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The convergence of sustainability and technology

David Maren
Photo of online meeting with plants showing

Over the past few decades, nearly every enterprise tech team has faced continuous and intense pressure to execute on a list of critical strategies – most lately, UX, mobile, cloud, and data. Over that same period another pressure has been building in the background and it’s now bubbling to the surface: the need to define and execute a sustainability strategy. Sustainability is playing a key role in shaping the future of technology and business operations, and those who lead the way can make a difference that transcends short-term financials.

A recent Kin + Carta roundtable focused on the convergence of tech and sustainability. The event featured guest speaker Mark Kroese, General Manager of Sustainability at Microsoft, a visionary leader in this emerging operational area.

Joined by tech leaders from organizations across a range of business sectors and whose roles center on sustainability, Mark and several participants shared impressive progress toward sustainability goals in their companies. At the same time, “problem” and “challenge” were two frequently-used words during the discussion.

Three key themes became apparent: We’re all in this together, achieving sustainability is a long-term goal, and technology has a significant role in success. Those themes all crop up in these insights and takeaways.

Sustainability and digital transformation are key to business growth.

Sustainability is not just a trending topic. It's becoming a permanent force, shaping the future of technology and, more broadly, shaping the future of business operations. As more clarity is created around the components of sustainability—like carbon negative, water positive, and zero waste—organizations will turn to technology to enable the practices needed to achieve goals.

A successful sustainability program requires organizational change.

Though Mark and several other participants noted that their sustainability efforts are overseen by a central team, all emphasized the importance of embedding sustainability throughout the organization. Accomplishing this means change—to the culture as a whole, to processes, to performance metrics, and to operations. This takes time and, as with any significant change process, requires implementation from the top.

Cross-company sharing is essential.

As a member of the vanguard in the journey toward sustainability, Microsoft believes that it must share its learnings. Further, it is a strong voice advocating for a common data model for carbon, water, and waste that will allow companies to share and aggregate their data. Any company on a sustainability journey should incorporate technology that allows cross-company learnings and data sharing.

Sustainability efforts must extend beyond the organization.

Crafting sustainability policy and goals cannot simply focus on taking care of your own emissions as a company, but what can you do with the help of the rest of the world. Mark observed that Microsoft’s strong focus on sustainability is both idealistic and pragmatic.

The former is rooted in Microsoft’s view of itself as a world citizen, embedded in most countries of the world. In that role, the company has a responsibility both to take care of its own environmental impact and to do what it can to help other companies make progress. Pragmatically, the company recognized that if customers, suppliers, and governments are not making progress toward sustainability, over time Microsoft will not do well. The world must do well for the company to do well.

Scope 3 emissions are a big challenge.

You can’t track what you can’t measure. Tracking Scope 3 emissions shines a strong spotlight on the data issues surrounding sustainability programs. These issues fall into two categories.

First is low data quality. Most data is derived from estimates from invoices and post facto spend data. Second is the distributed nature and divergent formats of the data that needs to be collected—e.g., departmental silos and offline spreadsheets—up and down the supply chain. Collecting all that data into a single location is a big challenge.

Technology has a big part to play.

Technology is a key enabler of sustainability on several fronts. One is in the products a company sells. Product design can include sustainability targets. As an example, Mark shared that Microsoft Is trying to use software to empower customers to reduce their footprint.

Another participant shared that their CPG company is closely considering the ingredients in their food products in the context of sustainability. Another front is the IT department itself. Moving from data center to cloud can result in a significantly lower carbon footprint. The competition between Google, Amazon, and Microsoft to claim the greenest cloud is a win for their customers.

Finally, IT is the key to improving and aggregating data. Microsoft’s Cloud for Sustainability can be a valuable tool. The fundamental tenet of the platform is to have a common data model based on either your own enterprise data lake or Microsoft’s lake.

Cloud for Sustainability can take a range of data types, cleanse and conform them, and deliver everything in a common data model. Technology’s role in achieving sustainability will continue to grow as companies master today’s challenges.

Think in terms of the 3 Ms.

Accomplishing a unified, global approach to sustainability takes agreement by all parties in a number of areas. Mark shared Microsoft’s view of what’s needed to get to agreement, defined as the 3 Ms:

  • The meaning of net zero, that is a consistent global definition of what the terms means.
  • Measurement of net zero, which is what Microsoft’s Cloud for Sustainability accomplishes.
  • The nascent market for durable carbon removal must scale exponentially; while offsetting is essential, it alone is not enough.

Use the 5 Rs to execute the program.

The 5 Rs are a simple model that characterizes progress in a sustainability program. It can be a useful roadmap to determine what actions are needed:

  • Record (data capture)
  • Report (gain insights from the aggregated data and analytics)
  • Reduce/Remove/Replace (take appropriate actions based on insights)

These operate in a cycle as more data is captured, further insights are gained, more actions are taken, and so on.

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At the conclusion of the discussion, Mark offered this observation: Unless we can decouple emissions reductions from business growth, we'll never get there. In the case of Microsoft and hopefully many other companies, by 2030, we're going to have to reduce the carbon intensity of every electron that come and flows to our system anywhere, by 90%.

That means massive innovation everywhere, because each thing that happens, each workload at the server level, each amount of electricity anywhere, has got to be 90% more efficient. Ultimately, until we can reduce the carbon intensity of every electron by 90% and figure out how to remove, at scale, we’re not going to get there.

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