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Technology: en-route sustainability and innovation!

The term ‘Sustainability’ was widely-disseminated for the first time by a credible source in the Brundtland Report in 1987 by a commission established by the UN General Assembly. The report coined the well-known definition for sustainability as “development that meets the needs of the present without compensating the ability of future generations to meet their own needs.” The commission went on to add “in the end, sustainability is not a fixed state of harmony, but rather a process of change in which the exploitation of resources, the direction of investments and the orientation of technological development are made consistent with future as well as present needs”. 

As the Brundtland Report highlighted, scholars in the past too have long debated the topic of sustainability. In 1798, British scholar Reverend Thomas Robert Malthus, extrapolated the critical point that will forcibly lead humanity towards sustainability and called it a Malthusian Catastrophe. However, contrary to the protagonist’s view there, has been a steady growth in human well-being despite the rapid population plunges. It can be credited to human ingenuity, better expressed as the technological advancement and innovation!

This gave rise to the Neo-Malthusian theory better captured in the identity, I = PAT, where I is a measure of impact; P is for population, A represents the level of affluence and T is a measure of technology. Translation: the solution for minimizing impact due to rise in population and levels of affluence lie in technological innovation. 

We can say that sustainability primarily requires action on harnessing and maximizing the potential of technological innovation. Given the diversity and complex nature of today’s businesses, the nexus of sustainability and innovation must be coupled at every operational level. Too often, technologies are either not developed at all for lack of a sufficiently profitable market, or if developed, are not accessible or well-adapted to end-user needs. We at NASSCOM Foundation believe that  a major contribution of information and communication technology (ICT) has been the increase in access to information and communication thereby shrinking the global physical constraints and bringing people closer to each other and in turn closer to sustainable solutions. For ICT growth to have a positive impact in lives of people, there are two requirements:

‘Innovate and produce more resources’ and 

‘Enable society at large to derive benefits from them’

Utilizing its unique position as the social arm of the premier industry body NASSCOM, along with its vast network of NGOs and Social Enterprises, NASSCOM Foundation is creating an ecosystem that is conducive to the achievement of these twin goals.

For instance, the SMART 2020 report reveals that by 2020 emissions from the ICT sector will represent an estimated 2.8% of total global emissions. But ICT will enable others to achieve significant emission reductions, helping industries and consumers avoid an estimated 7.8 giga-tonnes of CO2 emissions. That is 15% of predicted total global emissions, or five times ICT’s own footprint. NASSCOM Perspective 2020 report states some of the ways to reduce emissions across sectors:

Provide standardized information on energy consumption and emission;

Provide platform to improve accountability; 

Offer innovations that capture energy efficient opportunities across commercial buildings, homes, transport, power, manufacturing and other infrastructure. 

Civil society at large has long been a pioneer in adopting innovative approaches to redefine sustainability. It plays a critical role by bridging gaps and bringing government, the private sector and communities to a common platform. Also, a focused civil society approach is a catalyst to curb first hand adaptation of new technology, which is typically a major roadblock in the sustainability and technology nexus. In 1998, former United Nations Secretary General Mr. Kofi Annan in his address to the Parliamentary Group said “Information technology has empowered civil society to be the true guardians of democracy and good governance everywhere.”  

The Harvard Business Review study titled “Why Sustainability is now the key driver of innovation”, articulates five stages of sustainable development for business: 

    Stage 1: Viewing compliance as opportunity 

    Stage 2: Making value chains sustainable 

    Stage 3: Designing sustainable products 

    Stage 4: Developing new business models

     Stage 5: Creating next practice platforms’

The NASSCOM Foundation has imbibed these principles in BigBridge, our e-waste management program that helps companies responsibly reuse/dispose their e-waste while simultaneously ‘giving back’ to communities. The Foundation viewed the redefinition of E-waste Management and Handling Rules (Union Ministry of Environment and Forests, Govt. of India) as an opportunity to strengthen the industry’s commitment to the basic environmental principles: Reduce, Reuse and Recycle. 

Using its unique position the Foundation turned the e-waste channel into a source of refurbished computers for the cash-strapped non-profit sector. With Attero, a leading recycler, as our partner, the program formalized the process of extending the life of e-waste (refurbishment) as well as recycling the end of life products in a responsible manner. Refurbished equipment is donated to qualifying NGOs, with a small administrative fee to cover expenses. To ensure its viability, the program connects donor organization with beneficiaries and engages to create opportunities for fruitful long-term association. Having innovation as a driver to sustain the efforts the program also tracks beneficiaries till the computer systems are obsolete and ensures their responsible disposal.

In this small manner, NASSCOM Foundation is promoting sustainability. However, the key to such programs is scale, especially given the breadth of the IT-BPM sector alone: 3 million employees who turn-over computer systems ever 3-5 years. With these figures, we could scale to 5 lakh computers for the NGO sector per year, extending end of life as well! 

Innovative solutions such as BigBridge are part of the I=PAT potential for sustainable development.

Rita Soni was appointed as the CEO of NASSCOM Foundation in October 2010. As part of the social development arm of NASSCOM, Rita aims at strengthening the efforts of the IT Industry towards inclusive growth, building strategic relationships and establishing effective linkages between industry, non-profits & government. She holds a Master of International Affairs degree from Columbia University's School of International and Public Affairs (SIPA) in New York and a Bachelor of Electrical Engineering with Honours from Stevens Institute of Technology in Hoboken, New Jersey.