Leading the Sustainability Drive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Leading the Sustainability Drive in the Fourth Industrial Revolution

Close your eyes. What do you see? The future is here, near and achievable. But how sustainable? Autonomous vehicles (AV), Drones, Smart Traffic Management Systems, Vertical Farming and the list goes on.

But how soon would the “future” become reality in the developing world? Overall progress toward a more sustainable world remains slow. Contemporary issues may fasten our decisions in embracing this world. Think the role of drones in saving lives through provision of relief materials. Think of smart predictions from data analytics used to determine production line’s breakdown and delay of production. Think of waste tyres being processed to foot-wears. Think of challenges faced in the workspace across water management, solid waste, downtimes, machine efficiency, waste water, delivery amongst others.

Smart technologies can help in numerous way but this comes with numerous challenges such as ethical concerns, data privacy breach and safety issues. So how can organisation tackle these endless problems and take emerging responsibilities towards a sustainable world?

The good news is that, in many organisations, there’s already someone poised to lead the charge: sustainability manager.

Traditionally, sustainability managers focus on developing stakeholder, environmental, social and governance strategies for their organisations, but it’s high time they expand their influence to the fields of innovation and technology.

Specifically, it is time sustainability managers take on challenges as follows:

  1. Overload of Information: Big-data problem to big impact

Big data can help solve many of the social and environmental problems companies and consumers face; for example, they can help ensure better traceability of products across the supply chain or even sure more recycled tonnes of waste.

Companies that utilise health data may leverage on such data to produce health services or product which would generate more revenue to organisations as well as healthier lifestyle for her patients. As Marc van Weede, global head of strategy and sustainability, Aegon, a pension, insurance, and asset management company puts it during a roundtable discussion: “Personal health data has become a way to develop products and encourage people to adopt healthier lifestyles. Once we are collecting 24/7 people’s cholesterol and blood pressure, what type of responsibility does that create if we actually see things [that] are not quite as they should be?” Therefore, this shows an un-staggering impact which may be created if harnessed properly.

Unfortunately, organisation would have to devise strategies so as to consistently keep getting data because recent survey conducted by Marketing Week, a reputable data organisation showed that a staggering 71 percent of consumers think companies use their data unethically. Therefore, organisation would need to stay on top of their game in guarding customers’ privacy, ensuring security.

Sustainability managers are suited to shouldering this evolving responsibility and ensuring that this is enshrined in their organisation’s social policy and governance. Therefore, they must work closely with digital teams and since most CEOs have digitalisation on their agendas, sustainability managers can take on this, as to advance the sustainability agenda.

  1. Workforce education: Irrelevant Knowledge to Appropriate Skill Set

According to McKinsey Global Institute May 2017 report, 60 percent of companies report that they cannot find graduates with the relevant right skills. Unfortunately, current education systems (including workforce development) are not prepared to meet work demand.  At the same time, almost 40 percent of employees feel their jobs do not match their skills. This shows a huge gap in not only repairing the status quo but also scaling up for the future.

Sustainability managers can help here as well, not only by making sure that employees receive programming or math skills training, but also by ensuring that employees are engaged at work. Also, ultimately, sustainability managers can take the lead in helping their organisations partner with educators to shape curricula as well as recommend trainings and acquisition of skills sets needed to thrive at workplace.

Whilst doing this, Sustainability Managers should enable their organisation to give work meaning beyond just work to earn living or make profits. They can do this my encouraging employees to “rethink” the purpose of the company and their individual roles. Just as Philipp Meister, Adidas’ director of strategy for social and environmental affairs, stated;   “Connecting recycling plastics with dying oceans really resonated with people and created an emotional link.”. In this regard in Africa (with emphasis on Nigeria), this is still a break of dawn and therefore sustainability actors would need to lace their boots in other to shift from lip-service.

  1. Innovation: Failing Forward

In 2016, Unilever reported 50% more growth from its sustainable brands relative to the other brands. Yet many large established companies find it difficult to innovate.

To encourage innovation, research have shown that companies need to tolerate mistakes and to create an ambience of tolerance in workplace rests on the shoulders of the Sustainability Manager.

For example, Ernesto Ciorra, head of innovation and sustainability at Enel, an Italian multinational electricity and gas company, who believes it is up to sustainability managers to create this culture of tolerance, introduced the My Best Failure Initiative, where employees are rewarded for sharing mistakes they made when trying to improve and innovate.

Also, from a roundtable discussion, Vice President for Corporate Strategy at SAP, accounting giant software company said; “If an employee is under constant stress to fulfil revenue figures, he or she will take the only decision which is there. “You need to have options to go left, right, or middle.” Therefore, in other to innovate, there must be numerous options for you to choose and fail forward.

Sustainability managers would need to lobby effectively for more innovation breathing space for employees. They would also need to facilitate the necessary network across the organisation.

In summary, the fourth industrial revolution (4IR) is definitely disrupting markets, but it is also creating real opportunities to solve social problems through sustainability. Sustainability managers are well equipped to lead their organisations on this path to prosperity and would need to act.

  1. Stanford Social Innovation (2017). https://ssir.org/articles/entry/sustainability_managers_could_lead_the_fourth_industrial_revolution
  2. World Economic Forum, PriceWaterhouseCoopers. (2017). Fourth Industrial Revolution for the Earth Harnessing the 4th Industrial Revolution for Sustainable Emerging Cities.
  3. McKinsey (2017). http://www.mckinsey.com/global-themes/employment-and-growth/technology-jobs-and-the-future-of-work?cid=other-eml-alt-mgi-mgi-oth-1705&hlkid=1fd3cd627b8d447d87a89470cff433f7&hctky=9801490&hdpid=a09516c8-7f82-472b-aaa9-320f2a194dd2
  4. Havard Business Review (2015) https://hbr.org/2015/06/the-6-most-common-innovation-mistakes-companies-make
  5. Marketing Week https://www.marketingweek.com/2017/05/18/unilever-sustainable-brands-growth/
  6. http://www.igotgarbage.com/

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