Digital Technology’s Hidden Handprint


    Sep 26, 2022

    Pitched as the opposite of one’s footprint, the idea of the handprint is to showcase the positive effect one’s actions have on the environment. It goes back to the Centre for Environment Education (CEE) and was first officially presented at the 4th UNESCO International Conference on Environmental Education.

    Anders Andrae at Huawei’s 2012 Labs in Stockholm was one of the authors who popularized the term “Internet’s handprint” capturing the indirect, positive effect of digitalization on carbon emissions across businesses and society. In his most recent article, he estimates that the emissions-savings associated with digitalization are roughly 11x larger than the technology’s direct carbon footprint.

    The emissions-savings associated with digitalization are roughly 11x larger than the technology’s direct carbon footprint.

    Some of these effects are quite obvious. Just think of the number of videocalls you have had in the past two years, and how many miles of travel they probably have saved. In the same vein, digital sensors that prevent unnecessary heating or lighting in buildings eliminate the associated greenhouse gases (GHG) emissions.

    However, there are many other, more subtle ways how digitalization can have a carbon handprint. Huawei collaborated with the Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy to develop a series of five reports shedding light on exactly this hidden handprint.

    People hardly think of agriculture when they are asked to think of the most digitalized sectors. However, digital innovation has long entered farms around the world. Farmers use aerial imaging in conjunction with image recognition algorithms to optimize fertilizer and water use, reducing nitrogen residue by 30 to 50%. Equipped with various sensors, their tractors and other machinery move across the field (almost) autonomously today. Precise routing alone can cut fuel usage by 17%. Meanwhile adapting pesticide use to the actual requirements based on sensor readings, sheds up to 80% of the volume required while achieving the intended effect.

    Learn more: Register online for the GREEN IN-SITES: 5G Smart Farming Tour

    As innovation continues, small autonomous robots can attend to various tasks in the field. Automated ‘manual’ weeding could reduce pesticide use even further. In addition, small machinery prevents soil compaction effectively.

    Like the imminent paradigm shift from ever larger farm machinery to small autonomous robots or guided vehicles (AGVs), a holistic approach is necessary to master the sustainability transition. Digitalization shows its handprint right at the beginning of such processes as it enables us to build sustainability into new products, and services.

    For instance, enabling passengers to efficiently enter and exit the trains resolves the greatest hurdle for increasing their frequency. Building Information Modeling (BIM) affords architects and city planners with the right tools to achieve this. While implementing BIM from the start is certainly optimum, significant improvements can be retrofitted in many places adding capacity to existing public transport systems and thus supporting the shift away from individual motorized transport.

    Circular economy

    The same principle of how digitalization systematically shapes existing and emerging systems can be found in the ‘circular economy’. The term describes the idea of decoupling economic value creation from material resource consumption and to ultimately reduce physical material flows and their associated environmental impacts and GHG emissions.

    Digitalization goes full circle here. During product development, computer-aided design (CAD) – very much like BIM above – optimizes the material use right at the start of the production cycle. Additive manufacturing, with 3D printing as its most commonly known application, allows for the efficient production of the smallest batches. Thus, it can provide tailored replacement parts enabling otherwise impossible repairs. Data analytics can be used to better plan and forecast material requirements, production volumes, and shipping capacity. Better matching the actual supply of goods to customer demand, these tools can also help to avoid or reduce return shipments.

    As materials that cannot be kept in the direct repair loop is recycled, image recognition can be used to detect certain packages or products after they are scanned, and advanced plant controls and robotics can improve the performance and accuracy of sorting plants to optimize recycling. Finally, digital marketplaces make possible economical trading in recyclables. They bundle what is still often fragmented and regional supplies, thus setting the foundation for the recycling industry to network with producers and scale up. New quality standards, such as DIN SPEC 91446, which classifies plastic recyclables through data quality levels for use and (Internet-based) trade, still need to be developed for these digital markets to reach their full potential.

    An important lever remains again often hidden from the public debate: data itself. Accessing, sharing, and using data from other actors is an important prerequisite of collaborative use and helps keep the environmental impacts associated with data within tolerable limits. In short, only shared data is green data.

    Digitalization will be one of the cornerstones for the ecological change. Digital technologies and applications show their handprint in many ways. Sometimes, one has to look closely to find the most compelling solutions. As a systematic way to think about the digital handprint, the Wuppertal Institute researchers have suggested the concept of “ICT – Improve, Convert, Transform – for Sustainability”.

    Improve, Convert, Transform

    Within this concept, digitalization makes it possible to either improve current procedures, processes and structures (Improve) or reorient existing business models or framework conditions (Convert). At the same time, digitalization must also effectively reorient society towards more ecologically-sustainable lifestyles and contribute to a more far-reaching transformation of the economy and value creation (Transform). This last level of impact will be the decisive factor that whether these efforts will be effective, and must therefore be made the focus of future debate. It is also the one requiring the most significant support from the surrounding policy framework.

    Read more about Huawei’s sustainability story.

    Disclaimer: Any views and/or opinions expressed in this post by individual authors or contributors are their personal views and/or opinions and do not necessarily reflect the views and/or opinions of Huawei Technologies.


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