Achieving a Net Zero Future with Digital Technologies

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10 minute read
Jo Morrison

Jo Morrison

Director of Digital Innovation & Research

Digital Placemaking

Digital Insights

Mobile Technology

Female looking at nature

This week the IPCC stated unequivocally that ‘Human influence has warmed the climate at a rate that is unprecedented in at least the last 2000 years,’ and went on to explain that ‘widespread and rapid changes in the atmosphere, ocean, cryosphere and biosphere have occurred.’ Human-induced climate change is one of the greatest challenges facing humanity and it is no secret that the rapid rise of digital technologies is contributing to that footprint, currently accounting for between 1.4% and 5.9% of global greenhouse gas emissions.

At the same time, digital technology is powering potential solutions to many of our climate change challenges and is critical to achieving a net zero future. The digital sector is on track to reduce its own emissions and has the potential to cut global emissions by 15% by 2030 through solutions in waste, improved value chain processes and increasingly sophisticated tech that can provide early warning signs for natural disasters.

Andy Hopper, Vice President of The Royal Society and a professor of computer technology at the University of Cambridge, believes that as technologies emerge and evolve we should ensure energy proportionality isbaked in from the very first lines of code‘. This thoughtful and responsible approach to technology should underpin the outlook and practice of all those commissioning and designing digital products (#IMHO).

In this article, through the themes of efficiency, exchange and human-centred design, I explore some of the ways we can design digital products and services responsibly, and in a considerate manner, with the ultimate aim of achieving net zero.

Efficiency

Developments in robotics, artificial intelligence (AI), the internet of things (IoT), cloud computing and data analytics are expected to have a major impact on the efficiency of the waste industry and we are already getting a glimpse of their transformative potential.

The European Environment Agency notes that advancements in the pneumatic sorting process as a result of automation technology – such as robots that can sort recyclables through image recognition – allows the production of defined waste streams with over 90% purity. Machine learning, meanwhile, is enabling self-driving refuse trucks and IoT is powering smart waste bins with increasingly sophisticated identification and weighing systems.

Take Bin-e, for example, which uses AI-based object recognition, fill level control and data processing to make waste management more convenient and efficient. According to the company, its ability to compress plastic and paper means that the frequency of emptying the bins is reduced by half.

Photo of a Bin-e waste bin in an office
Bin-e from https://bine.world

Gamified smart bins are being used as a tool for education and engagement, teaching children about recycling and encouraging people to recycle in order to build a more positive relationship with their environment. Some of these bins even reward people for recycling, which is certainly one sure way to engender sustainable behaviour change through the use of technology.

From an economic perspective, innovations like these can help cities to significantly lower operational costs. While reducing waste generation through recycling decreases the costs of disposal, having better segregation of materials makes it easier to put them back into the production cycle. This also reduces the amount of solid waste that goes to landfill, which is responsible for high levels of air pollution.

Food waste is another culprit for leaving a hefty environmental footprint on our planet, responsible for producing around 4.4 gigatons of CO2 and a 250km water footprint every year. The role of digital technologies in mitigating climate change is growing in this area too, with IoT solutions showing potential to halve food waste before 2030.

This is being done through things like real-time data tracking, which measures the properties of fruit and vegetables while they’re growing and ensures they have optimised conditions for growth. Smart labels are also ensuring visibility of the whole supply chain, which helps to detect damage and loss along the journey and reduce the chances of oversupply.

A little bit further up the supply chain, restaurants are starting to use automated technologies to reduce commercial food waste and gain greater visibility of their food waste stream. Platforms like Leanpath, for example, allow restaurants to track, monitor and calculate the impact of their food waste, while also suggesting ways to increase profit. Leanpath estimates its technology achieves an average 50% reduction in food waste per site. Current UK wastage is colossal and shameful, so imagine the positive impact on our environment if digital technologies empowered every restaurant to halve its food waste.

Exchange

Circular economies are heralded as being key to meeting the EU’s climate targets, as well as providing some of the most effective methods to prevent biodiversity loss. More recently, they are being seen as providing many cities with an opportunity to pave the way towards a much more resilient Covid-19 recovery, offering innovative solutions to waste across plastic packaging, fashion and food.

According to the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, keeping products and materials in use can reduce emissions per sector by up to 40%. Due to their ability to be scaled and speed up processes, digital technologies have an integral role to play in enabling the sharing and exchange of materials to better support circular economies.

Innovations in carbon capture and storage (CCS) are giving us much to be excited about, with the technology’s ability to capture CO2 before it enters the atmosphere and store it safely underground playing a vital role in the race to reduce global greenhouse emissions. It is thought that CCS could account for a third of the emissions reduction needed to meet the world’s net zero target by 2050.

