How digital technology can be a force for good in sustainability

Harnessing the digital technologies of the 'Fourth Industrial Revolution' will accelerate solutions to the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), PwC's head of corporate sustainability has claimed.

Speaking to edie following the launch of PwC’s new responsible technology approach, Bridget Jackson noted the potential for technologies such as artificial intelligence (AI) and the Internet of Things (IoT) to solve some of the world’s biggest social and environmental problems, from climate change and resource depletion to inequality and disease.

In practice: PwC’s new programme to drive responsible technology

She did, however, acknowledge the risks associated with technology adoption, particularly around cyber security and the potential for automation to displace traditional job occupations. Businesses must therefore act now to ensure that technology works as a force for good, Jackson said.

“There are a whole host of really positive things that technology can bring and if you start to apply them to the 17 SDGs then we could help accelerate solutions and create new solutions,” she said.

“That’s all about innovation. How do you design the next generation of things to tackle those problems? How do you foster the technologies to deliver it? What role do we play in showcasing what good technology can do? How can we collaborate so that the good does come through? But at the same time, we know in our own operations there are a host of potential pitfalls and negative impacts that we want to mitigate as much as possible.”

Business charter

This is where PwC’s new technology policy comes to the fore. In a bid to showcase the positive role of technology, the London-headquartered firm has established a series of commitments and actions that will be rolled out across its value chain including its clients, suppliers, operations and internal workforce.

From ‘digital diet’ training which offers internal employees training and information on how to manage their health and wellbeing in an increasingly connected society, through to work with suppliers to develop circular solutions for IT equipment, PwC has set out a list of practical solutions to future-proof the firm’s business operations.

Looking ahead, Jackson believes that with engagement from other players in the private sector, PwC’s policy could act as a first step towards a potential collective “business charter”.

“It would work for others in our sector, traditionally the professional services sector or banking because they have a similar footprint,” Jackson said. “It’s food for thought more broadly for corporates. There’s quite a focus these days on making sure that digital is inclusive and works for all in society. Some of the recent economic outlook we did does some estimates at what is going to happen to jobs as we automate more processes in this next wave of technology. There are legs for this.

“We’d like to find a way that we can debate these things and get to a point where we can have a business charter that works for all business. There is a real appetite among companies. They get the sense that this is going to have a really big impact on their own strategies and operations. They are quite attuned now to wanting to do their bit to make sure that we mitigate social and environmental issues. Whether that is upskilling people, especially in Britain post-Brexit, it is going to be really important that society has the right digital skills for us to be inclusive and to compete in the world.”

Tech clusters

In a recent thought-leadership article written for edie, PwC explored how green innovations and technological breakthroughs are driving the Fourth Industrial Revolution and creating strategic advantage for businesses. The company charted the ‘essential eight’ emerging technologies that reflect the development of increasingly autonomous and connected machines, such as augmented reality, blockchain, drones and 3D printing.

These innovations will play a crucial role in tackling issues around climate and biodiversity – risks that will only heighten as the global population swells to a projected nine billion by 2050, increasing food, materials and energy needs.

And while the world is already witnessing the tipping point of certain technologies, such as IoT and autonomous vehicles connected to smart transport networks, Jackson stressed the importance for these solutions to work in concert with nascent innovations to deliver global economic and environmental benefits.

“Rather than only focusing purely on IoT and AI, it’s more important to bring them together to tackle those issues and show the value,” she said. “If we bring clusters of technologies together, rather than single technologies, and apply them to infrastructure and society in a way that is deliberately designing it for the environment, we can leapfrog and get to some new systems that work for the environment. If we don’t design for that, we will hardwire the problems we have today.”

Read the full case study of PwC’s responsible technology approach here.

George Ogleby

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