09/07/2016 07:28 am ET Updated Sep 08, 2017

ICT For Good - Smart is sustainable, Sustainable is smart

ICT for Good
Smart is sustainable, Sustainable is smart

The impact and value of ICT in our society can hardly be overestimated. It is the driving force behind innovation, connectivity, productivity and efficiency in nearly every sector. With the recent emergence of concrete Sustainable Development Goals, the urgency for the ICT sector to direct its course towards contributing to the achievement of these Goals is palpable. 'ICT for good' is good for the world and good for the ICT business.

Last week, the fourth international conference 'ICT for sustainability' (ICT4S) took place in Amsterdam, led by General Chair Prof. Anwar Osseyran, managing director Surf Sara, and Program Chairs Professor Patricia Lago (Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam) and Dr. Paola Grosso (University of Amsterdam). For four days, researchers, policy makers, business representatives and ICT systems and applications developers spoke about how the ICT sector can be sustainable and about the impact that ICT can have on sustainability.

At first glance there seemed to be little difference between this edition of ICT4S and the previous three. But there was indeed a difference: this edition took place in the year after the climate agreement in Paris and the UN's adoption of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). That is to say that this time the urgency to take steps was felt significantly more than before. It is perhaps for this reason that it became noticeable how the ICT field struggles with the challenges posed by sustainability. Although much attention is paid to energy efficiency in data centers and making hardware more energy efficient, this tends to distract from the real task the sector should be focusing on, namely: how can ICT contribute towards creating real profit from sustainability?

We all recognize the great impact and value that ICT has on society. ICT is unequivocally the driving force and an integral part of innovation, connectivity, productivity and efficiency in sectors across the board. It has led to vast improvements in the quality of services and has led to countless new jobs and business opportunities. It is built on the foundation of spreading knowledge, awareness and citizen participation. But there is an important aspect that has, until now, remained underexposed, namely the role that ICT can play in accelerating the scaling up of essential services in the fields of healthcare, education, financial transactions, smart agriculture and energy systems with low CO2 footprints. In other words: accelerating and scaling up solutions needed to achieve the SDGs.

Sweet spots
The impact that the ICT sector can have on economic sustainability is immense. Smart grids facilitate the highly efficient distribution of locally generated energy, even in remote areas. 3D-printing optimizes the use of resources and energy, since parts or tools can be tailor-made and only manufactured when needed. The Internet of Things (IoT) has the potential to accelerate the circular economy, as shown in a report by the Ellen MacArthur Foundation and IBM research which also illustrated how wastewater treatment plants (WWTPs) can save millions of dollars by using the IoT.

The enormous power of ICT - the data-driven automation and optimization of processes - can provide solutions to almost all of the SDGs, and can substantially improve sustainability in the way we work, travel, shop and meet each other. And because the SDGs are now in the picture, the markets for sustainable impact are also becoming more prominent, as John Elkington pointed out in 2015 in his compelling report, "The Breakthrough Forecast." He named various promising "sweet spots" - activities with a huge market potential such as 3D printing, health technology, computer graphics and so on. He presented reliable numbers showing the market for big data applications having increased by $39 billion in 2015 with the forecast to further increase to $76 billion by 2020. A recent report by the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) and Accenture Strategy showed that ICT companies could realize an additional $2.1 trillion in revenue by focusing on services that lead to the achievement of the SDGs. And there are countless other "sweet spots" in various markets where the ICT sector can make a real difference. For example, in less developed parts of the world, billions of people - including many farmers -still do not have access to a banking system. ICT is crucial to facilitating that access and rapidly expanding accessibility on a large scale.

Responsibility for tomorrow's world
There is one predominant responsibility that the ICT industry embodies. And that is that without a widely shared, radical new look at the opportunities that digitalization offers, the extremely ambitious targets that the SDGs have set will never be achieved in time. The emphasis is on the words "widely shared" because apart from a few leading multinationals like Google, radical innovation comes from inspired start-ups. There are still too many established players in the ICT sector who are only geared towards solving problems that come up and are focused on the mantra: 'You ask, we deliver'. While a better credo would be: 'We take our responsibility for tomorrow's world and contribute to sustainability by focusing on independent innovation, connectivity, productivity and efficiency'. This resolution should be implemented together with the users by utilizing a 'participatory prosumer' approach.

Good examples of companies that are already doing this are Ushahidi, an open source software platform approaching social issues by enabling vulnerable citizens to share, in real-time, testimonies of human rights violations or crisis. They can reach out to people and inform them of what is happening, where and when. Or the educational video platform Nafham that is making full primary and secondary education (K-12) accessible to children in countries without an adequate educational infrastructure. And the incredible Africa Born 3D Printing (AB3D) that produces affordable high-quality 3D printers from e-waste and locally available materials, in order to convert local PET waste into yarn for clothing. The ICT company Conclusion also uses an innovative approach to mobility and their own mobility issue, delivering environmental as well as cost savings. Working together with a large leasing company, using a digital showroom to exchange used cars among the entire customer base, Conclusion's fleet alone already consists of 40% used cars rather than new cars and by offering employees multiple travelling options, they have significantly reduced the use of cars at the same time. The list of such initiatives is long (for further reading, visit But what we need now is a large-scale contribution by big, financially strong ICT companies towards achieving what small start-ups are trying to do: tackle the flaws in our current economic, social and ecological system.

Setting the course
To summarize: a shift is needed, and the entire ICT industry, companies big and small, should set their course towards contributing to the realization of the SDGs. As this is a shared aim of companies across all sectors as well as governments worldwide, the need for radical ICT solutions is imperative. It serves the world and serves the ICT companies as well. It unlocks markets, connects to both current and future needs of clients and is thus not only a profitable but also sustaining business. The theme of the ICT4S conference this year was 'Smart is Sustainable'. I suggest turning it around next year to be: 'Sustainable is Smart'. This applies to both the world and business. So let's make ICT really smart by developing and applying ICT for good throughout all business sectors!

Marga Hoek, sustainable entrepreneur, board member and author of New Economy Business.

Thanks to co-authors:
Patricia Lago, Professor of Software and Services, Computer Science Institute, Vrije Universiteit Amsterdam
Anand Sheombar, lecturer / researcher social media and sustainable business models, Hogeschool Utrecht and contract manager at Surf Sara.