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Why global crisis is a reason to accelerate sustainability, not delay it.

Sweco author: Doug Marsh, Information Management (Energy, Water & Industry)

The current economic situation is a reason to accelerate our collective efforts to become more sustainable, not an excuse to put them off. While some people believe being sustainable costs more money than continuing as we always have, the opposite is in fact true in terms of economic, social and environment outcomes.

Digital thinking in the whole

To be sustainable (a balance of planet, people and profit outcomes) we need to be resilient to shocks. This would include pandemics, weather extremes, conflicts and financial turbulence. When we lurch from one extreme to another we are clearly out of balance, and this is expensive in all aspects. This ultimately impacts our collective finances, because all things are interconnected.

We have at our disposal new ways of talking about and visualising the ever-increasing complexity and connectedness of all things, which is embedded within digital technologies. These have the potential for us to act quicker, with higher accuracy and effectively than we have done in the past. We have access to an ever-increasing volume of data (much of it hidden in plain sight) and the development of advanced technologies to analyse and process it is providing valuable insights to tackle the challenges we face. However, there is a rub. Our new data and new tech are being used by us humans in the same way we have organised and managed our old data and tech. We are not adapting quickly enough, and not ‘thinking in the whole’ when it comes to information management.

Data collected into systems of record that are sorted to provide information are largely organised to meet polarised specific functional needs, they do not integrate well with data and information from other systems of record. When we do connect data representing all aspects of ‘a system’ we get total new insights. When we merge data from different sources to form maps, dashboards and models, we get new understand of how things are connected, what drives the things we experience and what we can do to change things for better outcomes with less chance of causing unintended consequences.

Data, when organised, equals structured data. This provides us and our processors with information, different sets of information that are connected enable us to develop knowledge, and using our collective knowledge we get new insights. Armed with new insights and armed with all the evidence, we make logical decisions that lead to good outcomes, right?

Well, as it happens, only sometimes.

Humans collectively are not always logical, it turns out that when we make big decisions we often rely on ‘gut feel’, belief, intuition or persuasion from others. Others may have vested interests in maintaining the status quo so challenge, confuse and delay progress. This is why we sometimes see policy-makers who when provided with all the evidence to make a logical change for better sustainable social, natural and economic outcomes, make a different choice that is weighted to short term outcomes that are not sustainable in the long-term.

Digital technologies offer us an opportunity to change our trajectory from unsustainable to sustainable, but to achieve better outcomes we need to change the way we collect, organise and use our data. Data lakes are metaphorically overflowing into data seas and becoming data oceans. Data may be cheap but when all added up, the way we use it is rarely efficient of effective. We are drowning in too much data and not able to make effective decisions.

I believe this is because we are often starting from the wrong place when deciding what data to collect, we need to be thinking about the decisions we need to make and work back to identify what data we already have, how this can be connected to other existing data sources and how to display information in ways we can interpret and communicate effectively. Our analogue brains are not very good at thinking in digital terms.
We also have the situation where digital technologies are able to drive down the cost of innovative solutions, but I think we need to push people out of their comfort zones, especially those colleagues who are generally risk averse. Being cautious is a good trait when everything is in steady state, why rock the boat when sailing on a calm sea? That may be a valid point, but we are not in a calm sea, we are inextricable being drawn into a storm and we could end crashing into the rocks if we do not change course.

Another blocker I am very aware of is that of payback period – time. When considering investments in new build projects, designs considering different options are proposed, these generally fall into the differing periods of return on investment. When we look at hard engineering at one end of the scale and nature-based solutions at the other, the former often wins out with programme investment boards because it will be a known entity when considering engineering and conventional perception of risk, whereas the latter will often be the better long term sustainability option. Not just for nature, but for society and financial outcomes in the longer-term.

We at Sweco are exploring different ways to qualify and quantify how well we are performing when considering sustainability, and also how our advisory services and designs contribute to our clients’ outcomes. We are using multi-capitals thinking and 6 Capitals as described by IFRS (Integrated Financial Reporting Standards) and Integrated Reporting.

My top 3 actions for digital thinking in the whole

  • When considering what data you need, think about one-page dashboards that federate data from multiple systems of record to provide a systems thinking perspective.
  • If you are accountable for an essential service, think hard before committing to relying on ‘always on data’ from the cloud. This is analogous to buying cheap energy sources from a foreign power without having backup. Resilience requires society to be able to absorb shocks, if our digital systems are offline, we need to assure essential services continue to function.
  • When someone tells you a particular design option is the best for ROI, ask over what time period and if it is valuing natural, social as well as economic outcomes. You never know, it may change the way we think about what sustainability really costs.