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The 4th Pillar of Sustainability: How IoT Enables Sustainability Solutions

Author: Derek Mak Date: March 14, 2020

As the Earth continues to warm, many scientists expect to see changes in the timing, geography and intensity of disease outbreaks around the world. And some experts believe climate change, along with other environmental disturbances, could help facilitate the rise of more brand-new diseases, like COVID-19. – Chelsea Harvey, What Could Warming Mean for Pathogens Like Coronavirus? For the first time, the world has a common enemy, an invisible enemy that knows no border, no race, and no religion. As the world being consumed by the outbreak occurring in over 100 countries, it is easy to lose sight of the future. For hundreds of millions of people (myself included), they cannot think past the next 90 days. How will humanity emerge from this epidemic? But scientists already warned us, more unknown viruses will appear that can survive longer and transmit faster as our world warms up. Consider the following facts:

  • The rate of sea level rise resulting from the melting of the Antarctic ice sheet has tripled over the past five years.

  • The new state-of-the-art sports and entertainment home to the Golden State Warriors, Chase Center, will be flooded with 66 inches of sea-level rise if precautions aren’t taken.  

  • By 2050, the world’s oceans could contain more plastic than fish measured by weight, according to The World Counts

  • On average a plastic bag gets 12 minutes of use but takes 1,000 years to biodegrade. Today, we use 5 trillion plastic bags per year!

  • Over 300 million tons of plastics are produced every year and at least 8 million tons of plastics end up in our oceans every year. When plastic waste is incinerated, it releases carbon dioxide into the atmosphere, thereby increasing carbon emissions.

Sustainability is more important than ever: we cannot maintain our quality of life as human beings, the diversity of life on Earth, or Earth’s ecosystem unless we embrace it. There is undoubtedly a rising support of sustainability, but what does it entail? In 2005, the World Summit on Social Development identified three core pillars that contribute to the philosophy and social science of sustainable development. They are Economic Development, Social Development, and Environmental protection. 

Economic development is about providing incentives for businesses and organizations to adhere to sustainability guidelines beyond the minimum legal requirements.

Social development is awareness of and legislation protection of the health of people from pollution and other harmful activities of businesses and organizations. 

Environmental protection is about the future of humanity, the protection of our ecosystems, air quality, integrity and sustainability of our natural resources.

Some of you would remember the book published in 2006 titled An Inconvenient Truth written by former U.S. Vice President Al Gore who then received the Nobel Peace Prize for his work in 2007. That was the year when the whole world started to get more awareness about global warming. Yet, not a whole lot of progress were made. It took another 10 years, and countless global leader meetings, the Paris Agreement was signed.

The scientific evidence for our deteriorating environment has always been there, even pre-dates Al Gore’s publication. The ability for the world to do something about it, however, is highly dependent on the other two pillars – economic and social development. In June 2019, more than 200 of the world’s largest listed companies forecast that climate change could cost them a combined total of almost $1 trillion, with much of the pain due in the next five years. Then all the sudden, as it seems, the world is taking concrete actions.

On August 15, 2019, Travelers appointed Yafit Cohn as Chief Sustainability Officer; September 5, 2019, UPS appointed Suzanne Lindsay-Walker as Chief Sustainability Officer; October 1, 2019, Citigroup named Val Smith as Chief Sustainability Officer; January 16, GM appointed Dane Parker as its first Chief Sustainability Officer to chart the automaker’s path toward a zero-emissions future; January 20, Starbucks hired Michael Kobori as its first Chief Sustainability Officer to maintain “brand relevance” with plant-based menus and a shift to reusable packaging. Businesses and organizations can no longer procrastinate but must make sustainability a priority. Building a sustainable future is not limited to the few advocacies who happened to care, it is now core to every business in every sector. Top investment firms are now integrating sustainability as key metric to their investment criteria. We are witnessing history in the making. The economic and social development are reaching the tipping point. The opportunity to do something about sustainability is never more urgent.

Elevating the sense of urgency, however, is not enough in my view. Our ability to implement sustainability initiatives requires a 4th pillar – that’s Technology Development. More specifically, I am referring to the Internet of Things (IoT). IoT is a multi-trillion-dollar technology category, which has advanced to a level never seen in previous decades, standing ready to support the three core sustainability pillars. The economic development, social development, and environmental protection give us the INCENTIVE, the REGULATORY FRAMEWORK, and the MEASUREMENT to do something about sustainability. IoT gives us the CAPABILITY to enable sustainability solutions. IoT is the Bridge to Sustainability.

