Sustainability: it’s a great platform for economic growth
The select and pioneering Global Green Growth Forum – or 3GF – met in Copenhagen a few months ago.
Select, because each guest was chosen for his or her potential contribution, and personally invited by the Danish Prime Minister. Pioneering, because the Forum was convened to address some of the most fundamental questions of our time: how will we live our lives, where will we live, and what will we live on as we struggle with the twin challenges of a green and growing economy?
Atos was there, in recognition of its innovative approach to sustainability – and symbolic perhaps of a holistic, digitally powered sustainability agenda that is now appearing in global board rooms, and promises to deliver the green and growth holy grail that some have feared is unachievable.
For what is clear from the Forum’s deliberations, and from thought leaders in many other quarters, is that the old framework of objectives and measurement of sustainability – supported for many years in good faith by many corporate organizations – is less and less relevant to our pursuit of economic growth, and may even be an obstruction as we plan for the future.
Peter Bakker is President of the World Business Council for Sustainable Development, representing 200 of the largest corporations in the world. He is one of many business leaders now questioning sustainability strategies popular since the 1980s, goal and measurement dependent, and managed (some would say sidelined) as a function of corporate social responsibility.
For many years The Global Reporting Initiative represented a traditional approach to measurement. Widely regarded as the de facto global standard for corporate sustainability reporting, the GRI presents organizations with some 30 indicators as a guide to their annual submissions.
But most important, the GRI itself is reflecting a major change in the corporate world’s approach to sustainability. Its guidelines are shifting away from the concept of number counting as an assessment of sustainability towards measures of materiality that really affect the environment.
The GRI is right. Many innovative organizations have gone way beyond old CSR ‘feel good’ reporting of ‘tick box’ tables, and are now integrating sustainability within everything they do, for one very good reason: it is critical toefficiency, effectiveness, productivity and growth.
Arguably, the catalyst for change is digitization, the spawning of technology tools of extraordinary power, and availability of unimagined depths of data. We now have potential for an integrated IT strategy that will transform corporate sustainable behavior, provide opportunities for smart and efficient operations, and unlock new business drivers for growth.
Hand in hand with digitization is innovation, and imaginative organizations are using technology to breed new ideas for addressing sometimes age old operational requirements in a sustainable and holistic way.
A Helsinki data center, for example, is not just designed to provide environmentally friendly and cost effective IT services. It uses eco-efficient cooling, and the extra heat created by its servers will be transferred to the district heating network to provide heat and warm water for 4,500 80 m2 apartments in the city.
Another emerging technology, and another important contribution to sustainability and business efficiency, is provision of computing services in the cloud. Cloud means that investment in new technologies and sustainable business processes does not have to be prohibitive. Solutions can be commoditized on the most cost-effective basis of ‘you only pay for what you use’.
Digitization is also an enabler for sustainable collaboration – between supplier and customer, and between partners. Mobile communication presents great opportunities to reduce carbon emissions through fewer journeys. One of Atos’ innovations is to encourage customers to nurture that change by offering discounted rates when project teams are able to work from home.
The Internet of Things is another major development. Connected devices are going to generate vast amounts of data that, when analyzed and visualized, will give organizations new insights into how employees interact with each other and with their employers, and how customers behave. Unlocking such insights will enable us to discover patterns for more sustainable behavior and provide new business opportunities.
3GF is clear. Green growth demands a ‘rapid large-scale industrial transition’. Will the sustainability strategies adopted by most organizations in the last 30 years achieve that transition? Many industry leaders are doubtful.
But there are new ideas abroad, grounded in digital transformation, that see sustainabilityembedded in everything we do, integrated in our drive for efficiency and our plans for business growth, and inspiring confidence that we will find answers to the most compelling questions of our time.