The future of sustainability: it's all about data

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The expression “the global village” first appeared in Marshall McLuhans book The Typographic Man from 1962. Two years later, he developed the concept further in his Understanding Media, and it came to symbolize a world in which we are increasingly finding ourselves interconnected. In 1962, a total of slightly more than 67 million passengers embarked an aircraft in an US airport. In July 2010, the same figure for the last 12 months was 713 million passengers. In 1962, the biggest carrier, United Airlines, offered traffic to around 50 destinations in little more than 10 countries. Having just completed the merger with Continental, United remains the biggest carrier in the USA and together with it’s partners, United today offers more than 1 000 destinations in more than 170 countries.

This new level of connectedness has created new opportunities and at the same time, new threats. In the old days, when a life threatening virus infected a remote village its inhabitants either died or got immune. Today, the same virus is able to travel the globe, mutate and create a pandemic.

The interconnected world we live in creates new opportunities for companies to expand the reach of their products, for nations to collaborate on solving tough issues and for NGOs to empower people all over the world. Two years ago, several of the high-level conferences on the international sustainability conference circut stressed the need for collaboration between the different sectors in society, a theme influenced by our high expectations leading up to COP15 in Copenhagen.

However, COP15 became a disappointing experience as different parties disagreed on the root of the problem and distrusted each other’s intentions. As the next high-level meetings on climate policies and sustainability practices approaches, we have to ask ourselves a few questions on what is needed to avoid future failures.

What does it take to avoid that we end up in the same situation again? What is the smallest common denominator we can find in order for the connected citizens in the global village to start trust each other and working on sustainable solutions? What bits and pieces do we need to start to advance towards a sustainable future?

I think the pieces we need are bits and bytes. The future of sustainability is about data.

We need data to create trust. We need data to agree on what to measure and we need data in order to analyze and solve problems.

Data is needed to create trust

In order to collaborate, we need to share what we know. Data is at the center the coalitions we need to create with colleagues and competitors. Transparency is becoming increasingly important to enable investors, shareholders, NGOs and other interest groups to understand the challenges that we face.

In most countries, laws require all food products to feature a nutrition label. It’s a way for the government to manifest that we, as consumers, have the right to data. As this demand extends beyond the food aisles at your local supermarket, smart companies are already offering more data, or plan to do so, to their customers. New Zeeland winery Mobius Marlborugh provide data on the co2-emission associated with each bottle of Sauvignon Blanc and Wallmart plans on making data on the sustainability performance on a lot of their products available on their website in the coming years, enabling consumers to compare different brands.

In financial reporting, a standard for which sustainability data points that is to be required for a company wanting to do integrated reporting is yet to be agreed on. There are nevertheless a few standards already out there, such as GRI, which enables comparison between companies, even if a lot of companies still struggle with the issue of collecting all that date from the far corners of the company. What a lot of people seems to agree on, however, is the need to verify all data that we gathered. If not, there is a risk of sustainability performance reports sounding like letters from your kids at college.

“Hi dad! At college, I’m focusing on my studies rather than pleasures, as promised and I’m happy to report that in last weeks exam I was awarded 13 points. In order to maintain a competitive edge with other students, I wish not to disclose my goals or to put them in perspective. And yes, I’m aware of the fact that marijuana will affect my ability to concentrate and in line with the code of conduct at the college, I never smoke marijuana, I promise. It is however outside my control if other parties decide to buy me weed sometimes, as this is still a part of local tradition and that I’m afraid that refusing their offer might affect my relations to their group."

In order to get the trust of your shareholders, it’s increasingly important to be able to show that all your data is verified and to disclose your target and data on how well your company managed to reach those goals.

Data is needed to agree on what to measure Just being transparent isn’t enough. Data makes it possible for different parties to compare what kinds of data that is being disclosed and start to discuss the relevance of each data and their sources. It can then lead to starting to share more than data, but models and thinking, using an open source model.

A vision without a plan to execute is merely a hallucination. In order to get things done, we need data to set realistic goals, data to know what to measure and data to indicate that we are on the right track to meet those goals.

It’s only when we agree on what that is going to be measured, that things get done. It’s only then that we can start collecting the data we need and can get going with analyzing what we get. In order to start building a searchable data bank containing all species in the world, that would serve as a library to inspire us to find biomimicry solutions to everyday design problems, the researches had to agree on what data that should be collected. And when the New York Museum of Modern Art, was thinking of acquiring the @-sign or a Boeing 747 to their collections, that had to go back an consider what data that was needed in order do decide if it was possible to add a non-acquirable object to their collections.

