifetimes, as stated by a Cornell’s University paper. It’s true that some of the energy used for developing these tools comes from renewable sources, or cloud computing companies using carbon credit-offset sources, but the majority of energy providers are not carbon neutral yet.

What should we be doing right now?

So, today more than ever, “it is critical to discover a practical approach to ensure advancement compatible with the system’s resources and the ongoing global fight to cut, not grow carbon emissions,” stresses Mons Badia.

In this regard, Erich Labuda, President of ABB Motion Services, considers that “the valuable thing about data is that it already provides customers with the insight required to cut energy consumption and reduce raw material usage.” For instance, to detect areas where more energy is being used than necessary and to ensure that maintenance is only conducted when it’s required – reducing technicians’ travel emissions and optimizing the use of spare parts and their embedded carbon. Tarkett, the Swedish flooring manufacturer, is a good example of this: it used data it gathered from 10 connected motors to save 800 MWh per year at its factory in Ronneby (equivalent to charging 68 million smartphones in a year).

“These things are already happening with digital data-gathering but will become even more powerful as AI tools are developed further,” says Labuda.

In order to make this possible, it is also crucial that the different stakeholders share knowledge and expertise and “that the private sector which is currently leading the development of these tools collaborates with academia, the public sector and civil society,” adds Mons Badia. “Mitigating the risks associated with these technologies is not optional, so their environmental and economic impacts must be assessed in the first place, and in detail,” states the President of COAMB.

“Companies should be collaborating within and between industries. Sustainability is a joint effort that goes way beyond the efforts of one individual or company alone,” agrees Erich Labuda.

ABB Motion Services, which participated in IOTSWC23, set up the Energy Efficiency Movement a couple of years ago with this exact goal in mind. To take part, a business must pledge to improve its energy efficiency and share information – even with direct competitors, out of a common commitment to sustainability.

The movement offers information and tools to really make a difference. Among them are 10 actions companies can take right now to reduce energy costs and carbon emissions such as auditing operations, right-sizing assets, and processes, bringing connectivity to physical assets, installing high-efficiency motors to get up to 40% savings, deploying smart building management systems and moving data to the cloud.

IOTSWC24 will clearly focus on helping companies achieve these goals so that they become “Green Swans”, as John Elkington would put it. That means going beyond SDGs to meet the exponential challenges that we face by featuring successful cases of intelligent solutions coupling efficiency and real sustainability. For it’s imperative to slow down the highway to climate hell. And we can all do our part.

Article by Anna Solana

Pedro Mier

Pedro Mier holds a degree in Telecommunications Engineer ing from the Polytechnic University of Catalonia, MBA from ESADE and PADE from IESE. He is currently President of AMETIC (Association of Electronics, Information Technology and Telecommunications Companies of Spain), Shareholder and Chairman of the Board of Directors of TRYO Aerospace & Electronics, Board Member of the Premo Group and Committee of CTTC. member of Space Angels Network and Member of the Sc ientific Advisory