Unifying Digital Transformation and Climate Change to achieve Meaningful Progress
I have just finished reading Bill Gates’ How to Avoid a Climate Disaster. The reason why I love this book is that across various different channels, the forecast for climate change looks very bleak. But very few of those channels actually offer practical, sustainable solutions that recognise the full extent of the challenge we face. Bill Gates looks to address this. Don’t get me wrong, it still has a healthy dose of the pessimistic rhetoric we have come accustomed to when we think about climate change, but it’s written with an optimistic tone that suggests, if we’re realistic about the challenges we face, we can get there. I like it because it’s the first time I’ve read something about climate change that puts the challenge we face in context. People don’t want to completely change the way they live today to get there, they’re willing to make adjustments and pretty major ones at that, but not completely change their way of life. And that is why the book focuses not only on sustainably sourcing enough energy to meet today’s needs, but to meet our increasing energy demands into the future. Why is that such an important clarification to make? - development and further improvement of global society relies so heavily upon it. Today, there are still more than 1 billion people living without reliable sources of electricity. So the true challenge isn’t simply finding ways to clean up today’s energy production, it’s finding a way to provide more energy to the poor but do so without releasing any more greenhouse gases.
Having pored over the data, Bill Gates seems convinced, the only sensible goal is zero. No reduction short of zero is going to cut it. If we are truly serious about saving the planet, this has to be the goal.
An ominous introduction.
If we are ever going to get all the way down to zero, our businesses are going to be an essential part of achieving that. Taking a leaf out of Gates’ approach, I thought I would attempt a similar approach. Businesses, like us individuals, need to be able to view climate change, and their responsibility to it, in context. They have a myriad of challenges affecting their survival and multiple objectives they want to achieve. So where does climate change fit into all of this?
Ultimately, climate change is only one of a long list of priorities, and a fairly new entry for most organisations at that. It is easy to think of C-Suite priorities as a list with those objectives higher up the list given respective priority, but in truth it's a battle on multiple fronts. It’s understanding this context that is so important when it comes to understanding the depth and breadth of the business challenge.
If most organisations were honest with themselves, a climate agenda has never featured too highly on their list simply because it’s never felt like an existential threat. In a world where change is happening at a faster rate than ever before, there have been many other more pressing concerns. Concerns that if not addressed, could make climate change almost irrelevant to their organisation simply because they won’t be around long enough to bear the brunt of it. Essentially, it’s an incentive problem, so we need to address the balance so that organisations are motivated to do their part. But how do we achieve that?
As I mentioned, at the end of the day, companies are increasingly fighting a battle on multiple fronts. This isn’t new and companies are more than used to fighting this sort of a battle. Therefore, it has become all about awareness, making companies aware that this front is approaching and it’s one to be taken seriously. The good news is awareness is growing and organisations are starting to view it less as survival and more as their duty. With getting to zero being the only realistic goal we can set, more and more businesses are starting to formalise plans of getting to that point. Sounds easy right? But even though many business leaders now recognise the importance of including climate change in their business agendas, many still remain uncertain as to how to integrate it with their other core priorities.
Like in so many other instances, perhaps it’s a question of perspective. Rather than seeing each challenge, or front as I’ve been calling them, in isolation, they need to be viewed holistically. So this brings me onto the main purpose of this article - how can digital transformation help push us towards a zero-carbon future?
As I have so often spoken about in previous articles, digital transformation is one of those multiple fronts organisations are battling. And if it doesn’t make sense to think of climate change in isolation to digital transformation, why not combine them? In my eyes it only seems logical. Why can’t digitisation also help organisations reach their decarbonisation targets? Can climate change even serve as further justification for investment into digital transformation?
There’s a growing school of thought that climate change, once all of the layers have been pulled back, is actually fundamentally a data problem, just like digital transformation. In this information age, it is information enablement that is driving the ever-growing rate of change we’re experiencing. As we continue to democratise the data locked in our digital tools, we can draw insights that act as sources of enormous progress. Why else are businesses so obsessed with accessing the insights hidden away in their financial data, customer data, and workforce data to drive efficiency, cost savings and higher profitability? Because this is overwhelmingly the case, the beauty of it all is that organisations don’t have to reinvent the wheel, they just have to add another string to their bow. By this I mean, they don’t actually have to divert any resources away from digital transformation, they just have to apply the same principles in a new context by channeling the same approach towards climate change.
At this point you’re probably wondering exactly how climate change is a data problem. Don’t worry, I thought the same. The key to decarbonising is understanding how energy is consumed, wasted or lost. And our best shot at understanding that is through data. As we digitally transform, we are converting more and more of our lives into a digital domain. Today we have sensors that monitor performance and software that has the power to digitise a business’s entire operational estate. And as automation and analytics continue to develop, we will continue to be empowered to manage and optimise our environments. The question only has to be what are you optimising it for? Is it for profit or is it to become carbon neutral?
In the years to come, changes in the business world will continue to be defined by technological progress. In my view, there’s no greater cause than climate change to put at the centre piece of this progress. With the power and might of innovation across the business world today, if we all pull in the same direction, surely anything is possible?