I had an interesting exchange with one of my contributors on this blog, Alexandrea Kritikou, an MBA candidate 2020 at Kellstadt DePaul University. She asked why I spent so much time on the background information about environment problems, history, etc. Does it not take away the key points I was making? “You don’t need to convince people about sustainability”, she said. They already are aware of its importance! I found it interesting because it reinforced my observation about the time has come for the sustainability movement. The arrival of the socially conscious generation, like Alex, will make sure that we all have a better future.

department store in Western Europe is creating new ways to engage the Millennials and Gen Z shoppers. Interestingly, they are far more socially conscious than the generations before them. Gen Z is called the socially conscious generation. The department store chain is working on an initiative to promote the recycling of fashion, toys, furniture, and other items to enable the circularity of goods. IoT sensors in the store will be used to track the purchase and recycling of goods. A certain brand of textiles would also have data on where they are being worn (of course, without the personal data being stored). When the goods are recycled, reward points are given to the consumer for future purchases.

An Australian based multinational property development company is working to digitize the way residential and commercial high rises are designed, built, and managed. Amongst the key objectives is CO2 emission reduction through intelligent energy management. Buildings and their construction together account for 36% of global energy use and 39% of energy-related carbon dioxide emissions annually, according to the UN Environment Program. By developing a digital twin platform, the company can collect, analyze, and calibrate relevant parameters across all aspects of the entire property development lifecycle.

city in the U.S. wants to be amongst the first to promote the adoption of the reusable shopping bag. As mentioned above, we use 5 trillion plastic bags per year globally. That’s 160,000 bags a second. According to the World Counts, less than 1% of the plastic bags are recycled. By putting an RFID (Radio Frequency Identification) on a more durable, reusable bag, the city is tracking and rewarding a growing population of socially conscious citizens to reuse and recycle shopping bags. 

retailer in South America created an innovative business to have consumers purchase household goods such as liquid soap, detergent, and shampoo, through reusable plastic bottles. It is the right business idea at the right time. Big household brands like Proctor & Gamble, Unilever, and Coco-Cola are all looking for ways to be part of the sustainable future. Reusable bottles can drastically reduce plastic waste and save production costs for the manufacturers. The retailer is building IoT connected stores, like the Amazon Go store I shared in my last blog, to create a tech-enabled shopping experience. Consumers use the retailer’s mobile app to transact and log reward points every time they reuse the bottles to refill the products.

A recent commercial from Cognizant, an IT Service provider company, deploying a drone to survey a hurricane-damaged property. In the U.S., there are roughly 95 million single-family homes. About one out of 50 homes have a property damage claim a year. That’s 1.9 million claims a year. By using a drone to survey damaged properties instead of driving, 1.9 million return trips, how much carbon dioxide (CO2) emission would it reduce? I will leave this one to the intellectually curious. Do send me a note when you figured it out!

New ideas that focus on a more sustainable future are global, widespread across all industries, and the momentum is accelerating. IoT is unmistakably one of the most critical enablers to these businesses and initiatives. However, I would make one more observation: the ultimate value of IoT lies beneath the surface of the connected sensors and devices that are generating and collecting data from everything. The real value is the precision learning and insights that can be harvested from the breadth and depth IoT data; the “the new crude oil” of the 21 century and the whole point of investing in IoT. 

All of these bring us back full circle to the ideas I am advocating through my blogs. We must first break down the data silos at the source (the edge), then securely bring the data together for learning and analytics. No company on earth has all the data. Since learning and analytics are cumulative, we must also have a way to anonymously and constructively share data contributing to a higher-order understanding. It is a deliberate structure like the foundation of a building. If the foundation is not built correctly, everything above it will crumble. I am referring to big data analytics, machine learning, deep learning, and artificial intelligence, and all the tools that help us get smarter and faster.

Using the drone data gathering example earlier, imagine all insurance companies have access to the data, the anonymized data, the data without personal and private information. Would they be able to process similar claims in the hurricane-damaged property neighborhood faster, safer, with less costs while contributing to less carbon emission? Sure, they can. What if they also have access to street camera data, data from the local weather sensing devices, vehicle speed data in the area? The point is that the more data coming from different angle or domain, the more complete a picture you get when it comes to analytics. To solve world scale problem such as sustainability, we need the ability to see the full picture that can only come from sharing of data captured from a variety of domains. The end-to-end data infrastructure from edge to cloud is a deliberate structure like the foundation of a building. Building a strong foundation enables smarter and faster decisions for the environment.

Now is the time to accelerate. IoT is the bridge to a sustainable future. I am all in. Check out and let me know what you think.

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