Data’s Role In Driving Sustainability

Mark Schwartz is the Chief Digital Officer at Trimbleresponsible for transforming the company’s systems, processes and infrastructure.

Businesses are steadily adapting to the reality of climate change, with many implementing new initiatives designed to measure the output of their carbon emissions with the goal of reducing them over time.

Two of the biggest initiatives include establishing environmental, social and governance (ESG) goals, which provide standards to evaluate how risky a company may be to investors, and the Science Based Targets initiative (SBTi), a nonprofit that helps companies develop a path to reduce their emissions to be in line with the Paris agreement goals.

While these are great first steps in helping companies measure how much they’re emitting and the amount in which they should reduce those emissions over time, they don’t provide instructions on how to actually reduce emissions without negatively impacting the bottom line. This is why some businesses aren’t incentivized to become more sustainable in the first place.

The good news is that there are ways for businesses to improve productivity, cut costs and also reduce their carbon emissions. In fact, in many industries, goals toward sustainability are often completely aligned with goals of reducing costs and improving output.

For example, it’s estimated that as many as 15% of truckload miles are “empty.” Consider the fact that nearly 38 million trucks travel over 300 billion miles a year, and it’s easy to see the astronomical number of empty miles, waste and unnecessary CO2 emissions. When a fleet manager uses data to optimize the number of goods that can fit into the truck and takes the most efficient route to transport them, more goods are hauled in the least distance, which translates to less fuel use.

When examples like this are magnified at scale, it demonstrates how businesses can use data not just to benefit economically but to also reduce their environmental impact—largely by using data they already have.

Using Data For Economic And Environmental Impacts

Every business has untapped data, whether it’s being used to manage payments in accounting or for keeping track of projects, staff or other resource allocations.

However, most companies don’t aggregate their data in ways that enable it to be used effectively across an organization by providing actionable insights to all stakeholders. Instead, it usually exists in separate systems that aren’t compatible or don’t connect with one another, leading it to only be used by one specific group for one specific purpose.

That reality is changing now that many companies have started to connect their software systems together as well as connect their software with their hardware (for assets like heavy machinery, trucks and tractors). With data connected and flowing between hardware and software systems, it can be better optimized and used by all stakeholders in real time.

We worked with England-based civil engineering contractor MJ Church, as it was contracted to restore a natural area back to its former glory largely by burying high-voltage electrical cables underground.

After doing a topographical survey of the terrain, followed by the creation of 3D models for the trenches, we helped the contractor incorporate several connected software solutions to optimize the uptime and efficiency of its vehicles and machines, providing as-built and volume progress information based on machine-logged data.

Pushing data to the machines remotely also enabled the project managers to directly connect with machine operators to avoid dozens of dedicated physical trips to the worksite. Put together, this increased the efficiency of the project while also saving fuel and reducing emissions.

How To Start Optimizing Your Data

While the benefits of optimizing data are far-reaching, many organizations have yet to connect their data or are still manually operating various parts of their business. Some of this has to do with a natural resistance to change, while others simply haven’t figured out how or where to start.

Data optimization doesn’t need to be difficult or scary. In fact, once implemented, it can have just the opposite effect, freeing up employees from doing repetitive and manual tasks while providing powerful insights and analytics.

Below are a few best practices on how to begin the journey toward data optimization:

• Cultivate a strong internal leadership team. Develop an internal team whose role is focused on understanding how data integration can make the business more profitable, scalable, competitive and sustainable. The team should be made up of the business leaders who will be the most impacted by the integration and who will need to be the most involved in implementing it across the organization. Business-minded sustainability leaders should also be involved to help guide the highest-impact solutions and appropriate measurability.

• Do your technology research. Determining the right technology solution largely depends on your industry and the products or services you provide. Task your internal team with evaluating each vendor based on their full capabilities, and be sure to talk to current customers—who are often the most helpful in determining whether it will be the right solution for business operations and sustainability accounting.

• Be mindful of change management. The hardest hurdles often come from changing your people and the ways they’re used to doing their work rather than implementing the technology itself. This is where it’s helpful to rally employees around the cause—why change is needed and the benefits it will provide—and encourage them to be part of the solution. Many sustainability solutions are readily available; it is often just helping people be aware that the business sees value in sustainability, which can help “unleash” the use of data to measure progress and success longer-term.

While understanding how much emissions a business is generating is a good first step toward mitigating a business’s impact on the environment, the true power lies in using data optimization to actually reduce those emissions. Connecting data across hardware and software systems can provide the economic and sustainability benefits that businesses need, provided that it is integrated in ways that are understandable and actionable. This is the power of connected data, which can have a profound positive impact on businesses and the environment alike.

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