How does big data help sustainability campaigns?

Whether it is reducing food waste, increasing recycling, or promoting energy efficiency, the ability to collect and analyse big data can deliver a huge boost to any sustainability effort, says Owen Yeo, business development manager, Enerprof.

“We cannot manage what we cannot measure” - this management mantra has shaped the development and formation of various businesses and management systems. Although at present there are counter-narratives that state that this mantra does not hold in some contexts such as employee happiness being an intangible asset, we can still safely say that it still holds true in most contexts where the asset in question is quantifiable.

It definitely has value when it comes to sustainability and cleantech.

The main goal of the cleantech industry is to, via the promotion of technology, assist in the creation of a sustainable environment. Whether the aim is improving energy efficiency, increasing recycling rate of grey water, or the promotion of sustainable farming technology, each business sector sets its own goals. For these goals to be meaningful and for us to monitor our progress towards them, we need data. This data drives and monitors sustainability campaigns but many organizations have yet to embrace its use. Nonetheless if generation and analysis of such data is made easily accessible to organizations, there is no concrete reason why they would shun its use.

Suppliers must therefore react to this and provide equipment that contributes towards creation and management of data. It is no longer sufficient for an equipment or installation to merely execute its primary task to perfection. This very same equipment should be designed to collect, record, and store data whenever possible. This is applicable regardless of the position of the equipment along the value chain.

What if an organization has a medley of suppliers whose equipment and networks do not communicate with each other? Simple. This is where systems integrators step in. But we are moving ahead of the discussion for now. The point is, every single bit of data, when organized in an accessible manner, can be easily interpreted by decision-makers to assist in optimization of sustainable business practices.

To illustrate a case in point, food waste has one of the lowest recycling rates in Singapore, and a fair number of organizations here are starting to tackle this. These organizations most likely turn to the usage of food waste digesters for recycling of their food waste. However in and of itself the digester only recycles the food waste that has already been generated. It does not assist in reduction of food waste being generated.

Data and cleantech is not limited to food waste recycling only. There is room in every single sector but it is up to the respective experts to meld such functions into their equipment.

But what if the digester can provide data?

By knowing the amount of food wasted from each buffet station at certain time periods of the day, F&B management can better gauge the quantity of food to prepare for each meal sitting. A supermarket can have better control over its fresh produce if it knows how much has been discarded, and this can easily complement any existing management software it currently utilizes. A student can learn about the impact of the half plate of rice they could not finish if the school can illustrate the total amount of food that has been wasted.

Manufacturers such as BioHitech America have created digesters equipped with such data recording software that users can easily access via a cloud portal. The possibilities are limited by the type of data provided and the way such data is interpreted. Nonetheless such manufacturers are constantly seeking ways to expand the quality and quantity of data being collected and organized.

Data and cleantech is not limited to food waste recycling only. There is room in every single sector but it is up to the respective experts to meld such functions into their equipment. For example, iVolt, a voltage optimizer manufacturer from UK has found a way to measure the energy savings derived from voltage optimization. This process of removing voltage fluctuations by limiting it to a pre-determined level will theoretically achieve some energy savings for certain types of electrical equipment. However the lack of actual quantifiable measurement has plagued their industry for years and made it difficult to prove the derived energy savings. This breakthrough and their cloud-accessible platform is going to be a handy tool, and the UK firm has already reaped the benefits as seen in the number of innovation awards received.

Whether an organisation is a business or a non-profit, the gathering of data is integral towards optimization of sustainability efforts. We need to know what is wrong, in order to correct the error. Similarly we also need to know what is going well in order to gain confidence that policy changes are having the desired effect. Our goal of creating a sustainable environment for all can be better met if equipment suppliers and systems integrators are able to provide the required data to end-users in an easily accessible and understandable manner. Thereafter it is up to those in positions of authority to craft policies based on acute interpretation of said data.

I propose an addition to the management mantra, which would be apt for sustainability and cleantech: “We cannot manage what we cannot measure. We can better measure if our equipment is designed for measurement”.

Owen Yeo is business development manager of cleantech resource provider Enerprof. This article was written exclusively for Eco-Business.

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