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Insights on sustainability-driven innovation with Google Cloud

These are exciting times for businesses that are willing to undertake green initiatives, but doing good while still seeking profit can certainly be a demanding journey. What is the role that technology plays in these endeavors? How can leaders demonstrate the value of sustainability to business stakeholders? Paul Hunter, Responsible Business Enablement Lead at Kin + Carta, sat down with Trinity Lloyd, Sustainability and Energy Transition Leader at Google Cloud, to talk about the challenges and opportunities presented by these efforts.

Paul Hunter: I want to start with a question for those in the digital innovation space who are just dipping their toes into the sustainability world. How would you describe this moment that we’re in from either a climate change perspective or a market impact perspective (or a combination of the two)?

Trinity Lloyd: I would describe it as critical. It is a very exciting time to be in this space, but things are rapidly accelerating. It’s almost like everything went really slowly, and then we experienced a culmination of a lot of different things coming together at once, because we’ve reached a beyond-critical point in terms of climate. It’s almost like the whole world is waking up at once, really trying to respond quickly and figure out how to kind of change the way they do business overnight.

PH: Definitely; that can be paralysing and intimidating, and it confirms that using every ounce of bandwidth efficiently and correctly matters. So in that vein, what types of businesses have a responsibility to reduce their carbon emissions and where are the greatest opportunities for impact in your eyes?

Lloyd: All businesses, organisations, and individuals have a responsibility and should be prioritising sustainability initiatives, both from a responsibility and accountability perspective, but also from an opportunity perspective. If I were going to select any particular industry or vertical, I would certainly say government entities and organisations, because policy is so important. But prior to policy, energy and mining companies have a unique opportunity to really guide and transform all the industry. Their expertise and their position in the value chain being high and upstream gives them a unique perspective and an ability to set a precedent that could be followed downstream all the way through to the consumer and then back upstream again, which is really what we need.

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PH: On that note, what industries are really trailblazing in sustainability right now?

Lloyd: Interestingly enough, oil and gas is really focused right now on what they can do and how they can pivot and transform for varying reasons behind that; but their expertise in hydrocarbons is actually really, really needed. And it’s critical that technology organisations help them create that transformation and use the expertise and infrastructure that they have to decarbonise our planet. So from my perspective, it’s energy, utilities, oil and gas, and then also technology because none of those organisations can pivot rapidly without the use of technology, digital transformation, AIML, etc.

PH: Technology has always been this massive accelerator, particularly in this moment. What are some of the sustainability challenges that companies are facing today and what role does technology play in helping them overcome these challenges?

Lloyd: Sustainability has been seen as a bottom-line cost instead of a top line opportunity, so it hasn’t been prioritised. The biggest challenge for everybody is that it is incredibly complex and overwhelming. If you're trying to solve sustainability, you need the world’s data and proprietary data. And it's hard to measure and understand it across the entire supply chain.

We build our businesses in an opaque way, with siloed data, and this is making it an even more complex challenge. We have to open up communication across our suppliers and customers in real time. We have to take all these different, disparate data components and integrate them. We have to be able to track and make decisions with all of this new criteria involved. We have to connect our value chains and make them circular. And we have to augment human capabilities, because if a human is having to be involved in each decision, we're not going fast enough . We need to accelerate innovation and transparency, building an open framework to do that. And that's where technology comes in.

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PH: I’m excited to see the role that data and technology will play in offering transparency to consumers and in shifting those purchasing decisions. What positions at a company play a strategic role in the adoption of technology for advancing sustainability and other ESG CSR initiatives?

Lloyd: It’s typically in the CFO, the Chief of Marketing or the CEO realm from a priority perspective, there may also be some CTO or CIO responsibility in some organisations. We’re starting to see a new position popping up in a lot of organisations, which is the Chief Sustainability or Chief Innovation and Sustainability Officer. If there is an established person with that role, whether that’s the title or not, that’s the change agent who will prioritise all the business operational and technology shifts that have to happen in an organisation and in a supply chain for that company to transform toward sustainability. If an organisation has that role established and if it either reports to the CEO or the CFO, I would say they’re pretty serious, and they’re going to have a significant budget and the authority to make a significant change.

PH: Kin + Carta is a Google Cloud Premier Partner. I'm curious; what roles do partnerships play in creating a more just, sustainable world?

Lloyd: I’m really glad you asked that. What’s really unique and different about sustainability is there really is enough room for everyone, and we need a radical collaboration and partnerships to connect ecosystems and to encourage innovation. Any partner that understands this and wants to go on this journey with us is an excellent partner, and I obviously see that with Kin + Carta. We absolutely rely on important and strategic partners to help build that ecosystem and deliver those innovative solutions, concepts and capabilities to other organisations.

