Innovate to battle economic crisis, post-pandemic

In his 18 May speech to the CBI this week, Rishi Sunak, Chancellor of the Exchequer, urged British businesses to “invest more, train more and innovate more” in return for tax cuts in the autumn Budget. The context is the deepening economic crisis, with UK inflation running at 9%, the highest level since 1982.

Innovation was also to the fore, as a theme, at this month’s Gartner Data & Analytics Summit in London. The firm’s analysts exhorted data and analytics leaders to “unleash innovation” pent up during the Covid-19 health pandemic by getting their organisations to use their analyses to “drive change”, not just to have creative ideas that fail to find execution.

Sustainability – reducing negative environmental impact – is surely an area ripe for innovation, indeed over-ripe. As an article by Caroline Donnelly (forthcoming in the 24-30 May issue of the Computer Weekly ezine) on the circular economy, as it is germane to datacentre operators, demonstrates, sustainability is a multi-dimensional matter. It cannot and should not be reduced to energy consumption. What about the sustainability of the building materials of which data centres are made? What about their water consumption habits? How can operators use the waste heat generated by their facilities to warm homes and businesses nearby? How can they feed the circular economy by recycling used servers? And so on.

The greenwashing at play in the IT industry at large is eye-watering. But there are opportunities to deploy innovative technologies, such as software to monitor and reduce carbon emission at scale.

Sustainability was a major theme at SAP’s Sapphire customer and partner event, at both the North American conference in Orlando, and at the North European gathering in The Hague. Supply chain resilience was a related theme. Since the supplier’s B2B customers include some of the largest greenhouse gas emitters on the planet, in industries such as oil and gas, petrochemicals, automotive, transport, construction, and agriculture, it has a significant opportunity.

Arguably, as a German company, SAP is more naturally attuned to ecological issues than its US peers. There are, after all, 118 Green members of the Bundestag, 16% of the total, and that party also sends 21 MEPs to the European Parliament. The favourable comparison with the US is obvious.

There is a balance to be struck, however, between innovation and sustainability. One could plausibly that innovation is better stoked by knowledge workers being in the same space. But that would entail reducing the amount of time spent working productively and happily from home, putting pressure on the environment from commuting. And, as we have often noted at Computer Weekly, IT, particularly hardware, is part of the climate emergency problem as well as, potentially, part of the solution.

In unleashing innovation, we must take care not to unleash Hell.

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