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Digitalisation & Sustainability: A match made in heaven?

Junice Yeo

The future of sustainability is written in the stats (pun intended) – So much good has come out of sustainability driven from the digitisation of processes across the value chains – from plantations to points of sale. How do we ensure the system milks all the good, while keeping out the bad?

Among the material issues quickly rising up the agenda of many companies today is often one surrounding technology. This is not surprising – as a company focuses on prioritising the issues that sustain its long-term business in a VUCA world, the use of technology in its corporate strategy has become almost indispensable.

At a recent panel discussion which I moderated on the topic of digitalisation and sustainability, the evidence of this is clear. Take payment systems specialist Visa for example – as it continues to venture into new technologies to bring convenience to its increasingly mobile customer base, it prioritises security risk and ensuring ‘digital paper trail’ in its modus operandi. For Singapore infrastructure consultancy Surbana Jurong on the other hand, addressing the challenges of rapid urbanisation and ageing demographics through the development of smart, liveable cities has been its unique value proposition, its raison d’etre. All of which centres around the need to use technology to enhance our way of life in a sustainable green city.

Managers of sustainability in a business know how important it is to focus on prioritising resources and efforts to address the issues most material to stakeholders, alongside the business. And digitalisation has inadvertently become a crucial means in which businesses realise some of the tangible value of these sustainability efforts. Be it through the understanding of big data analytics, the improvement of traceability across supply chains, or in bridging the societal gaps through greater digital coverage.

But given the pace in which digitalisation is evolving, how can we ensure the decisions we make to embrace this movement are sound? Along with the level of investments that is often required, can digitalisation be managed and governed in the same way we manage our operations traditionally?

This question posed to my panellists during the session left some good food for thought. Wu Chang, a blockchain expert from Beijing who runs PandaUN – an organisation which prides itself as a ‘group of problem solvers addressing social and environmental problems with technology that really works’ – believes that the power of blockchain for humanity is that it is inherently governed by consensus. To the extent that it is a fundamental human right – every individual’s universal right – to be part of enabling good, and enhancing transparency. Blockchain enthusiasts would concur no doubt, that the decentralisation of digital technology is the bedrock of how digitalisation should be governed.

The simple approach of making things practical and relevant for the main objective should also not be ignored. In other words, don’t digitalise for the sake of doing it. Panel speaker Jake Layes from architecture and engineering software company Autodesk, expressed the importance of using technology not only as a tool, but one to guide others such that greater efficiency is achieved. In its partnership with UNHCR, focused on assisting UN refugees in Bangladesh, Autodesk helped to develop and plan shelter camps that factored in key location issues such as drainage, soil and natural materials used, but also tents that were comfortable, flexible and easy to build. The element of ‘dignity’ was an important one for its UN partner, but one in which Autodesk could use its own technology solutions for positive social impact.

A prime example of how digitalisation has greatly helped the charity sector was brought up during the discussion. Remember the little tin cans we used to lug around as young students? Collecting coins may be hard, but counting the money poses a greater challenge for charities and accountants. Charities around the world have finally come around to offering digital solutions that makes giving easier. Thanks to digital wallets and other payment solutions, it is now possible to gather funding from campaigns and other platforms in a matter of clicks.

Here’s the sobering fact – by 2020, half of the global workforce will be millennials.  There is no running away from the reality that the world’s business and societal infrastructure will be heavily dependent on data, managed by a generation who swipe before they learn to write. But lest we forget, at the end of the day, digitalising a sustainable future should never be about the machine, but the man.

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Junice is the Director of Corporate Citizenship Southeast Asia, based in Singapore. She moderated a panel titled “Digitalisation & Sustainability” in June 2018 at the Sustainable Solutions Expo organised by Global Compact Network Singapore, in partnership with SG Tech. She expresses her sincere appreciation to fellow speakers from Autodesk (Jake Layes), PandaUN (Wu Chang), Surbana Jurong (Joe Poon) and Visa (Nate Low) for their contributions to a lively dialogue.

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