Yogesh Chauhan talks about the need to leverage technology as a positive agent for change

We live in the digital era in which the very concept of sustainability is changing. The direct impact of human intervention such as the environmental footprint continues to remain important and, to a large extent, measurable and actionable. However, there are secondary, indirect effects of technology which are intangible and difficult to quantify.

Today, IT is helping to change business practices, industrial processes and consumer behaviour — with benefits for people, communities, business and the planet. Global studies suggest that by 2030, digital solutions could help reduce oil consumption by 70% and smart agriculture could cut food waste by a fifth.

In the UK alone, there were a recorded 1.56 million jobs in digital tech in 2014, with new jobs growing nearly three times faster than the rest of the economy. By 2030, the industrial Internet of Things could add an extra £244 billion to UK’s GDP.

Digital technology also has the power to work for social good. Analysis has thrown up some dramatic predictions for changes in society by 2030, including that around 1.6 billion people could be connected to e-health services, and as many as 720,000 lives could be saved from road accidents, thanks to internet-connected cars.

As we look to the medium- and long-term impact, we have to consider whether the IT sector will be a positive contributor to the creation of sustainable societies or have an unintentionally negative influence. Let’s consider what we know and what we’re much less sure about.

At its best, technology solves problems and allows new ways of working which can foster sustainable behaviour. Cutting business travel hours through teleconferencing or paper usage through digitisation and dematerialisation (where technology offers alternatives to physical products) are obvious examples of technology enabling sustainability.

The IT sector is a leading employer and new jobs are created as a direct result of increased IT manufacturing. Digital technology allows people to work much more flexibly, opens up new internet-based employment opportunities and drives productivity.

Yogesh Chauhan, director of corporate sustainability, Tata Consultancy Services, UK

The flip side is that jobs are likely to be lost to automation. Research, however, suggests that artificial intelligence will create new jobs through automation, helping employees do better work and companies to take on work that wasn’t possible before.

Another negative impact is that environmental effects such as global carbon emissions from servers and data centres are now approaching the same levels as those produced by the aviation industry.

However, the IT industry can offset its carbon footprint by driving efficiency in high-impact areas, through the likes of smart energy and intelligent transport systems — and, in the process, enable reduction of greenhouse gas emissions from other industries.

In fact, some estimates point to the emission reductions being 12 times greater than the direct footprint of the tech sector itself. In the UK, digital technology is predicted to drive a 24% reduction in national carbon emissions annually by 2030.

The big unknowns

The consensus from a mounting body of research into the relationship between IT, business and sustainability (including by the European Commission, Forum for the Future, TCS-sponsored Green Screen Study and the Global e-Sustainability Initiative) is that the long-term, intangible societal impacts of technology are the toughest to predict and the hardest to quantify, and will dwarf all others.

We need to deal with counterbalancing ripple effects, such as the so-called ‘rebound effect’. The example of intelligent transport perhaps brings home the complexities of the rebound effect. A study by the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development suggests that IT applications could save 13% of carbon emissions from transport through reduced travel needs and changes in vehicle behaviour. The same report also concludes that intelligent transport systems will actually increase travel by 4% as they encourage more journeys.

Increased bandwidth may encourage new types of internet use and more efficient types of data transfer, but with inherently more environmental impact. It’s also possible that a technology that allows a workforce to be available 24/7 increases stress and damages family life even as it increases productivity.

Throw into the mix the fact that the undoubted transformational potential of IT is utterly dependent on successful uptake and implementation by businesses and governments, and you start to see how unknowable the future may be.

What we can say with some confidence is that societal effects are also likely to be the most profound impacts our sector has.

For IT companies, the challenge is to find positive ways of harnessing opportunities to help create a sustainable society through future products and services. As a sector, we should be serious about helping drive a sustainable future.

For companies such as Tata Consultancy Services, sustainability is now about so much more than just greening the business. It’s about how we meet the needs of the economy and society, about helping future-proof the next generation — from ecology and technology through to IT education.

The power of technology in creating a more sustainable world cannot be denied. How to keep the needle on the positive side is a conversation the world needs to keep alive.

Harnessing tech for sustainability

TCS Spark Salon is a platform for innovative and thought-provoking perspectives on the role of technology in helping build a sustainable world. Expert speakers at the most recent Spark Salon series shared inspirational stories in helping build a sustainable world. Excerpts:

  • Solar power brought mobile connectivity and renewable energy to a village of more than 250 people in Bangladesh, allowing fishermen to sell more of their catch and locals to stop using harmful kerosene lamps.
  • More than 40 lives were saved when a group of refugees were rescued by the coastguard in the Mediterranean after they were able to make contact using WhatsApp.
  • A hospital volunteer in Somaliland was guided to become a mental health advisor at the World Health Organisation, using only internet-based training and remote support from medics in London. International charity Chayn has pioneered.
  • A hospital volunteer in Somaliland was guided to become a mental health advisor at the World Health Organisation, using only internet-based training and remote support from medics in London.
  • International charity Chayn has pioneered an open-source tech programme to help some of the world’s most isolated domestic violence victims access potentially life-saving information via their mobiles.
  • Camfed International is using bespoke database technology to monitor girls in Sub-Saharan Africa who may be at risk of dropping out of school.

(Follow the conversation so far on Twitter using the hashtag #tcsSparkSalon.)

A separate conversation about tech as a force for good is happening on TCS’s new #DigitalEmpowers platform, which brings together powerful case studies and progress reports on how TCS and other organisations are harnessing the power of digital technology to help create fairer and more inclusive societies. Here are some TCS stories:

  • TCS’s award-winning mKrishi technology connects farmers in rural India via smartphone to networked information on how to best protect their crops and see better yields in the marketplace. The technology also has spin-offs for the environment through advice on land-friendly pesticide use.
  • TCS is co-ordinating drones that are helping to save endangered rhinos in Assam.
  • The company is pioneering cashless charity donations in the UK.
  • A TCS collaboration on smart homes in Singapore is supporting independent living for the elderly.
  • Much-needed IT centres in South Africa are putting disadvantaged youth in touch with the digital skills that they and their country will need for the future.