Uncategorised / Thursday, 21 April, 2016

How can Big Data help deliver sustainability strategies?


The rapid growth of “big data” presents companies with real opportunities to improve business performance. Here Professor William Young, Director of the Sustainability Research Institute talks about ten.

Over the last few years there has been much talk about how so-called “big data” is the future and if you are not exploiting it your company is losing its competitive advantage.

Well luckily for sustainability professionals, we have all been using types of big data for a long time, such as energy flows in companies, environmental lifecycle assessments of products, greenhouse gas emissions reporting, waste recycling indicators, resources use balances, transport systems and so on.

Data and information is the day-to-day business of sustainability professionals and they are well qualified to take advantage of big data to better understand the environmental aspects or risks of their companies, product or service.

So what is there in the latest wave of enthusiasm on big data to help organisations achieve sustainability strategies and competitive advantage?

Data growth 

There is better data breakdown and new forms of data such as sales data, loyalty card data, social media, product sensors, new monitors and mobile phone data. There are lots of these data, often in real time and there are many ways to analyse and model them. This is nicely summarised in the famous “four Vs” of big data from IBM (volume, velocity, variety and veracity).

I think there are ten opportunities to use big data for sustainability professionals.

Gaining greater detail behind global sustainability performance indicators. For example energy use by using smart meters on production lines, in retailers, on products or in people’s homes can produce a better understanding of energy use in the system.

Accessing supply chain data more readily. There is an opportunity from being able to access data from global suppliers up and down the supply chain more readily, in a timelier fashion and with better accuracy. This will help to make better decisions over product/service changes knowing the associated sustainability implications. As climate change impacts global supply chains, this data may help adaptation and resilience of supply.

Gaining an insight in supply chain logistics and customer transport habits. There is now the ability to use mobile phone data to identify patterns in transport networks, giving the opportunity for better planning for more efficient use of fuel and reduced congestion. This may also provide consumers better opportunities to change to cleaner forms of transportation.

Predicting changes in behaviour from social media. This is one of the most talked about aspects of big data and yet the most technically difficult. Much of social media data is unstructured and in picture, pixels or abbreviated language. But there are opportunities to see how individuals react to an emerging sustainability issue or a new technology.

Social media is a good way for sustainability professionals to identify up and coming sustainability issues from their own stakeholders. These may be key local NGOs, community leaders, political leaders, suppliers, competitors, employees as well as customers. Identifying opinion formers is vital for filtering the volume of social media.

Customer behaviour with products and services. As companies try to influence consumers to reduce the environmental impacts on the use phase of products and services, getting feedback on the effectiveness of these interventions is important for future strategy.

Transparency to customers and NGOs. Access by consumers to the data behind product eco-labels, or working condition audit results from the factories producing their products, is important for confidence. Better presentation, accuracy and timeliness of this is an advantage.

Better marketing or targeting of greener products, services and corporate sustainability programmes. Being able to better segment and directly contact potential customers with personalised promotions is already being developed. This can help in the sustainability arena as well.

Interaction with consumers and stakeholders in the shared or collaborative economy. The growing ability to share resources, between companies and consumers has been facilitated by social media. Entrepreneurs are already in this space with apps allowing sharing of food leftovers or power tools. There are great opportunities for this to be further developed reducing the material flow though society using different business models.

Growing emphasis on smart cities, combined with the development of “mega cities” where the majority of the world population may live. Smart energy, water, waste and transport grids are just one area, but the buildings being able to heat and cool more smartly is another opportunity.

Don’t get lost!

There are some difficulties with big data that sustainability professionals need to be aware.

Firstly, getting lost in the enormous amount of data is easy, so having objectives or research questions is essential. Secondly, a few big corporations have been quick to jump on correlations between different data sets without common sense kicking in quick enough to identify that there cannot be a causation. Finally, there are the ethics of the privacy of individuals and communities, which need to be protected even if the data is publicly available.

Overall there is much here for sustainability professionals to work on and to improve the sustainability performance of their company’s operations, products, services, supply chains and even customers. However, as much data as possible needs to be open access for consumers, researchers, local communities and innovators for big data to have the biggest benefit for people and planet.

Prof William Young is part of the ESRC Consumer Data Research Centre (CDRC), which is led by the University of Leeds and UCL.  He also leads the Sustainability Research Institute at the University of Leeds.