Data is needed to analyze and solve problems Here’s a piece of data: The Alliance to Stop Slavery and End Trafficing has estimated that there is 12,3 million slaves in the world today. Some data has the potential to make us think we want to act, immediately. The question is only – what should we do with that piece of data. Data without analysis is nothing more than data.

That’s why the Alliance’ founder always provide an answer, based on an analysis of what would change the statistics – provide enough funding to help a woman educate herself and start taking the first step from being in the set of data labeled “slave” to another set, labeled “free”.

Maybe you’ve noticed that media have started to fall in love with all the data that is available today. The result is an increased number of information graphics in media, helping us get new perspectives we haven’t had before, and see patterns that data that was previously hidden, and think of solutions we never thought of before. Given the power that is hidden in data, it’s no surprise that several of these visualizations of data have made into the MoMA permanent collections.

You might think you know yourself, and then the insight that comes with the analysis of data changes our lives. Joanna Barsch, partner at McKinsey & Co did not understand why she was never offered any of the higher management positions within the firm. Twenty years later, she takes a test at authentichappiness.org and what the data tells her is that she’s a mediocre leader, at best. However, the data also told here about her strengths and having had the chance to focus on those for a few years, she is now one of the most insightful speakers on leadership you will ever come across. And that’s a fact.

In this interconnected, connected, complex world of ours, data is of highest importance to understand how to solve the problems we face as we approach 9 billion people on the planet. It’s by analyzing data on different corn crops that Monsanto was able to cross breed different species and combine the best to a even better crop. It’s by devoting their energy to understanding data from the field that the Rockefeller Foundation is able to map the main figures, and possible allies, in order to solve problems in an area, and thus get the maximum social impact for their fund. It’s by analyzing data on the environmental impact of the entire supply chain that DuPoint is able to gain insight on where they can get the most short-term effect.

On the other hand, we must also remember that the more data we collect, the more data are we also responsible for protecting. The very same systems that we praise for monitoring the energy consumptions of buildings are also the systems we hate because thy also monitor human activity in those buildings.  Over the least few years, we have seen a rapid increase in the discussion around privacy issues online, which at its core is a discussion on what pieces of data we, as individuals wish to share with the world and which data we wish to keep for ourselves.

Remembering this and ensuring that our analysis is made using verifiable data from multiple sources, I’m confident that data will allow us to tackle some of the biggest issues facing the world today. Take the Global Virus Forecasting Institute as and example. Created by Nathan Wolfe, they hunt viruses in order to detect virtues that might cause pandemics in an early stage. They have created a system that allows hunters in Africa to text information on where they find dead animals in the forests and that creates a map that reveals if there has been a lot of other reports of dead animals in the same are, something that could indicate a virus outbreak.

Add to this, analyses of what kinds of indications of a sicknesses that people are searching of on Google in various areas and combine that with information on the purchase patterns of drugs from Wallmart, and information on the number of people working at airports that have called in sick as they are more exposed to other peoples viruses than other work groups, and we’re hopefully able to detect virus outbreaks at a very early stage. By using verified data, we can act quicker and make better decisions.

Last year, more than 50 million passengers boarded aircrafts at John F Kenny Airport. Compare that with just over 9 millions in 1962, then Marshall McLuhan coined the term “the global village”. It’s then no surprise that airlines across the world are working hard to find sustainable alternatives to petroleum based jet fuel. A few years back Virgin Atlantic became the first carrier to accomplish the first commercial flight using jet fuel based from renewable sources. In order to monitor the performance of the engines as well as the plane itself, they were using sophisticated equipment and the results were shared with the very same companies they considered their fierce competitors in all other areas of their businesses. But they share a common goal and wish to tackle one of the big hurdles we have to overcome in order to reach a sustainable solution.

And just as everywhere else in the world where sustainable solutions is sought with success, in the heart of it all is the same thing; data.

About the image: An example of shared data, although not related to sustainability. European detail map of Flickr and Twitter locations Red dots are locations of Flickr pictures. Blue dots are locations of Twitter tweets. White dots are locations that have been posted to both. Infographic by Eric Fischer with Creative Commons licence.