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Everything seems to be green these day, be that green investments, green fashion or, for that matter, green tech. Green tech, or clean tech as it is sometimes called, is when we use technology to observe, model or protect our natural environment. The focus here is on sustainable applications, without the technology having to be the particularly sustainable, even if it would be great if this were the case. I previously described how to design more sustainable solutions in an earlier blog post. Today, we will be taking a look at the distinctions within green tech and exploring why any company that wants to remain on the market over the long term needs to look into green tech.

Before we get started, we have to acknowledge that we will not be able to address complex challenges like climate change, the loss of biodiversity and soil acidification with software alone. But because these challenges are so complex, software is essential to tackling them. More specifically, we need digital solutions that enable sustainability transformations. And at the end of the day, it would not be possible to manage energy grids that will be exposed to greater fluctuations in the amount of wind and solar power fed into them, carry out large-scale monitoring and analysis of environmental parameters and develop early warning systems for natural disasters were it not for software.

Companies need green tech

When it comes to sustainability, Black Rock’s Larry Fink, who founded the world’s largest asset management company, is a name that immediately comes to mind. He has stated time and again just how important it is for companies, having recently written: ‘The next 1,000 “unicorns” [start-ups valued at $1 billion or more] will not be search engines or social media companies; they will be sustainable, scalable innovators – start-ups that help the world decarbonise and make the energy transition affordable for all consumers.’

Along those same lines, many financially powerful players have long had sustainability on their agenda. This includes the likes of Elon Musk, the world’s wealthiest person and founder of Tesla, the company that revolutionised the automotive industry in a short space of time by offering a more sustainable alternative to diesel and petrol cars, along with Bill Gates, Jeff Bezos and dozens of others who are investing in green tech through the Breakthrough Energy coalition.

This does not mean we all have to follow the example of the world’s wealthiest people. That being said, the most urgent challenge we currently face as a society also opens up economic opportunities that companies in particular cannot afford to ignore. For many of them, however, the prospect of new fields of business or being able to play their part in preserving the foundation of life and business is not enough to put the issue on the agenda at the moment. They are reminded of the potential disruption to existing business models caused by sustainable alternatives.

Fields of action in the green tech space

As we learned at the beginning, green tech involves monitoring, modelling and protecting the natural environment. However, it is not always clear what falls under the banner of environmental protection. To take one example, companies that make fake meat or e-vehicles do not contribute to environmental protection as much as robots that remove plastic from the ocean or machines that filter CO2 out of the air. That said, more indirect solutions also make a vital contribution to reducing our impact on the environment, as long as it does not stop there. In the sections to follow, we will be exploring a number of examples focused on different categories of green tech in order to get a better understanding of the potential fields of actions and where the differences lie between the categories.

Cyber-physical system

The integration of digital and physical systems into production and logistics is a trend we have been witnessing for some time. In order to protect the environment, we can measure environmental data and manage renewable energy sources through the autonomous control of physical systems within sensor networks, for example. We also find many sustainable approaches in the deep tech space that would have been unthinkable without software. One noteworthy example is the production of more sustainable concrete with the aid of artificial intelligence (AI), which can help reduce production-related CO2 emissions by up to 50 per cent. Other aspects of environmental sustainability – such as soil acidification – are also being addressed with approaches from Agriculture 4.0, where AI is being used in the targeted application of fertilisers and pesticides on the plants that really need them.

In my blog post on sustainable software engineering, we got to know the concept of carbon awareness in the field of software, which involves the intelligent execution of resource-intensive processes when large amounts of renewable energy are available. This concept is not limited to IT-related processes. It is also often possible to control production processes, operate robot vacuum cleans and charge e-vehicles based on the availability of wind and solar power. The intelligent planning of resource-intensive processes described here can make a vital contribution to grid stability if, as expected, fluctuations in the power supply become more common due to renewables being fed into the grid.

Green tech in the circular economy

The recycling and shared use of resources are key to a sustainable economy. Digital solutions once again take on the role of facilitator, since it is nearly impossible to allocate resources efficiently without digital controls. This is also necessary to make the processing of corresponding transactions simple and attractive, since the frictionless use of sustainable alternatives must be possible to support decision-makers and consumers in changing their behaviour. Prime examples of associated business models include eBay Classified Ads, Too Good To Go and sharing mobility services.

Dematerialisation through green tech

Replacing physical processes with digital solutions can help save time, lower costs and, in many cases, reduce emissions. Whether you are talking about replacing letters with e-mails, providing digital receipts and employment contracts, digital identities or setting up digital workspaces without media disruptions, many things that are still produced, transported and disposed of today can also be done digitally. In the analysis and simulation of real-world phenomena – such as waste flows in waste management – with the aid of digital twins, digital solutions also play a vital role in gaining a comprehensive understanding of our environment and the impact we have on it.

Green tech for greater transparency

A topic we have not yet touched upon is regulation, one of the main drivers of sustainability at this moment. Since 1 August 2022, banks are obliged to inquire about the sustainability preferences of retail customers when providing advisory services. Beyond that, major listed companies have been required to publish sustainability reports since 2017. Stricter rules will additionally apply for the 2024 reporting year, which will also be extended to cover a large number of companies that are not publicly traded.

Green tech solutions are essential to meeting the accompanying reporting obligations. We use them to capture, process and analyse data. They can also be used to provide access to clear information such as the environmental impact. On a company level, this takes the form of IT systems for sustainability reporting or life cycle assessments. Private citizens can calculate their carbon footprint using solutions such as the Plant Hero app and view the ingredients and environmental impact of products transparently in the CodeCheck app.

Green tech solutions can also create greater transparency in processes. Producing forecasts of projected sales volumes in a bakery in order to avoid making too much bread and reduce the amount of food waste is a prime example of how artificial intelligence can be deployed in this area. The blog post by my colleague Sascha Tash on AI in environmental protection provides further ideas on where AI can be used in the environmental sector.

Conclusion

As with the fields of action in environmental sustainability described above, digital solutions also have a positive impact on social sustainability. wheelmap.org, for example, provides an online map of wheelchair-accessible locations to actively foster social engagement outside the digital realm. Along with that, e-health applications could also play an active role in increasing social sustainability. As you can see, the impact of digital solutions goes beyond fostering more sustainable environmental practices.

There is potential from both a business and environmental perspective in each of the green tech approaches presented here. Being open and transparent about the actual environmental impact is crucial in green tech communication. Greenwashing should be avoided at all cost in order not to undermine the credibility of sustainability initiatives. That means we have to be open and honest about the contribution our solutions make to a more sustainable future, even if certain individual solutions serve a largely symbolic function.

On our website, we will show you what goals we at adesso have set for ourselves with regard to sustainability, what measures we want to implement and what the associated opportunities and challenges are for our company.

You will find more exciting topics from the adesso world in our latest blog posts.

Picture Yelle Lieder

Author Yelle Lieder

Yelle Lieder works on the planning and implementation of sustainable digital products and services. In the context of digital sustainability, he advises on the identification and reduction of environmental impacts as well as on the product management of digital solutions.

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