GeSI Staff Published Date: 2017-04-18,

The Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) and Verizon recently hosted a multi-stakeholder forum to identify the potential for information and communications technology (ICT) to catalyze progress towards the 17 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Leaders from the ICT industry, other industry sectors, the technology startup sector, financial community, sustainability NGOs, academia, multilateral organizations, government, and media convened at the Verizon Innovation Center in San Francisco to spend a day focusing on the potential for innovative technology to address four priority solutions core to advancing the SDGs:
  • Food and agriculture (related to SDGs #1, #2, #3, #12, #13, and #15);
  • Energy and climate (related to SDGs #13, #12, #7);
  • Smart, sustainable communities (related to SDGs #11, #9, #12, #13, #7, #6);
  • Public health (related to SDGs #11, #9, #12, #13, #7, #6)

The opening session defined the prospects for ICT and digital solutions to advance the SDGs.

Luis Neves, (Group Sustainability and Climate Protection Officer, Executive Vice President, Deutsche Telekom, and Chairman, GeSI) highlighted that digital technology enables the world to decouple growth in carbon emissions from economic growth for the first time in history, adding “Technology is the game changer in sustainable development. Connectivity is essential to meet the SDGs.” As one example, GeSI’s research from its #SMARTer 2030 report series finds that ICT has the potential to enable a 20% reduction of global CO2e emissions by 2030, holding them at 2015 levels. He challenged global leaders to invest in technology solutions the same way the world has invested and continues to support the fossil fuel industry.

Chris Lloyd, (Director,  Global Corporate Citizenship, Verizon, and Vice-Chairman, GeSI) noted that emerging technologies such as the Internet of Things (IoT) is key to move to more sustainable economic models. He encouraged participants to find opportunities to collaborate to apply technology in disruptive and innovative ways to advance sustainability.

Peter Cherukuri (President and Chief Innovation Officer, 1776) suggests that the technology startup sector is vital for meeting the SDGs. More than a vehicle for financial returns on investment, the startup sector has become a collective locus of R&D, applying digital technologies towards increasingly purpose-driven efforts to address the world’s toughest challenges related to energy, food, health, education, infrastructure, transportation, etc. He argued that startups are an essential driver of a global ecosystem seeking to build solutions that are effective, scalable, and financially sustainable. He called for leaders to widen their view of startups to see them as engines of innovation, data, and the application of new ideas.

Pavel Ponomarev (Business Strategy Senior Manager, ICT & Sustainability, Accenture) shared the research results from the GeSI Report, #SystemTransformation: How Digital Solutions Will Drive Progress Towards The Sustainable Development Goals. He noted that digital solutions can close the gap between our current situation and the aspirations of the SDGs by transforming how we live and work. Digital solutions diffuse at unprecedented speed and reach while increasing access to goods and services in a more people-centric, affordable and sustainable way. GeSI’s research finds that digital solutions will have a huge and measurably positive impact on each of the three interrelated dimensions of development covered by the SDGs: improving people’s quality of life, boosting equitable growth and protecting the environment. Examples include the projection that by 2030:

  • An estimated 720,000 human lives could be saved from road traffic accidents by connected cars
  • 1.6 billion people could be connected to e-health services in 2030, radically improving access to health and getting the world closer to universal health coverage
  • Delivering on broadband expansion could protect 12% of GDP in developing countries
  • Digital solutions could enable sustainable industrialization in the least developed countries and developing regions by saving 330 trillion liters of water and the equivalent of 25 billion barrels of oil per year, a reduction of 70 percent from today’s levels.

Gary Fowlie, (Head, International Telecommunications Union Liaison Office to the United Nations) highlighted that the SDGs have developed specific indicators underscoring the vital purpose of increasing access to ICT, building digital literacy, and expanding connectivity. The SDGs set indicators measuring ICT progress particularly related to Goals #4 (education), #5 (gender equality), #9 (infrastructure), and #17 (partnership).

Solution #1:  How ICT can support food production and distribution

Moiz Badri, (IoT Product Development & Strategy, AgTech, Verizon), showed how IoT is designed to meet the SDG’s call to reduce waste, streamline processes, and drive more value from  fewer resources in the global food value chain. He shared use cases where IoT is enabling growers and every element of the value chain to analyze conditions, resource needs (such as water and fertilizer), and optimize the use of key resources. Energy, water, fertilizer, and chemicals are all substantially reduced – in some cases by well over 50% – while production yields skyrocket. The business case for IoT “agtech” solutions exists. The challenge is to build awareness regarding its potential. Partnerships across sectors working to demonstrate these solutions will be essential.

