The countdown has begun. On September 19, 2020, artists installed the Metronome Climate Clock in Manhattan, NY. It shows the remaining time in Earth’s “carbon budget” before irreparable harm is done to the environment due to greenhouse gas emissions. As of this writing, we’ve got about seven years.
The past seven months have provided us with indicators of what works and what doesn’t when it come to combating climate change. Despite significant modifications in individuals’ behavior to lower carbon emissions (swapping commutes for remote work, dropping air travel altogether, etc), the collective needle has barely moved toward ecological sustainability. At first blush, this is disheartening news. Not even a pandemic induced global lockdown could stem the tide of climate change. But the disappointment is tempered by clarity about next steps. While environmentally friendly behaviors of people are important, the environmental practices of corporations are far more impactful. This is because just 100 companies account for about 70% of greenhouse gas emissions. Yet most of those companies have failed to make significant strides toward reducing their carbon footprints. Doing so within our seven year window of safety will require creative problem solving and use of the resources we have at hand. The creativity is already constrained by the time frame and additionally so by lack of resources or competing incentives to optimize shareholder value.
Thankfully, such constraints have been found to increase creativity. When we have less to work with, we begin to see the world differently. We find new uses for old resources and novel ways to accomplish familiar tasks. According to corporate innovator and podcast host, Chris Denson, “The more limited you are, the more creative you have to be. Time constraints eliminate second guesses. Constraint is a unifier.” Creativity is at the core of business innovation. And that innovation leads to breakthroughs. The breakthroughs we will need to tackle the problem of climate change in all its complexity.
One of the best tools that businesses have for finding breakthroughs in sustainability is artificial intelligence. The computing power associated with that technology turns mountains of data and figures into insightful information. This allows us to more on the creativity of interpreting that information and putting it to practical use in solving problems. In our most recent study of sustainability and technology, Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work found that 72% of business leaders list AI as important or very important to meeting sustainability goals. As AI-powered technologies proliferate, they offer encouraging signs of use in sustainability. Saving the planet from environmental ruin begins with observation of where help is most needed. Advances in machine learning technologies and IoT sensors could bring about a revolution in our understanding of the damage done to our planet. Using these systems to detect soil status, plant health, and air conditions at scale can guide us away from harmful fertilizers or over use of agricultural lands.
AI presents a chance at environmental breakthroughs in the transportation industry as well. Autonomous vehicles conjure images of convenience and costs savings with the promise of shared vehicle fleets available on demand. The efficiency of such a system could also lead to reduced green house gas emissions, according to a report from the Intelligent Transport Society of America. Related proposals, like only running autonomous commercial vehicles at off peak hours further benefit society with less traffic for commuters and the resulting reduction in green house gases. One of the biggest beneficiaries of AI tech will be the public transit sector. With dynamic bus routing and the efficiency of autonomous fleets, public transit removes some of the friction that currently turns off passengers; unreliable scheduling and time consuming routes.
While implementation of the aforementioned technologies remains in the testing phase, innovators have already put AI technology to use combatting some of the largest environmental problems of the day. The Great Pacific Garbage Patch is a massive concentration of waste and debris floating in the north central region of the Pacific Ocean. An estimated 87,000 tons of waste make up the garbage patch, widely dispersed over 1.6 million square kilometers. Cleaning up such a colossal mess has been an unwieldy task since the discovery of the patch. But in recent years, AI technology has been put to great use in the clean up efforts. The autonomous vehicle technology first imagined as a way to transport people from place to place has been refashioned to instead transport waste out of the ocean. An autonomous floating garbage truck deployed by The Ocean Cleanup has been collecting trash at sea. The organization estimates their approach can reduce the size of the patch by 50% over the next five years.
Reducing waste via AI isn’t just limited to our oceans. Across the globe, 40% of food produced goes to waste. Winnow Vision uses computer vision technology to curtail that problem in restaurants. Their specially outfitted garbage pails help chefs pinpoint what foods go to waste and when so they can better plan purchasing and make menu decisions to reduce the amount of food that gets tossed out. That waste reduction limits the size of landfills and cuts down on emission some of the most dangerous greenhouse gases.
Businesses can follow any of the aforementioned plans or chart their own path for using technology to stoke creativity in sustainability. But is your business ready to convert that creativity into innovation and business value? While most organizations tout innovation as a core initiative, few take on the discovery work to understand their readiness to spark new ideas. Fewer still assess if they are prepared for the challenges that innovative ideas bring about. Innovation strategist and author, Tendayi Viki identifies three imperatives for innovation: leadership support, organizational design, innovation practice. Combining these three elements galvanizes teams and provides structure to capture the value of their creative energy. Leadership support is essential in providing strategic guidance. This lets innovators know where to put their focus and provides clarity on the resources available to them. Organizational design implements proper links between innovative teams pushing for new ideas and the core business or an organization. This highlights the importance of all contributors and leads to greater levels of cross functional collaboration. Innovation practice consists of the tools, processes, and skill development necessary for innovators to succeed within an organization. Their tasks are not the same as those optimizing the core business functions, so they require a different set of resources to succeed. New ideas may bubble to the surface sporadically if you have one or two of these imperatives in place, but consistent and transformative innovation cannot exist without all three imperatives.
The tools to address our climate woes already exist and are increasingly available, as evidenced by the aforementioned examples. Creative problem solvers have already put artificial intelligence to work in solving environmental problems. And in some companies like Winnow Vision, the creativity has been harnessed to develop innovative new business models to protect the planet while still turning a profit. But to consistently succeed at establishing new models organizations need leadership support, organizational design, and innovation practice. As the Metronome in NYC has made plain, the clock is ticking on our ability to combat climate change. We have failed to win significant victories in that battle thus far. But the combination of artificial intelligence technologies and sustained, rigorous innovation frameworks position all businesses to build back better and greener in months to come.