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Our analysis of the findings from our recently published “Green Rush” report reveals that the Internet of Things (IoT), artificial intelligence (AI), cloud and other technologies are helping businesses inch toward a sustainable future in Europe. Executives are bullish on sensors, artificial intelligence, smart grids and blockchain compared to their US peers on the path toward sustainability transformation (see below).

Not surprisingly, our research reveals that 42% of respondents rate sensors and artificial intelligence as central to their sustainability strategies. By instrumenting assets, products and spaces with sensors, gathering massive amounts of data about everything, and using AI to sift and mine for meaning, they can begin the journey to understanding where to make changes and how to make better decisions. Another chunk (38%) views smart electrical grids flexing and regulating power to improve overall carbon emissions as critical to building a more sustainable future.

Then there are those (30%) intending to use cloud computing, aggregating distributed computing centers into larger-scale facilities where power capacity, cooling and server utilization rates can be made more efficient on a per-watt basis (compared with on-premise environments); while others (29%) see blockchain driving trust, transparency and accountability. These technology components, deployed alone or together, play an essential role in the tech mix to meet the impending regulatory burden (see “Compliance Sharpens the European Imperative for Sustainability").

The net-zero triple-play

These prioritized technologies are foundational elements that enable operational sustainability at scale. In fact, the art of the possible builds around understanding the inter-related and interdependent elements that drive sustainable outcomes, and how technologies deployed together can drive change.

In short, getting there takes systems thinking — a design philosophy that expands the scope and awareness of new technology deployment in which the relationships between all parts and elements of the system are top considerations. This contrasts with the traditional approach of looking at individual components and then maximizing the performance/benefit for that element, which can result in higher costs. Here’s our playbook on how to accelerate the time to benefit.

1    Sensors to power data collection.

IoT projects have huge potential in helping companies to achieve their sustainability goals. It’s not only about connecting machines together to improve productivity through automation at scale, but also about better collection of data from processes, operations and spaces to drive transparency and better decision-making.

Take shipping leader Wallenius Wilhelmsen. We constructed a cloud solution to collect IoT data from vessel sensors to optimize shipping speed and performance, which reduced fuel consumption, resulting in the significant decarbonizing of its fleet.

Reaching the full potential of IoT means ensuring sustainability goals are designed upfront into the system rather than as an afterthought. In fact, IoT tools are foundational to enabling circularity in some industry business models by determining exact location, condition and availability of operational assets and monitoring their performance in-situ. The technology helps companies to precisely measure the cost of their operations in minute detail and map out a business case and exploit the underlying opportunities. Farmers, for example, can monitor their crops remotely and use information provided by sensors in the field to optimize watering practices while improving yields.

Rewiring process around net-zero outcomes, driving resiliency in operations and improving energy efficiency through smarter facilities and mobility solutions requires instrumenting upfront to drive better outcomes from data insights. Sensors and the data they collect could underpin digital twins (virtual, real-time counterparts of physical things, processes, spaces, etc.) and need edge computing capability to unlock the hidden efficiencies, advanced planning techniques and better decision-making across business processes and industrial applications.

2    Machine learning (ML)/AI to power insight and learning.

While there is much bad press around AI’s shortcomings on effective facial recognition and its role in job displacement, there is a quiet revolution underway behind the scenes focused on reducing poverty, improving learning and making energy affordable and clean. Although machine-learning processing consumes greater amounts of energy to operate larger data centers, the resulting impact more than offsets the carbon generated by centralization of computing resources. For example, in farming, machine learning can yield precision agriculture techniques based on satellite images in parts of the world where deploying sensors, drones or robotics isn’t cost-effective; combining ML/AI with other solutions based on data insights gives farmers the means to improve the use of soil, fertilizers and seeds.

Predictive solutions will be more important than ever in fighting ever-accelerating climate change. Large-scale interconnected databases of environmental parameters underpin joint actions aimed at preserving the environment as well as taking next best actions to react to environmental change. Imagine a farmer using AI to keep their crops healthy and viable, using data to identify harmful weather patterns and plant diseases, and understand what will sell — and for how much — at market. The fact is, the many applications of AI across industry are aimed at innovators, academics, scientists, companies and startups looking for ways to make effective use of this tool.

3    Blockchain to power trust, transparency and resilience.

The distributed nature of blockchain technology enables the first tentative steps toward cross-enterprise collaboration to remove Scope 3 emissions and drive sustainability. These are the most difficult to remove because they cross multiple players upstream and downstream of a supply chain.

Reliable data exchanges and sharing between companies, partners and consortia are needed to drive transparency. This would ensure certified monitoring of activities such as sustainability reporting, carbon offsetting, carbon credit, waste management, carbon consumption management and product monitoring. Moreover, blockchain’s decentralized underpinnings enhance trust and transparency among stakeholders, authenticating the tracking and reporting of reductions in greenhouse gas emissions among key partners. Check out the World Economic Forum’s proof of concept “Mining and Metals Blockchain Initiative” to trace emissions across the mining industry value chain.

Blockchain provides a scalable answer to the growing regulatory landscape of audit requirements around environmental social and corporate governance (ESG), but it also underpins a new paradigm for partner management with trust, transparency and resilience at its core. Mapping an entire supply chain (manufacturers, suppliers, distributors, and consumers) and connecting them around a sustainable key performance indicator (KPI) and smart automated contracts enables the reduction of Scope 3 emissions across an inter-company value chain.

What it means—the art of the possible

Meeting carbon neutrality needs more art of the possible. There are technological fixes for environmental problems but leveraging technology in new and creative ways offers radical new operational and business models.

New compliance thresholds and carbon auditing will drive new industry groupings with suppliers, manufacturers and logistics firms connecting across a product’s lifecycle through the cloud to reduce Scope 3 emissions. There, through a safe and secure AI decisions engine, they work together, figuring out the trade-offs needed to reduce resource waste and drive circularity across a supply chain all backed by the trust and certification offered by a blockchain.

Leaders need the courage of their convictions, systems-level thinking and strategic follow-through to translate the art of the possible to concrete action to address the wave of disruptive regulation and rising consumer and societal demand.

Read parts 1, 2 and 4 of this series to further explore other aspects of the Green Rush in Europe.

This article was written by Euan Davis, an AVP who leads Cognizant’s Center for the Future of Work in Europe, and Rouzbeh Amini, Senior Director — Head of Cognizant’s Sustainability Practice, EMEA.

To find out more about sustainability opportunities and business benefits, read our white paper "Green Rush: The Economic Imperative for Sustainability" or visit the Center for the Future of Work.