In an earlier article, I briefly introduced sustainability in advancing technology—specifically urging innovators to be aware of the impact of their new technologies on the environment and human sustainability.
In advance of Earth Day 2022, I reiterate that while it is easy to laud the potential of new technologies, we must also be wary of their effects on the environment . . . specifically the depletion of natural resources which may disrupt ecological balance. This is not to say innovation must be stymied, but that the true price of innovation must be measured in more than purely economic terms.
Defining Sustainability for Business
My quick definition of sustainability—from the Brundtland Report, drafted by the World Commission on Environment and Development (WCED) in 1987—is simply “meeting the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their needs.”
Bigger picture, the idea of sustainability is “often broken down into three pillars: economic, environmental, and social—also known informally as profits, planet, and people.” For me, new technologies tend to span all three: Driven by economic goals, but often extracting environmental and social costs.
For example, it has been a long-running criticism of bitcoin that the proof-of-work data mining required to produce coins consumes an astonishing amount of electricity. With many public blockchains used for cryptocurrencies, mining coins requires complicated mathematical processing on high-end graphic processing units (GPUs), consuming energy both for calculation processing and cooling those GPUs down under heavy load.
“Scientists from the University of Cambridge Judge Business School recently built an interactive analysis tool to calculate the real energy cost of bitcoin cryptocurrency,” explains Caroline Delbert in Popular Mechanics. “Using their energy use model, the researchers found that bitcoin mining uses more energy each year (130.00 terawatt-hours [TWh]) than the entire country of Argentina (125.03 TWh).”
Another example might emphasize social sustainability. “Social sustainability is about identifying and managing business impacts, both positive and negative, on people,” notes UN Global Compact.
Recall how Facebook’s social network technologies were taken to task by The Social Dilemma—a documentary highlighting the dangerous impact of social networking, which represents a sustainability challenge to human societies.
The film shows that while social networks’ cost is not environmental per se, social media’s “design nurtures an addiction, manipulates people’s views, emotions, and behavior, and spreads conspiracy theories and disinformation . . . [plus an] effect on mental health (including the mental health of adolescents and rising teen suicide rates).” Such social costs put existing social media in direct conflict with sustainable practices.
Balancing Innovation and Sustainability
So how can innovators build and create without jeopardizing the “ability of future generations to meet their needs”?
Such effort requires vision beyond immediate solutions and an eye for real-world consequences . . . even those completely unintended or unexpected in the deployment and adoption of new technology.
“The Industrial Revolution brought forth extraordinary gains in financial prosperity. Between 1870 and 1910, per capita income in the United States rose almost 40 percent, and the value of manufacturing output increased sevenfold. Yet rapid industrialization left in its wake darkened noontime skies, noisy and unsafe machinery, and severely compromised living conditions,” write David Austin and Molly K. Macauley in a classic article from Brookings. “Technology is a double-edged sword—one capable both of doing and undoing damage to environmental quality.”
“Technology has the ability to significantly impact the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals,” says Jeff Fromm in a Forbes article on sustainability and innovation. “As well as improve work/life balance, enable commerce and so much more.”
Here, environmental technologies have a chance to remedy the historical efforts of Industrial Revolution technologies that brought pollution and ecological disruption, as well as massively depleting natural resources.
“We are currently living in a period of rapid change, where technological developments are revolutionizing the way we live, at the same time as leading us further into the depths of catastrophe in the form of climate change and resource scarcity,” adds a great piece by Edinburgh Sensors. “While the impact of technology on the environment has been highly negative, the concept of environmental technology could save our planet from the harm that has been done.”
Even those technologies that simply avert environmental damage, without perhaps directly rebuilding or restoring natural resources, can have a tremendously positive effect on sustainability.
Circling back to my company, ZorroSign’s platform was originally built on private, permissioned Hyperledger Fabric.
Starting with this economic pillar, we constructed a blockchain platform unlike bitcoin and the proof-of-work cryptocurrency models, instead leveraging Hyperledger Fabric as a next-generation enterprise blockchain architecture with lower electricity costs and a smaller carbon footprint. Hyperledger Fabric is a next-generation enterprise blockchain architecture “with even lower electricity costs and attendant carbon footprints,” writes Michael Barnard in a CleanTechnica report.
Hyperledger Fabric’s architecture is so completely different from the mining and broadly distributed model of bitcoin, that the enterprise blockchain can operate faster with far, far lower energy consumption rates. This combination of speed and energy-efficiency made Hyperledger Fabric the sustainable choice to launch ZorroSign’s digital platform.
For the environmental pillar, ZorroSign’s vision includes a commitment to saving trees and having a positive impact on the environment through sustainable practices. With our Save-a-Tree, Plant-a-Tree program, ZorroSign plants a tree on behalf of our customers every time they save 8,000 pages of copy paper! As one tree produces roughly 8,000 pages of copy paper, this amounts to a double incentive: Reducing the destruction of trees via reduced paper use and increasing the number of trees as reward for reducing paper use. Again, our efforts aspire to realize significant environmental benefits such as conserving water, reducing carbon emissions, improving air quality, and reducing deforestation.
At ZorroSign, we use blockchain to help individuals, businesses, and governments to achieve a paperless life. Here we embrace the social pillar: Understanding that switching to digital records is not only a smart business decision, but it is also good for the environment and society.
Every time someone uses ZorroSign to digitally sign agreements, contracts, and other documents—instead of printing, faxing, scanning, and couriering documents to collect signatures—we all save trees, save water, and reduce carbon emissions. By moving social costs from paper consumption, logistics, and storage to digital signatures, digital archiving, and digital chains-of-custody, we advance a technology that similarly advances sustainability.
I am eager to engage technology innovators in advancing their solutions while also advancing sustainability goals! Connect with me on LinkedIn at https://www.linkedin.com/in/shamsh-hadi/