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Entrepreneurs Turn to Blockchain, Sensors and Drones to Revolutionize Sustainability
Technology has revolutionized many aspects of our lives. Can it provide the same acceleration to sustainability efforts?
Entrepreneurs are tackling sustainability challenges with diverse digital tools, from blockchain to machine learning to sensors, satellites and drones.
The Network for Business Sustainability spoke with three global entrepreneurs to learn how their businesses use digital tools, why digital sustainability is taking off, what obstacles it faces, and where aspiring entrepreneurs should focus.
- Sara Bell leads Ample (Australia), which uses machine learning to direct building energy usage to green sources.
- Diego Saez-Gil leads Pachama (United States), which provides increased accountability for carbon credits through remote sensing in forests.
- Simon Schillebeeckx is a faculty member at Singapore Management University and co-founded the Global Mangrove Trust, which uses blockchain to track funding for forestry projects. He recently co-authored Digital sustainability and entrepreneurship, an overview of the field.
Find highlights from the podcast below.
Using Digital Tools to Advance Sustainability
Simon Schillebeeckx: The Global Mangrove Trust connects small to midsize enterprises (SMEs) and retail investors and individuals to markets for reforestation and carbon offsetting. Right now, these markets are largely dominated by multinational corporations that, at the end of the year, invest in carbon emissions certificates that enable them to say “my business operations are carbon neutral because I’ve offset the negative impacts.”
But these markets are not really accessible by individuals and by SMEs. So we’ve created a platform and a technology that enable peer-to-peer funding of reforestation projects. You, as an individual who wants to contribute to offsetting your own negative impacts, can do this directly without any need for an intermediary.
On our platform, you can buy trees immediately and see, thanks to blockchain technology, how your money is being used. You will see how much money is going to the trust, how much money will be paid in fees to banks, and how much is ending up in the hands of the individual planter.
Sara Bell: At Ample, we use digital in two parts: in our product and in the business model underpinning.
We use machine learning to predict, on a rolling 24-hour basis, the renewable power output in a particular market. We then use machine learning to predict a building’s ability to be flexible to change its consumption patterns. We do that by pulling a lot of data from the building using sensor technology.
So we put those two predictions together, and we ensure that that building uses the cleanest possible power. We connect into the building management system and we physically change the consumption pattern, using the controls that are already there in the building management system.
In everything I’ve done, I’ve become more convinced that we can most rely on the power of humanity to band together. I think digital technology has an extraordinary use in driving that community.
Diego Saez-Gil: Pachama is a technology startup that harnesses the latest in remote sensing, including satellite images and LIDAR scans of the forest. We then use artificial intelligence, specifically deep learning algorithms, to be able to estimate the carbon storage of forests. Then we can monitor the progress of a forest, detecting automatically for disturbances such as fires, illegal deforestation or any change on the canopy cover.
We use those tools to validate and monitor existing forest projects that have received carbon credits in the traditional carbon markets, that are either conserving or restoring forests. Our objective is to bring more transparency, more accountability and more trust to these projects. In the future, we hope that these technologies can be used to certify new projects faster, cheaper and in a more reliable way.
Sensing, Structuring and Sculpting
Simon: Our research identifies three main ways organizations are using technology to advance the sustainable development goals. These are:
- Sensing: Measuring and observing the natural world. Pachama, Diego’s company, is a fantastic example of how this is happening.
- Structuring: Changing economic exchange, so that parties are not only interested in price. Blockchain and other software applications allow us to embed significantly more information in economic transactions: for example, about fair trade and social practices.
- Sculpting: Using new data and often structuring to create new networks of exchange. These are really new business models connecting different players.
Powered by Better, Cheaper Technology
Diego: All the technologies [we are discussing] are improving exponentially, driven by other industries. For example, machine learning has been around for a long time, but only recently do we have enough computing power for this technology to be very powerful. Companies such as Google and Facebook and Apple and Amazon are investing millions of dollars and a lot of engineering brainpower to improve these tools. Sensors and cloud computing are also being driven forward by other industries.
Now small startups like us can harness this technology, democratizing access to these technologies.
Sara: The cost reductions in these technologies make a massive difference. A few years ago, when we were trying to connect buildings for their electricity consumption to become flexible, we would have to physically install a control unit and sensors. That meant that the number of buildings that we were able to suggest this to was dramatically reduced.
We can now do a remote installation. We don’t even need to go to the building; everything is done through a software route into their building management systems. Companies have introduced far more temperature sensors around their buildings, because those sensors are now affordable enough.
Simon: As organizations have tackled sustainable development, the implicit logic has always been one of cost benefit analysis: “Yes, this is going to cost us a little bit more, but we hope that we will extract benefits from this.” And what we see in this area of digital sustainability is actually that this trade-off is disappearing.
This article highlights edited excerpts from a podcast created by the Network for Business Sustainability, a growing network of more than 7,000 researchers and managers committed to advancing sustainable business.
B the Change gathers and shares the voices from within the movement of people using business as a force for good and the community of Certified B Corporations. The opinions expressed do not necessarily reflect those of the nonprofit B Lab.