How IoT and digital twins could help CIOs meet ESG pledges

Many local authorities have set ambitious net-zero targets. Can IoT technology, allied to digital twinning, help CIOs hit them?

“Many local authorities have been in an arms race to declare an earlier net-zero target,” said Mark Apsey, managing director of renewable energy and efficiency company Ameresco, speaking at IoT World Congress in Barcelona in May 2022.

Apsey was talking about the UK’s commitment to being net-zero by 2050 and the role internet of things (IoT) technology and data can play in helping to identify areas where authorities can focus their attention to reduce carbon. But this is far from an easy task.

The problem is scale. Some authorities are setting “hugely ambitious” targets, according to Apsey. Manchester City Council has set itself a net-zero target of 2038, Carmarthenshire County Council in South Wales has set a target of 2030, while Bristol City Council has gone even further. Its 2030 target includes reducing the entire city’s carbon, including private residential and commercial sectors, as well as council buildings and partners.

While all of these authorities have addressed the obvious, such as installing LED lighting, insulation and so on, there are some significant challenges in the IT department. The impact of datacentres has been a concern for some time, and for a while the solution seemed to be cloud-based computing. But, of course, that’s just shifting the problem. Data still has to be stored somewhere, and while organisations look for efficiencies in services, through IoT strategies for example, that data is multiplying. With that comes cost and carbon.

It comes as no great surprise that a recent survey by energy company E.On and The local government chronicle found that 53% of UK councils are not confident about hitting their net-zero targets. The challenge is huge and multifaceted.

For chief information officers (CIOs) in councils and across private enterprise, the reliance on cloud-based services has escalated through the pandemic. Needs must, of course, but there’s always a trade-off. As Gartner said recently, organisations have had to soak up the impacts of their cloud suppliers, but with added emphasis on environmental, social and governance (ESG) criteria, those suppliers are coming under more scrutiny.

“While essentially all cloud providers have sustainability initiatives in place, their progress in meeting carbon reduction goals and strategies for achieving net-zero carbon emissions varies wildly,” says Ed Anderson, distinguished research vice-president at Gartner. “Sustainability metrics and workload placement tools are still immature and not always transparent, making it difficult for organisations to fully and accurately assess the true sustainability impacts of their cloud usage today.”

IT sector electricity consumption

This is a problem for most organisations fired-up by cloud adoption and increased demands for digitisation. It feels as if the industry has done little to counter Greenpeace’s 2019 prediction that by 2025, the IT sector could be consuming as much as 20% of the world’s electricity. And yet, so many councils, governments and enterprises talk-up their environmental goals without, as Apsey suggests, “knowing what needs to be done or doing it quickly enough”.

This inevitably leads to accusations of greenwashing, where marketing departments hijack the ambitions of organisations before any serious, robust plan is in place. For CIOs tasked with bringing down emissions and adhering to targets, this can be a huge problem.

A recent IBM CEO study finds that CEOs are coming under increasing pressure from stakeholders to act on sustainability. It cites “frustrations” with organisations’ “all talk and no action”. Culture is seen as a significant issue in hampering any attempts to co-ordinate carbon emission strategies.

“If you want to avoid the trap of greenwashing, it needs to start with the CEO,” says Alicia Asín, CEO of Libelium, an IoT business based in Zaragoza, Spain. Asín, speaking on a panel at IoT World Congress, added that this creates a culture where the whole organisation needs to look at the design and sustainability credentials of every technology offering for every sustainable project.

She used an example of a farm customer that is using IoT to reduce the amount of water in irrigation and to reduce the level of pesticides being used on their crops. The project itself creates efficiencies and sustainability benefits, especially when it comes to ESG and ratings for potential investors. In addition, the technologies used have to be sustainable themselves. It’s no good helping to reduce carbon at the farm level if the cloud or telecoms supplier is undoing all the good work.

Cultural buy-in

The point is that for organisations to have any chance of tackling carbon targets, they need cultural buy-in, and that includes CIOs and IT departments. It also means extending measurement and management to suppliers (Scope 3 emissions), a notoriously difficult challenge. As Asín says, this has to come from the top and feed through the whole organisation.

But even then, how do organisations actually start to address some of the more difficult aspects of emissions? How do you find them and how can you be sure that any changes you make will have an impact on carbon?

“We’ve been having conversations [with local authorities] about the idea of improving things further with technologies like AI, digital twins and the metaverse,” says Apsey. “But there are a lot of challenges, around who owns the data, who owns the software and who gets the savings.”

It’s a good point. We are not talking about single entities. There are often complex relationships within local government and cities, with a multitude of stakeholders. Despite this, some authorities have managed to create frameworks for development and experimentation through partnership. Bristol is Open, for example, initially a joint venture with the university, has managed to trial a range of technologies, such as software-defined networking (SDN), IoT, big data analytics and 5G.

Twin cities

As local authorities evolve into “smart” communities, knowledge of how these technologies can enable people and services, as well as create efficiencies, will be crucial. But now there is the added layer of sustainability: the realisation that an increasing reliance on digital technologies also means potential increases in carbon footprint.

David McKee, founder and CEO of Slingshot Simulations, a Leeds-based digital twin business offering simulations-as-a-service, says that more needs to be done to address the key challenges of data storage and costs. It’s no good throwing a blanket over the problem. CIOs need full visibility to stand any chance of increasing digital services while reducing carbon emissions.

“IoT at the moment is generating 175 zettabytes of data,” says McKee. “And of all the data we’re capturing and storing, between 70 and 90% of it isn’t being used for anything at all, because we don’t know how to use it. So, it’s sitting there in the cloud on hard drives burning carbon. It has a huge impact and equates to roughly 6.4 million tons of carbon per year.”

So, how could local governments use IoT and digital twin tools to help reduce emissions while enhancing service delivery and management?

“I would think about this in terms of ‘sustainable digital twins’ which allow data to be aggregated across all the different complex systems involved from AEC to mobility to supply chain,” says McKee. “By aggregating these together through systems of digital twins, local governments can build a holistic picture of the world we live in built off of IoT data.”

Read more about getting to net-zero with data and software

McKee adds that he has also seen digital twins being used to help plan for data collection, so that only the data that is needed is stored and used, as well as identifying missing data, so that IoT sensors can be deployed appropriately and sustainably.

A recent Capgemini report on digital twins backs this up, with 34% of organisations claiming they are already deploying digital twins at scale, “to understand and predict energy consumption and emissions across value chains”.

In addition, 57% of organisations agree that improving sustainability efforts is also one of the key drivers of their digital twin investments.

For local authorities, cost obviously becomes a factor, with systems costing thousands. McKee says that as a result, creating a meaningful system that all stakeholders can access at the appropriate cost point hasn’t been possible, hence McKee’s founding of Slingshot as a “digital twin as-a-service” business.

There is also the added challenge of skills. As McKee suggests, “typically, these complex systems need data scientists, software engineers, architects and so on, and there are simply not enough of them around – and they cost a fortune”.

He adds that the stakeholders who are making decisions are not typically data scientists or engineers, but domain experts in their community or field of interest, and the software tooling has been too complex for them.

Undoubtedly, this complicates things. The willingness is there, at least according to Apsey, but so many authorities lack a vision and a means to deliver that vision. Visibility of assets is key to decision making and, in that sense, there has to be a major role for IoT and digital twins, to model sustainable communities and identify where key gains can be made in the race to net-zero. Anything less will be unsustainable.

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