Lisa Francioni (Program Director, California Sustainable Winegrowing Alliance -- CSWA) presented a case study. CSWA has become a model for the agriculture sector. It uses online training and capacity building tools to improve growers’ sustainability. It creates tracking metrics and a companion online community that encourages growers to continuously improve their sustainable performance. It is helping to facilitate pilot engagements with Verizon to apply IoT solutions to improve yield and quality while improving sustainability.

Solution #2:  How ICT can support energy and climate solutions

Collin Breakstone (VP Partner & Solutions – Grid Net, Inc.) provided a case study of Grid Net, a company that uses IoT and digital solutions to help utilities optimize performance. He discussed the challenge of reducing the energy use and footprint of utilities, which rely on a business model designed to make long-term investments in generation and distribution assets, and generate the greatest productivity possible over decades of use. The industry is risk averse and does not make changes easily. IoT and digital solutions create opportunities to augment rather than replace the industry’s business model, potentially generating enormous cost savings and GHG reductions.

Brad Hoffman (Internet of Things Business Development, Connected Solutions, Verizon) described how sensing technology combined with analytics can pinpoint and help correct unseen waste. He shared the case of water utilities that used IoT solutions to identify waste in the transfer of water from the aquifer to pipes. Utilities can now predict better how much energy they need to use. Technologies can also optimize energy use to minimize the need to resort to more carbon intensive fossil fuel-based peak generation capacity.

Mark Chung (CEO, Verdigris) presented a case study of Verdigris. The technology enables building and property managers to track energy use in pipelines. Sensors and data analytics can allow managers to pinpoint the exact location – even specific rooms – where energy use may be most wasteful. The startup innovation model provides an opportunity for scaling more sustainable solutions. He states, “ICT is so accessible… you can disrupt the utility model and they have to respond or they’ll die. ICT can enable that in ways never seen before.”

Solution #3:  How ICT can support smart, sustainable communities

Gordon Feller (Director and Advisor to the Board Chair of IoT Talent Consortium, Cisco Systems) and Bill Mitchel (Senior Director, WW Public Sector, Smart Cities, Microsoft) began by highlighting that technology solutions exist to develop both built and digital infrastructures that make cities more sustainable. Each focused their presentations on the obstacles to surmount – even when business cases exist –  in applying digital solutions at scale for cities.

A major barrier is the limited budgets that cities possess. Another challenge is the lack of technical capability for sector leaders and managers to adopt, implement, and maintain digital solutions. Politics also creates barriers, especially when leaders embrace a “not-invented here” mentality. Bill shared his experience of failing to translate a viable IoT solution for building efficiency to Seattle. The effort has rebounded, and took a turn for the better when Microsoft engaged community and corporate partners to support awareness building, go-to-market approaches, capability development, and implementation support. Gordon shared a model of integrated traffic, transport, and water management in Barcelona that while successful, couldn’t endure past the transition to a newly elected Mayor. Cisco has learned from the experience to build coalitions among community based organizations and respected local thought leaders who become partners and advocates for digital solutions.   

Solution #4:  How ICT can support public health

Neil Gerber, (Director, New Energy & Environment, Energy & Utilities Industry, IBM) shared three examples of data analytics, use of sensors, and IoT to promote public health. IBM is enabling authorities in China to pinpoint the specific areas where emissions are creating air quality problems. In Lake George, NY digital solutions are helping environmental managers understand how to better manage and maintain water quality, including identifying the source of algae blooms and how to mitigate them. IBM is applying “artificial intelligence” solutions through Watson to help doctors radically expand access to key cancer diagnostics and to analyze them for patient risks at scale.

Lev Noryan (Program Manager, Ericsson) shared a range of examples of digital solutions for health including:

  • Water quality management
  • Tracking and forecasting the outbreaks and spread of diseases such as ebola
  • Improving the delivery of national health care systems in Croatia and Estonia.

Beth Holzman (Director of Engagement & Operations, Good World Solutions) provided another angle, showcasing how Good World Solutions/LaborLink uses mobile devices to help protect and maintain the health of vulnerable workers in factory supply chains.

Closing thoughts

Steve Rochlin, (GeSI Americas and Co-CEO, IO Sustainability) helped sum up the day, stating, “it is clear the technology needed to advance the SDGs exist. There is also a clear business case. What’s needed is greater understanding of potential business models, use cases, and the visionary partnerships needed to apply these path breaking technologies.”

Luis Neves emphasized the need to understand what kinds of public policy will be necessary to support the adoption of digital solutions that enable the SDGs. He states, “The challenge is to deliver the SDGs by 2030. We have 13 years….We have great potential. We need to show we have the transformational capacity for good. As an industry we have our own challenges we have to address. We need to accelerate partnerships. We need to work on the most challenging issues together and work together on implementation. This must be our top priority.” 


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