What does the sustainable business of the future look like?

Disruptive innovations such as 'smart' water technology, artificial intelligence (AI) and cyber security offer companies an opportunity to address global risks and drive business growth in the coming decades, according to a new UN-backed study of the future of sustainability.

The 2017 Global Opportunity report released earlier this week by DNV GL, Sustainia and the United Nations Global Compact (UNGC). The report ranks 15 global sustainability opportunities for firms based upon responses from 5,500 leaders within business, government and civil society.

It claims that addressing issues found in the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) through cutting-edge solutions can create a plethora of market opportunities for businesses and accelerate sustainable development.

“The SDGs not only provide a clear path to a sustainable world which leaves nobody behind, they also outline new markets and opportunities for responsible business,” UNGC executive director Lise Kingo said.

“The Global Opportunity report demonstrates how companies around the world are developing and deploying innovative technologies and business models to address the needs of our planet and society to achieve the SDGs. It is time for all companies to figure out how their own operations, products and services can play a role in creating the world we want.”

Global opportunities

Smart water technology ranked as the highest business opportunity. Providing and managing access to water protects the scarce resource and decreases water supply costs, the research claims. It estimates that the smart water tech market will be worth almost £16bn in 2021, up from £6.72bn last year.

The report examines the risks that climate change will pose on cities. According to the research, decentralised grids will improve resilience against climate disruption while enabling businesses to trade surplus of renewable electricity production. Products such as solar panels, battery storage and energy efficiency are cited as potential drivers of the shift to energy localisation.

The report touches on the rise of blockchain technology, an open source digital ledger which allows users to record all types of transactions, including energy deals. According to survey findings, leaders believe peer-to-peer energy sharing and trading on digital platforms is a market ready for take-off. 

The survey also finds that 40% of leaders believed they are likely to grasp the opportunity of intelligent cyber security, which is driven by AI. The report notes that this sustainable choice employs machine learning to “drive a new market that will secure the world’s most vital infrastructure in the digital economy”.

DNV GL chief executive Remi Eriksen said: “I am certain that over the next five years, concepts such as automation, machine learning, blockchain and cyber-physical systems will acquire real meaning and scale. Most of the technologies are already familiar to us.

“What’s new is the combination of advanced technologies from previously separate domains – like mechanical, biological, electrical, optical and digital.  New combinations, and the speed of implementation, will be the building blocks of the new era.”

Smart tech

Other sustainability opportunities mentioned include bacteria that bring depleted soil back to life, conflict-free natural resources and the use of advanced technologies to produce food without soil.

The report follows on from previous research by DNV GL and the UN Global Compact which founds that leveraging the power of connectivity and digitalisation will be key to achieving the SDGs.

As companies and industries seek new business opportunities through digitalisation and the Internet of Things (IoT) becomes commonplace, business leaders are starting to give their backing to the rollout of smart technology.

A previous report from BT has suggested that enhancing smart energy could reduce the European Union’s carbon footprint by more than 1.5Gt by 2030 – while also sparking behaviour change and promoting resource efficiency.

Swedish communication technology company Ericsson has also weighed in on the potential of ICT in reducing emissions, claiming that the spread of mobile devices and uptake of smart technology could help reduce global emissions by up to 15% by 2030.

edie’s innovation month

The month of January sees edie shift the editorial spotlight to green innovation, with a series of exclusive interviews, features and podcasts running throughout the month to celebrate the very best of emerging clean technologies and low-carbon systems.

Change will not happen without genuine innovation and so this month will explore the bleeding edge where change is really happening. From emerging tech to new business models; breakthrough approaches and creative leaders, we’ll shine the spotlight on the real game-changers and sort the facts from the fads.

Read all of edie’s innovation content here.

George Ogleby

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