Mental circles

The biggest challenge for me in trying to drive sustainability focused action throughout my organisation is an internal one.  Coming from outside the field – I undertook the course as I have a broad interest in sustainability, rather than being a seasoned practitioner – I sometimes feel as though I’m treading on the feet of the sustainability team and other interested stakeholders.  This view has not been borne out by my interactions with them, in fact, they having been nothing but positive and welcoming of my work, however there’s a big mental leap in being interesting in something and undertaking a course compared to making real changes that will cost the organisation money (at the least in people’s time).

It’s actually drawn me full circle and I’ve been asking myself existential questions for the past couple of weeks.  One ask from our Director General for my work was to prioritise a few of the SDGs to focus on and I have done with our Chief of Staff and Chief Regulatory Officer.  We are now down to five.  However, some of our initiatives do positively impact other SDGs, so I’m now questioning this approach.  How are we going to differentiate the SDGs we have prioritised compared to those we haven’t?  We are going to continue the work on the latter so does that mean they don’t get as much exposure?  That doesn’t seem fair.  For the prioritised SDGs, I do feel we can do a little more in those areas and certainly we can look at measuring our contribution to the associated indicators where relevant.

I’m now at the stage where I need to meet with the CFO about this prioritisation and the additional focus and activities we may need to commence, and my second guessing is not putting me in the right frame of mind for this interaction.  I’m toying whether I bring these questions up with her – but does that mean she’ll be thinking why is this person wasting my time if she’s not even bought in to what we’re discussing?!  Ughh.  I feel like I need more thinking time and even going back to basics as to the what, why, how etc of what I’m doing.  I’m not sure if this is some lack of confidence based on my aforementioned position of being relatively new to sustainability or whether these questions are actually suitable ones to be asking at this stage before the organisation (and myself) make any real investment going forward.  Lots to think about ahead of the meeting with our CFO.

In terms of growth, this work has really challenged me as it’s involved getting to grips with a new area – detail of the SDGs and our industry’s contribution to them – and also working with new executives and teams within the organisation.  The latter particularly, as it’s been in an area that’s not my speciality, so as per the above I don’t necessarily have the confidence I display in my day job.  However, everyone has been very supportive (here’s that mental circle again!).

I’m sure this will sort itself out, but for now I’m in a something of a ‘stewing mode’ as I ensure that what I’m trying to do in the organisation really is worthwhile with tangible benefits.  Having said that, discussing these things always helps so I think I will go ahead and set up the meeting with our CFO!

Embedding sustainability…?

Whilst on maternity leave I have been keeping in touch with my workplace, primarily by dropping in to the office every couple of months and harassing the Head of Internet of Things (my boss), the Chief of Staff, the Chief Financial Officer and Chief Regulatory Officer about embedding sustainability across the organisation.

My day to day job is in Internet of Things which is an enabler to all sorts of services that will help address the SDGs, from more efficient farming and food distribution, remote health services and remote learning through to energy efficiency, smart transportation and financial inclusion.  While we have always recognised this, we have never had objectives or targets based on sustainability, since we are a Technology programme and sustainability work is run out of our Government & Regulatory team.  Similarly, our internal functions, such as facilities and procurement, have not had a concerted sustainability focus.

Some challenges I’ve been working on within this context are to prioritise a small number of SDGs for the organisation to focus on and to embed activities to deliver these SDGs within various programmes and internal functions of the organisation.  I also want to introduce a holistic perspective on sustainability, including addressing some negative impacts such as resource depletion for equipment manufacture and end of life processes.

Prioritising the SDGs was an interesting activity.  As part of this I studied the circa 160 indicators (that is, measurements) attached to them.  This threw up some interesting conundrums.  For example, while we thought that Climate Change would be an obvious priority for us, the related indicators had to do with number of persons displace due to climate change disruption rather than carbon emissions (which we are addressing).  After a long process involving interviews with the Leadership team and further discussions, we decided to prioritise three SDGs due to their theme, including Climate Change, and three SDGs due to relevant indicators.  With one SDG making both lists, this left us with five prioritised SDGS – not a bad result!