One CCS project called Northern Lights – a joint effort between the Norwegian government and energy firms Equinor, Shell and Total – recently signed up Microsoft as a technology partner to explore how the technology giant can use its digital assets to speed up the project’s development. This will include exploring how a software platform based on open-source principles could help foster the technology needed to make CCS a reality at an “unprecedented scale”.

We’re going to have to create technologies that don’t exist today at the scale we need them today,” says Microsoft’s chief environmental officer, Lucas Joppa.

Canadian startup Carbon Engineering, meanwhile, recently launched a service that allows its customers to buy the removal of CO2 from the atmosphere via its Direct Air Capture technology. Carbon Engineering estimates its DAC facility in the US has the ability to capture one million tonnes of CO2 every year, which is equivalent to the work of 40 million trees.

Photo of electric cars charging in a car park
Photo by Michael Fousert on Unsplash

Beyond CCS we are seeing a growing number of companies and industries cross-collaborating to better support the circular economy. Renault and Solvay recently joined forces to create a circular economy for electric vehicle batteries, while our collaboration with Automated Architecture (AUAR) on PPE Hive last year demonstrates how you can build community-based digital platforms that enable connection and exchange in a circular way. These two collaborations are massively different in scale but seek to achieve the same ends – demonstrating that everyone can get involved.

The importance of collaboration in this area is highlighted by the launch of the Circular Electronics Partnerships (CEP) in March, which marks the first time business leaders and global organisations have set a vision and roadmap committing to a circular economy for electronics by 2030 and co-design solutions around this topic.

As Peter Bakker, president and CEO of the World Business Council and Sustainable Development (WBCSD), notes:

Electronics are omnipresent. Far beyond just computers, monitors and phones, electronics are commonly found in everything from clothing to toys. As applications scale, they should be circular in design, production, use and recovery to create a nature, climate and people positive value chain.”

Human-centred and inclusive design

This idea of creating a people-positive value chain leads me on to my next point: the importance of designing digital products and services using a human-centred and inclusive approach. In order to have the biggest impact on people and the planet, digital technologies must be designed to be accessible and driven by the insights of a representative user base.

In the International Institute for Environment and Development, Katherine Foster, executive strategy officer of the Open Earth Foundation USA, and Darius Nassiry, a senior advisor with Climate Finance Advisors, highlight the critical importance of approaching new technology as an ecosystem that puts people at the centre of all work, as well as engaging local stakeholders from the outset to better understand local socioeconomic and cultural conditions.

According to Foster and Nassiry, taking a human-centric, bottom-up approach to digital technology is key to empowering local communities to mitigate and adapt to the impacts of climate change.

We have seen the myriad benefits of this approach in many of the projects we’ve undertaken at Calvium. Take UCAN GO, for example – an indoor digital wayfinding service designed by visually impaired people for visually impaired people. It was built with users at the heart, from the bottom up, from the very start.

For the full effects of climate change technology to be felt, I cannot stress enough how important it is that the technology is designed ‘by and for’ the end product users. This is something that should be embedded into projects from the get-go and not seen as an afterthought. I always recommend applying principles of universal design to ensure we – that’s a collective we – are empowering as many people as possible through technology.

On the subject of placing people and the planet at the heart of design, the Design Council launched a new Systemic Design Framework in April 2121 to help designers working on major complex challenges that involve people across different disciplines and sectors.

It is great to see that its principles include many of the things that Calvium cares about: being people and planet centred, inclusive and welcoming difference, collaborating and connecting, and pursuing circular and regenerative goals. They are the bedrock of our preferred way of working and we will always strive to improve in these areas wherever we can. Of course, without clients for whom these qualities also matter it’s simply not possible for digital SMEs to walk the path alone… so, those commissioning digital projects need to embrace inclusive human and planet centred design practice.

Conclusion

Innovation in technologies to reach net zero should give us much to feel hopeful about. However, as we have seen, these technologies can take many forms and we must remember that none of them is inevitable. It is up to people, societies and politicians to make decisions on how to design, build and deploy technology and we cannot afford to be complacent or anything but hopeful.

What I hope this article has demonstrated is the power of (designers and commissioners of) digital technologies to positively impact the environment at all points of the value chain – from their ability to make the waste process more efficient, to supporting circular economies and platforms for exchange – and the value of responsible design.

Human-centric and inclusive design must be baked into these technologies from the start if we want to empower and enable everybody to play their part in tackling climate change. This is something Calvium is wholly committed to and will always encourage partners to adopt.

My inbox is open to anyone interested in putting people and the planet at the heart of digital innovation.

Contact Calvium to find out how we can help your business reach its sustainability targets. It is only by working together that we can move towards achieving a net zero future – and fast.

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