The connection between digitalisation and sustainability

Digitalisation and sustainability are two sides of the same coin and should be considered in tandem.


A growing focus on sustainability is driving forward-thinking companies to move the topic up the agenda, and IT has an important part to play in lowering an organisation's carbon footprint.

An IT department's role in improving sustainability is multifaceted, from implementing communication technology that negates the need for excessive travel and systems that can collate and analyse carbon emissions data, right through to optimising assets to reduce energy costs and embracing a circular economy to maximise asset value.

"Most organisations are at the point where they recognise the need for climate change and have set some sort of decarbonisation agenda," says Fergus Navaratnam-Blair, an Analyst at Source Global Research. "Last year we surveyed US organisations about their sustainability priorities and found that, more than any other business function, IT teams were expected to be the biggest buying centre for sustainability consulting and environmental services," he notes.

Technologies that support sustainability

As Nick Seeber, Risk Advisory Partner at Deloitte, points out, businesses need technology to accelerate efficiencies and reductions in emissions to enable a sustainable future. "In our recent study, 'Tech for Impact', we found that digital technologies like smart grids and precision agriculture can be expected to reduce UK emissions by 7.2Mt CO2 by 2030, equivalent to 15% of the overall expected decrease in emissions," he says.

Many of the latest technologies are already being implemented for 'green means', such as data analytics solutions, which provide insights that can help improve operational efficiencies.

AI is already being deployed at scale to improve the efficiency and effectiveness of industrial processes, reducing emissions across the energy, agriculture and manufacturing sectors for example, while IoT and edge computing is being used in a similar way.

"More sensors in more devices enable real time operational and demand data to be analysed for large-scale efficiencies in multiple sectors, enabling game-changing sustainability solutions from the factory floor, to the power grid, to organisations," says Mateo Dugand, Technologist, IT Efficiency and Sustainability, at Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE) EMEA.

There's also cloud computing and digital twins, the latter of which is increasingly being used to develop more sustainable operating practices, from factories to smart cities.

"A recent study showed virtual twins could reduce CO2 emissions by 7.5Gt in the next ten years, which is equivalent to 17% of all CO2 emitted in 2020," says Dugand. "It also said virtual twins would generate economic benefits of US$1.2 trillion by enabling the optimisation of projects through digital simulations."

Other technologies such as AR, VR and quantum computing all have the potential to be applied to the sustainability agenda, Seeber notes. "What all these technologies have in common is that they draw on the power of information and allow it to be combined with human insight in a way that provides the people behind everyday processes with the tools they need to operate in a smarter, more efficient and sustainable way," adds Lisa Johnston, Chief Marketing Officer and Chief Sustainability Officer at Aveva.

Two sides of the same coin

Experts say digitalisation and sustainability are two sides of the same coin; that the agendas exist in something of a symbiotic relationship. "Digitalisation allows companies to meet their decarbonisation targets, while the pressures of climate change create a business case for digital transformation investment," says Navaratnam-Blair.

"There's a real possibility that we're now entering a new chapter in the history of digital transformation ­– one in which sustainability plays a much bigger role as a driver for change. We're not waiting for some kind of big technological breakthrough anymore; most of the technology needed to build a more sustainable future already exists."

How to accelerate your sustainability agenda

So how can forward-thinking businesses accelerate their sustainability agendas through the use of IT?

Firstly, it's important to define a clear set of impact ambitions says Seeber, who recommends you ask the following question. "What would it mean for your business to maximise your positive impact on wider society and minimise your negative impacts? For most companies achieving these goals will require the deployment of IT."

Greta Monstavice, Co-Founder and CEO of Katalista Ventures, a business accelerator and private equity fund, adds that it's important that these ambitions tie in with strategic business goals, such as improving customer satisfaction, reducing costs, or increasing profitability. You can then drill down into what technologies are the best fit to achieve these goals.

Where to start?

Navaratnam-Blair recommends organisations looking to accelerate their sustainability agendas start by focusing on data.

"We've heard plenty of stories about organisations that wanted to become more sustainable, but had no idea how to quantify their carbon emissions or their exposure to climate risk," he says. "Without that information, you're just floundering around in the dark.

"Therefore, I think businesses need to start by asking themselves 'how well do we really understand the end-to-end life cycle of our products and services?' If you have visibility of the environmental impact – emissions and otherwise – of every stage of that lifecycle, then you can start trying to effect positive change and create a more sustainable organisation."

Take a holistic approach

But to really drive forward more sustainable operations, Dugand believes organisations must look beyond minimising carbon emissions or the waste IT has produced, and examine all stages of the lifecycle.

"Ultimately, it's about taking a holistic approach ­– investing in solutions that help the business adopt and make better decisions about more sustainable practices, technology and partners," he concludes.