I am now in the process of identifying one programme and one internal function in which to trial a holistic sustainability focus.  This will involve bring the heads of those departments on board and also creating new organisational relationships whereby the sustainability team becomes a sort of internal consulting function that works with different parts of the business to embed sustainable practices.  So far, I’ve had positive talks regarding the trial areas but it’s still a case of pushing as best I can and hoping to achieve positive responses soon from my targets.

Mobile telecommunications driving a low carbon economy

According to the GSMA, where I work, the mobile industry achieved 5.1 billion unique subscribers and more than USD$1 trillion in revenue in 2018; there were 3.6 billion mobile internet users. However, mobile is not just about phones, tablets and   other personal gadgets.  A growing sub-sector of the industry is the Internet of Things (IoT), where devices such as cars, smart meters, factory machines and agricultural equipment are connected to the internet.  This enables sustainable practices in areas such as energy and agriculture.   IoT  in its infancy with 9.1 billion connections in 2018 expected to grow to over 25 billion globally in 2025 (https://www.gsma.com/r/mobileeconomy/).

As part of the information and communications technology (ICT) family, mobile’s impact on carbon follows a similar pattern.  In 2007, Gartner (https://www.gartner.com/en/newsroom) estimated that ICT contributed 2% of global carbon dioxide (CO2) emissions and the Global e-Sustainability Initiative – GeSI –  estimated that ICT’s contribution to CO2 emissions would be about 3% in 2020 (https://www.theclimategroup.org/sites/default/files/archive/files/Smart2020Report.pdf).

However, ICT also enables the lowering of CO2 emissions through optimising energy production, distribution and usage.  In the same report, GeSI also estimated that ICT could reduce global CO2 emissions by 15% of predicted total global CO2 emissions by 2020 through smart automotive, logistics, buildings, energy grids and dematerialisation. 

As a result, we in the industry have a two-pronged approach to achieving carbon reductions.  And luckily for us, they are both value generating.  Firstly, we need to address the carbon impact of delivering the mobile communications itself such as manufacturing of the equipment and power consumption.  The CTO of my company estimates that energy costs are approximately 40% of the operational expenditure of running a mobile network.  So the more we can make our networks in particular energy efficient, the more cost savings there are to be realised in our service delivery.

On the positive impact side, we have a fantastic business opportunity, particularly with the IoT, to help other industries reduce their carbon impact.  By delivering solutions such as smart grids, smart buildings, smart agriculture and smart factories we can help other industries optimise their use of energy and other natural resources.  Solutions can target individuals as well, for example “the more than 1 million households who have installed solar home systems using a mobile-enabled pay-as you-go model, bringing them clean and affordable access to electricity” (https://www.gsma.com/newsroom/press-release/mobile-industry-accelerating-delivery-of-sustainable-development-goals/).

So mobile is a fortunate industry compared to many when it comes to the narrative around the carbon economy and an exciting area in which to work, with many different industry and sustainability touchpoints and opportunities.

Bringing up a particle baby

My work in the Internet of Things has involved undertaking proof of concept projects in areas such as Smart Agriculture and Air Pollution Monitoring.  For the latter, my team at the GSMA worked with the Royal Borough of Greenwich in London to deploy a range of mobile-enabled air pollution monitors to understand at a granular level the air quality being experienced by citizens in their daily lives, as explained in this short video:

Smart London – Air Quality Monitoring with IoT and Big Data

The statistics on air pollution in London are sobering.  It is estimated that 40,000 people in the UK die early each year due to air pollution and that “7.9 million Londoners – nearly 95% of the capital’s population – live in areas that annually exceed global limits for PM2.5 pollution particles by 50% or more annually” (https://www.kcl.ac.uk/sspp/departments/geography/research/research-domains/environmental-dynamics/newsevents/newsrecords/air-pollution.aspx).

I was shocked when my work uncovered these statistics as I always think of environmental issues as critical problems going on in the world but not effecting myself directly in my day to day life.  And after all, it’s not like London has the same kind of visible layer of smog as Shanghai or New Delhi.  And that’s part of why London’s air pollution is considered to be a silent killer – unless you notice the news articles you wouldn’t be aware of it.  And it really is a killer.  In addition to the premature deaths mentioned above, there was a recent death of a child in London due to an asthma attack where analysis has shown that timing of her seizures over several years were aligned with those days where pollution breached EU limits (https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/uk-england-london-47255859).  Last year, a study of 2000 school children in London found that pollution was stunting the growth of their lungs (https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2018/nov/14/diesel-pollution-stunts-childrens-lung-growth-london-study-shows).

