Fiona Place, Director at the Anthesis Group, reflects on the barriers and opportunities business-developed technology can play in providing solutions to social and environmental issues and reshaping today’s society.
The convergence of the Industrial Internet of Things (IIoT), cloud computing and big data herald an era of unprecedented opportunity for businesses to discover hidden value, improve livelihoods and better manage growth in a resource-constrained world.
Most attention has been attracted by ideas of automating work – through the introduction of self-driving cars or factory robots – but tech breakthroughs in Artificial Intelligence (AI), Blockchain and smart metering also offer potential solutions to various social and environmental challenges.
For instance, it's estimated that by 2030:
- AI could increase labour productivity in the UK by 25%
- Smart agriculture could reduce food waste by 20% globally
- Global oil consumption could be reduced by 70% and carbon emissions by 20%i
Driving this digital transformation is the growth in the UK digital economy - turnover in this sector grew 32% faster than any other over 2010-14ii. Yet, while innovations in storage and managed services have sped up the capture of massive volumes of structured and unstructured data, processing, accessing and understanding the data itself still poses a significant challenge.
How technology can create real value
Real value creation comes through building a structure by which they can more effectively and efficiently measure and communicate their impact. Both to identify and strengthen weak areas. Such opportunities include:
- Enabling smarter working - by using AI to automate research and data gathering tasks and conduct work that can be codified into standard steps and decisions based on cleanly formatted data
- Increasing supply chain transparency - deploying IIoT to tag, track and trace products and components throughout their entire lifecycle, enabling business to reduce their input costs and to encourage all actors to adopt best practices.
- Enhancing societal outcomes - focusing efforts to create different ways of doing business. For instance, delivering education via Massive Open Online Courses or MOOCs or crowdsourcing car travel to reduce congestion and improve air quality.
- Enhancing environmental outcomes - by creating efficiencies. For example, the global launch of the first batch of Low-Power, Wide-Area Networks (LPWAN)iii in 2017 promises to drive an overall reduction in energy consumption, while smart water metering has proven to reduce water consumption by up to 12%.
The business technology challenges still to address
The value technology can bring to today's society will not be realised unless several challenges are addressed, including:
- Skills development - current and future employees will need to develop new technology skills and capabilities to keep apace with the digital transformation.
- Data integrity - whether through incomplete datasets, errors in analysis or even falsification of data, lack of true data integrity can undermine the decision-making process and consumer trust.iv
- Computer bias - without specific validation rules in place, or with the way algorithms are programmed, computers can generate misleading results.
- Cybersecurity - the inherent security challenge from the possibility of impersonation, identity theft, hacking and wider cyber threats.
- Environmental footprint - increasing levels of e-waste and electricity consumption among data centres making the ICT sector a significant contributor to climate change.
How to overcome these tech challenges?
The business sector can make a significant contribution to solving these challenges by investing in training and recruitment to support the next generation of tech talent. The correct investment will ensure digital technology is correctly applied to promote responsible practices across the value chain and to build trust with employees, consumers and wider stakeholders.
Also investment and business change on a wider scale, for example, transitioning to new circular business models, will help reduce environmental footprint and input cost, whilst increasing security of supply and creating wider societal value.
About The Author
Fiona Place is an Associate Director at Anthesis. She has specialist knowledge in climate-related risk and opportunity management as well as international experience in Environmental, Social, and Governance (ESG) due diligence and strategy development.