Business innovation | Opinion

Big data’s big potential

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Information needs to have a point

Data may be the future, but only for those that know what to do with it

Ask any Silicon Valley clean tech investor what they are looking for from a start up to add to their exciting portfolios and they are more than likely to mention the word “data”.

In the battle to transform industries and transition the world away from poor environmental and social performance, information is king. If a business doesn’t really understand the impact it is having in the world, then how can it be expected to turn things around, goes the mantra.

And, as such, everyone is constantly on the look out for tools, products and services that provide ever-increasing insight to help them make those incremental shifts towards improved sustainability.

However, making effective use of data in tackling sustainability issues is not always easy. As tech writer George Anadiotis says, while businesses commonly have governance models with clearly defined stakeholders and responsibilities, “there is no business model for sustainability per se, rather this is an externality for pretty much every business model”.

‘Understanding and insight’

That said, more and more companies are using big data analysis techniques to inform their sustainability strategies. “Transparency is the engine which drives any data train. More data means more possibility for understanding and insight,” says Tim Nixon, managing editor for sustainability at Thomson Reuters.

By 2020, there will be 300 times more information available to us than there was in 2005, according to IBM. As data gathering and analysis becomes more advanced – driven by stronger and more accessible computers and improved connectivity – there is a greater opportunity to align sustainability performance with business performance more generally, helping support investment decisions and establish more accurate return-on-investment information.

Previously dispersed, operations information can now be tied together to establish end-to-end impact along the value chain, including things like product disposal and the sourcing of raw materials. Tools such as the World Resources Institute’s Aqueduct can help businesses accurately calculate water risk, a traditionally complex issue of which companies previously had little knowledge or insight.

Waste management

Pirelli uses a big data management system, known as HANA, to maintain an inventory of its tyre products, using data served up by sensors in the tyres to help cut waste and reduce the number of defective products ending up in landfill.

Another famous example is Google’s database of information tracking the composition and environmental impact of building materials. Known as Portico, the database is used for its own construction projects, but has also been made available as a web app for others to make use of too.

As Tam Nguyen, global head of sustainability for the construction business Bechtel, recently told Forbes, “predictive analytical models connected with engineering software can forecast potential sustainability impacts and implications, including water consumption, energy use, waste reduction in ways never done before”.

Effective use

Of course, having information at your fingertips is one thing. Being able to make use of it in the most appropriate and effective way is quite another. As the data piles up, it doesn’t on its own tell us anything.

Bringing more science to improve decision-making on sustainability demands that business sustainability professionals keep pace and learn how to apply this to their jobs and operations in helping to create better companies. With the relentless pace of change, though, this in itself is a major challenge.

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