So why am I so interested in this now?  Not particularly for myself – I was lucky enough to spend the majority of my childhood in the clean, sunny skies of Sydney – but I have recently had a baby who I am bringing up in east London.  What is going to become of her lungs and respiratory system?  Knowing what I do, I feel the onus is on myself to do more to find out about daily pollution levels, similar to what I do with the weather, and adjust my routine accordingly.  Another concern is that pram heights are level with car exhausts and therefore babies in prams experience more car pollution than adults.   Therefore, I need to investigate what I can do about this, for example, are there pollution filtering covers I can put on the buggy?

Beyond my own family, I am now a member of a local mothers group who meet regularly. We have discussed so many things with regard to our babies’ health – from feeding, sleeping and vaccinations through to exposure to illness on the tube or in shopping centres.  However, we have never discussed air pollution and what it may be doing to our children’s heath and development.

My personal challenge is to understand more about how to protect my baby from London’s air pollution and also to – gently – educate my mother’s group both about the dangers of London’s air pollution and what we can do to limit the impact.  Luckily, London’s mayor Sadiq Khan is already leading the charge to drive down pollution levels (https://www.london.gov.uk/what-we-do/environment/pollution-and-air-quality/how-were-cleaning-londons-air), however I would also like to explore if there’s any political or civic involvement I could undertake to prioritise this issue on behalf of the parents of east London.

How I became an Ikea fan – and sustainability student

In 2017 I attended the Wired Live event in London (https://www.wired.co.uk/partnerships/wired-live).  Amongst a stellar speaker line up of scientists, technologists and creative types was Marcus Engman, Head of Design for Ikea.  Although perhaps one of the simplest, Mr Engman’s talk was one of those which I found the most inspiring.  He introduced Ikea’s “democratic design” process which has five principles: form, function, quality sustainability and low price.  He then spoke through the design the “IKEA 365+  Carafe with stopper” which retails in the UK at £2 for the 0.5L and £4 for the 1L sizes.

 Source: https://www.ikea.com/gb/en/products/tableware/jugs-carafes/ikea-365-carafe-with-stopper-clear-glass-cork-art-90279719/

Amongst practicalities like designing the bottle with a slim profile and wide neck to make appropriate for fridge doors and dishwashers, he spoke about selecting the material for the stopper i.e. cork.  Mr Engman described the cork industry as being in crisis since the wine industry has been moving to screw top bottles and he spoke about his pleasure at being able to utilise cork, thus providing crucial custom to a struggling industry.  While I’m sure there were other motives, such as an over-supply of cork leading to low prices, this way of thinking about stakeholders and impacts of decisions during the design process was more holistic than anything I’d previously come across.

Mr Engman then went on to describe Ikea’s approach to reducing waste and creating a circular economy around its furniture.  He described how in many countries, customers are encouraged to sell their Ikea furniture second hand and provide a marketplace for them to do so.  I was struck by this initiative because in essence, it reduces the customer base for new Ikea furniture by making used items so readily available.  It was the first time I’d come across initiatives such as this although since then I’ve seen similar, such as at John Lewis (https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/fashion/john-lewis-unwanted-clothes-customers-buy-back-fashion-waste-landfill-a8405926.html).

It’s true that I haven’t investigated Ikea’s practices in detail – and there are often skeletons in company closets – but I was personally inspired by their adoption of this holistic perspective and practice of the circular economy.  In particular, how these perspectives are incorporated upfront in their design process and how sustainability is addressed even in ways which may adversely impact business.  Having said that, I am much more likely to purchase Ikea products in future, having previously been allergic to whole days given over to furniture assembly.  So you could say that the ‘virtuous circle’ of sustainable practices winning over customers has been achieved – at least in my singular case.

Ikea’s approach made me think about sustainability being an integral part of business strategy, company processes and product design rather being a separate focus area.  Having previously attained a masters in business, I could see how sustainability could be an evolution of my career rather than being a radically new path.  And here I am today, a student of sustainability at the University of Cambridge.