Saving the world one byte at a time: what digital can do for sustainability outcomes 

Co-authored with Adam Gernon, GM/Account Director Southern Region at Eighty20 Solutions & James Paek, Microsoft Alliance Director at Eighty20 Solutions

Even if sustainability isn’t getting top billing in your digital strategy line-up, it can still be something to aim for and celebrate as part of your transformation efforts. From the role of big data in raising efficiency to giving citizen developers more power to problem-solve, turning towards digital is boosting organisational sustainability in all sorts of ways.

Sustainability isn’t pushing shareholder returns or business resilience off the podium of top organisational objectives just yet. But at Eighty20 we are seeing people coming into leadership now who are far more aware of the impact their employers are having on communities, society and the environment.  

The pressure to evolve towards being more responsible and proactive on sustainability – rather than simply doing no harm – is now coming from the highest level of leadership. According to the 2021 United Nations Global Compact-Accenture CEO Study on Sustainability, 81% of CEOs say they are already developing new sustainable products and services. And given the growth in demand for sustainable options – sustainability-marketed products account for over half of total retail sales growth from 2013-2018 – they’d be crazy not to invest in these new product and service lines.  

Cracking down on emissions

One of the most critical contributions digital transformation can make to improving sustainability is through emissions reduction. Simply by switching from on-prem infrastructure hosting and storage to Microsoft Cloud, for example, organisations can reduce carbon emissions associated with using Azure Compute and Storage, Exchange and Sharepoint by as much as 98% (The carbon benefits of cloud computing: A study on the Microsoft Cloud in partnership with WSP, 2020). Not only does this put the brakes on a major source of carbon emissions, it also delivers big savings on energy bills at a time when fossil fuel prices are going through the roof. 

This mission to slash emissions can be taken much further. With the new SaaS Microsoft Cloud for Sustainability, organisations have the tools to measure and manage Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions across their entire operation and value chain. And simply by choosing Microsoft as their cloud and software solutions provider, organisations are doing their part to decarbonise our global environment. As a business, Microsoft have committed to being Carbon negative by 2030 and by 2050 removing their carbon footprint altogether.  

But it isn’t only through cloud adoption and vendor selection that organisations can rein in their emissions and mitigate the impacts of climate change. All sorts of new technologies have been taken up in the brave new world of hybrid and remote work. With fewer people travelling to work, the savings on fuel consumption and emissions have been immense. And with technologies like Teams and Viva making remote collaboration far easier, organisations are finding projects can run just as smoothly with a distributed team model. It’s definitely been the case here at Eighty20 where we’ve delivered large-scale digital transformations without any of our team actually meeting with one another, or our clients, face-to-face.  

About 28% of emerging technology solutions were linked to climate proofing, while 26% were linked to energy savings. Digital technologies can help combat climate change through reducing emissions, strengthening resilience to climate related disasters, and overall improve corporates’ capacity to act and contribute.

Sustainability: Good for Business, An Executive Playbook, 2021 and beyond

Microsoft and EY

Making the most of emerging technologies to limit travel has also been keeping us busy in transformation projects for clients, with employees on the frontline. PowerApps are now being used to collect data remotely for some insurance claims, for example. This limits hours spent on the road for assessments, reducing emissions and freeing up workers’ time for other, higher-value customer service tasks.

Spoilt for choice

For modern organisations, sustainability isn’t just about reducing use of or even phasing out fossil fuels. It means taking a more responsible approach to how all resources are used, whether that’s humans, flora and fauna, or the elements water, earth and air. When we look at the possibilities for technology to protect these resources, there are many ways to make a difference.

From digital supply chains that improve business processes and reduce carbon footprints to IoT sensors streaming real-time telemetry for predictive analytics, there is no shortage of examples of how technology can enable ambitious sustainability outcomes.

Judson Althoff, Executive Vice President and Chief Commercial Officer, Microsoft, July 2021 

For prototyping in industries like manufacturing or mining, it’s now possible to build and trial digital twins of new machinery or components. This enables new models to be tested virtually before taking up precious resources to build the real thing. Also in the mining sector, technology is saving millions and reducing environmental impact by taking the guesswork out of mapping mineral deposits.  

Developing these ambitious ideas for applying technology to solving big problems still takes human resources. And this is where the accessibility and simplicity of the Power Platform can support far more efficient use of your headcount to troubleshoot and innovate. With fewer people needed to get from idea to prototype to solution in less time, the best of an organisation’s talent can be put to work on far more projects and problems. This accelerates the pace of innovation in sustainability, as well as other priorities such as customer experience or supply chain efficiency.

Looking at the bigger picture

The shift to the cloud and its potential to support data collection, classification and analysis at scale is bringing a macro perspective to problem solving. While technologies like PowerApps allow small teams to be faster and more effective in creating solutions, one after another, big data has the potential to unlock solutions at scale. We’re in the fourth information revolution and the technology now exists to take data from a multitude of sources and use it to optimise efficiency throughout an organisation. If that efficiency drive includes using less water and adopting circular resource management systems,  it’s also a win for sustainability outcomes.  

Take Outokumpu for example. They’re a global giant in stainless steel manufacturing, with headquarters in Helsinki in Finland. Well known as an industry with a big appetite for fossil fuels and an even bigger waste problem, they have a lot of ground to make up in the sustainability stakes. But in just 14 months they’ve managed to switch to a digital, data-driven model that has transformed both how they operate and their entire working culture.  

From an emissions perspective, the Outokumpu Digital Platform (ODP) optimises their furnaces that run 24/7. By capturing and analysing data on electricity input and energy output, Outokumpu have reduced electricity consumption at their Tornio plant while lifting output by 10-15%. Not only is this an amazing result for reducing cost and emissions and increasing productivity, it also raises the bar for other manufacturers. With Outokumpu now boasting the lowest environmental footprint for stainless steel in the industry, they’re challenging their peers to keep up in the sustainability stakes. 

Imagine if the technology existed so you could know exactly where each coil of steel you buy comes from, what’s in it and how large its CO2 footprint is. Then you start to create an additional business opportunity, a new feature that nobody else has at the moment: the ability to guarantee a certain environmental footprint.

Stefan Erdmann, Senior Vice President and Chief Technical Officer, Outokumpu 

Driving culture change

The Outokumpu team have also found their investment in technology, data and business intelligence has delivered an unexpected dividend for workplace culture. Since introducing the ODP to drive both energy efficiency and quality of output, they’ve seen their whole workforce start to embrace data as a foundation for better decision-making. Instead of relying on experience and intuition to make operational and strategic choices, the company are seeing more and more of their people turn to the data for evidence to support their next move. 

Outokumpu’s Senior Vice President and Chief Technical Officer, Stefan Erdmann described their leaders as having ‘an appreciation of change’ – they were ready to make efficiency and sustainability a priority. Not every organisation will be primed for this data-informed approach to decision-making, but we are seeing more employees across all sorts of industries who are eager to adapt, learn and explore data analytics, along with many other advances in their workplace technology and tools. When they can have the experience of innovating for the greater good of society and environment – as well as their employer – it can deliver rewards to employees far above and beyond their salary. 

Want to put technology in the hands of your workforce to drive efficiency, innovation and sustainability? Get in touch to discover how we can support you.