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6 New Ways Tech Is Helping to Drive Sustainability

Image credit: AT&T

As the pursuit of sustainability in business becomes more mainstream, it is intersecting with burgeoning and cutting-edge technologies that are transforming the way we interact with our planet, our things, our community, and more. Are these technologies just making it easier for us to live, or are they fundamentally shifting the way our lives work — ushering us into a new era of innovation and sustainability? Let’s take a look at six emerging technology trends that are reshaping the world we live in for the better.

Virtual Reality (VR)

Virtual reality has been a hot trend for years, even back in the ‘80s when we dreamed of watching a movie to feel like we were “there.” Now that technology has arrived in full force and it’s hitting hard in the social and sustainability world – because VR can actually allow us to experience moments and feel the feelings of others. Feeling and experiencing others’ plight and day-to-day moments from across the world is an exercise in empathy, and empathy leads to action. For example, non-profit Charity:Water is using virtual reality films, as CEO Scott Harrison says, to "literally put donors in the moment that water strikes and how people are celebrating the change in their village." Other examples include Matter Unlimited, which is using Impact VR to create empathy among large donor bases such as the Clinton Global Initiative; and Singularity University and Amnesty International, which are using VR to engage the public on a variety of human rights challenges. When we can see ourselves in another’s shoes, especially those facing difficulties with things we in the Western world take for granted (i.e. clean water and safe living conditions), this helps draw empathy; and when we can empathize with others, we want to help.



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Internet of Things (IoT)

By this point, you’ve likely heard of the Internet of Things many times, but you may still be wondering where it fits into purpose- and sustainability-minded business models. Connected IoT products are hailed as more proactive, efficient, and customer-service-oriented. For example, trackable devices allow manufacturers to efficiently service home appliances remotely, and products can inform the user when something is wrong or needs to be replaced or refilled, making these “things” more valuable.

But, on a deeper level, one of the most promising aspects of IoT in terms of sustainability is the ability to facilitate a circular economy — a system in which waste is repurposed and products are designed for reuse at the end of their lifecycle. Intelligent Assets, a recent report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation, provides a vision for a digitally enhanced, prosperous circular economy. The report states that smart devices provide an abundance of information, which can help maximize the utility of materials and optimize the amount that can be looped back into subsequent products. Objects in the IoT are embedded with chips and sensors, allowing them to be tracked throughout their lifecycles, which can enable designers and manufacturers to pinpoint exactly at what point certain components can be taken out of the waste stream and reused or repurposed. Design firms and companies are rapidly catching on to these new opportunities: Frog Design specializes in helping companies to reduce waste based off of this IoT-based vision of connectivity. AT&T is also doing great work applying IoT technology to improve health tracking, smarter cities and more.

Software Tools for New Types of Accounting

Companies such as Costco are now starting to analyze water like they would any other important inventory - by measuring it and accounting for it, often in real time. Costco partnered with Apana, an analytics and tech startup, to implement software that analyzes Costco’s water use (and waste), and worked to reduce its utility bills and present strategies for better water management. As Apana points out, carbon is already being integrated into corporate accounting and reporting, but as water becomes a major risk to business, we need to start implementing technology to measure, manage and account for it across the board.

Energy Storage

Battery storage isn’t anything new to most of us, but the way companies are now implementing it on a massive scale is quite unique. Battery storage has the ability to smooth out energy spikes from intermittent wind and solar production on-site and can add efficiency and cost savings to an energy portfolio. Jackson Family Wines, for example, is using Tesla Energy’s energy-storage technology to power its operations and save roughly $2 million this year on energy costs.

Exponential Technologies

Exponential technologies are game-changing technologies that propel society forward – think the release of the first personal computer back in 1974, cellular technology, and of course, the Internet. Today, we’re seeing the emergence of a rash of potentially exponential technologies: robotics, artificial intelligence and synthetic biology, just to name a few.

What if we could harness the power of exponential technologies to make them fundamentally sustainable, and design them so that they solve global issues? This is called the Design for Exponential approach, which provides new methods for harnessing emerging technologies and applying them to real global challenges, all while building on a foundation of proven innovation tools. Singularity University, a leader in this space, is designing processes to capture the power of exponential technologies to help improve a variety of conditions around the world.

Supply Chain Transparency

“Hyper transparency” is now catching on as we’re working to unveil what goes on deep in supply chains. Demand from consumers for more transparent products is driving companies to continuously investigate and improve the environmental and social impacts of supply chains. But how are companies tracking and maintaining quality data and accurate analytics? That’s where technology comes in. We’re now witnessing networked supply chain data analytics and insights that can make supply chains “hyper” transparent, with organizations such as Source Intelligence leading the way.

And what if we could visually map out entire supply chains to measure the environmental footprint of all the products on earth? With technology developed by SourceMap, we’re on our way there. The company is helping businesses capture millions of supply chain data points, apply critical metrics and view the data in new and innovative ways, allowing quick action on potential trouble spots in a supply chain.

Technology continues to change the world. The good news is, more and more organizations are using its power to activate purpose on many levels. The examples here touch just the tip of the iceberg — join us at Sustainable Brands '16 San Diego this June to learn more about all of these and more, and meet leading solution providers of these game-changing technologies. 


Nassy is Content Development Manager at Sustainable Brands. Prior to joining the team, she worked as CSR Manager for Sustain Natural, and before that was a Communications Specialist (Writer) for the Institute for Sustainable Communities. Nassy has a J.D.… [Read more about Nassy Avramidis]