It’s critical that we open up to being transparent with reporting and sustainability data. If an organisation is driving toward standardization and traceability, that’s a serious organisation that is actually trying to create change.

PH: Hopping back to the realm of solutions, what’s one of your favorite examples of a way that technology has increased sustainability?

Lloyd: There are so many! There are lots of other things, from developing tools for safety for women to accessibility and all the tools that Google brings to market. I love Google’s philosophy of building for every single user. If you build for everyone— not the majority, but everyone — then profitability will find its way to you. But there’s one that I just always gravitate back toward. I have a strong affinity for whales and ocean wildlife from South Florida, and we have a project that focused on leveraging ocean sounds and AIML to understand migration patterns of whales, to reduce the human impact on wild populations, which is just a beautiful way that you could use technology in an innovative way to solve something that seemed unknown, difficult and complex.

I picked this example because this was probably the first thing that got me sort inspired about the environment and the world around us. It was my third-grade teacher telling me about the whales, so I love that story.

PH: Sometimes convincing business leaders to invest heavily in sustainability can be a challenge because a demonstration of value is imperative. How would you describe the value that a robust sustainability plan brings to business stakeholders?

Lloyd: Well, it depends on the type of organisation. If they are a publicly traded company, then the ESG perspective should always be top of mind. If you want to drive shareholder value and investor confidence, then you need a strong and robust strategy. Organisations like the Task Force on Climate-Related Financial Disclosures are really forcing the hand of organisations to develop that strategy, pressing that this is actually a requirement and not just something ‘nice to have’. We want to know that you have reliable metrics, not self-reported self-inflated positions. So if they’re publicly traded, I would say that the investor focus is really kind of an easy place to start.

The secondary piece, whether they’re publicly traded or not, is that developing circular economies is profitable. Whoever their customers are, whether they’re midway through the supply chain or at the very end, it's being demanded of them. This means that if they don’t respond, they will certainly incur risk, and their customers and their suppliers will move toward organisations that are doing that. If they capture the opportunity, and they bring things to market first, they could really differentiate and even capture new markets.

And then, ultimately, depending on the type of organisation they are, their data is incredibly valuable, so helping them understand that data can be a revenue stream, just like other parts of their business. It isn't just a bottom-line cost; it is absolutely a top-line opportunity.

We need to accelerate innovation and transparency, building an open framework to do that. And that’s where technology comes in.

PH: So let’s say you’ve proven the value to a business in these ways for all stakeholders, and they’re going to invest. What types of outcomes can a business expect from investing in a digitally driven sustainability initiative?

Lloyd: There’s a brand impact and value, particularly if they are tracking and certifying what they’re accomplishing. Also, there’s an operational value because it drives greater efficiency, with more intelligence and better data internally. It also drives opportunities across their supply chain to make improvements, optimise, and reduce cost.

Optimisation in general doesn’t always have an emissions or sustainability value, but it often does. And sustainability always does because you are connecting, you are reusing, you are recycling and you are localizing, so you have lots and lots of different ways to reduce your costs. It’s almost a no-brainer.

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PH:  What signs can people look out for when trying to decipher whether an organisation is enthusiastically verbal about sustainability or whether it is truly invested in impact?

Lloyd: It always comes down to what kind of metrics come behind it. What are the certifications? What were the methodologies and how open and transparent are they? Looking at an organisation’s sustainability report tells you a lot about where they actually are, what they’ve actually accomplished and how serious they are about it. You need to keep in mind the source: is there credibility in this brand or are they just jumping on a bandwagon?

It’s critical that we open up to being transparent with reporting and sustainability data. If an organisation is driving toward standardisation and traceability, that’s a serious organisation that is actually trying to create change.

PH: How can you tell that a company is ready to invest in a sustainable digital initiative?

Lloyd: The first way is checking whether they have made any public commitments that require auditing or certification. Where does the sustainability organisation line up in the org chart of that company? Are they aligned to the CFO or the CEO? Those are typically the biggest kinds of flags in terms of who is prioritising it and how serious they are. And then, check how aggressive their commitments are. If they have a very aggressive timeline and they’re aligned, they probably have a significant budget, authority, and idea of a plan. We’re here to help them accelerate that.

PH: To wrap up, if you could sum up one concise call to action for business leaders around the world, what would that call to action be?

Lloyd: Radical data collaboration. That’s it. Simple.

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