Digitalization for Sustainability: How Smart Technologies are Shaping a Greener Future

Discover how digitalization is paving the way for a more sustainable future. From precision agriculture to smart water management and energy optimization, we explore the ways in which technology can be harnessed to achieve the UN's Sustainable Development Goals.

Digitalization and sustainability

How can digitalization help us to become more sustainable?

Becoming more sustainable is not accomplished by only adjusting your own personal behavior. It's also a matter of making the world more digital. Digitalization offers many opportunities to make better use of our resources and knowledge in a variety of industries. With digital sustainability, smart technologies are deployed to secure economic growth while taking the Sustainable Development Goals of the UN into account. Though digitalization comes with its own environmental challenges, it should allow us to have growth and better life conditions, but less at the expense of the planet.

So how are we working towards that Smart Green Planet? Last year, scientists published the article Digitalization to achieve sustainable development goals: Steps towards a Smart Green Planet. This blog post is mainly based on insights of that article.

Pictograms of the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the United Nations
The 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) of the UN form the roadmap towards an equitable and sustainable by 2030.

Agriculture and food production

As the world population and the per capita income increase, the demand for food increases as well. By 2050, with a predicted population increase of 40% to 9.6bn people, the agriculture industry will need to produce 70% more food on only 5% more land. Efficiency in farming techniques is therefore crucial to provide everybody with affordable and healthy food. Food production faces many challenges, such as increasing temperatures, more frequent extreme weather events, increasing saline soils, and invasive crops and pests. At the same time, agriculture is one of the biggest emitters of greenhouse gasses. Research estimates it's up to 29% of the global emissions! Digitalizing the industry is thus not only to making it more efficient and scalable, but also greener.

The digitalization of the agriculture sector takes many (complementary) forms. Some examples:

  • Remote sensing and GIS techniques (Geographic Information System) allow farmers to map and guide effective land-use patterns, identify crop varieties, and monitor agroecosystem activities, therefore increasing their production capacity. This geomapping is enabled by satellites and drones with high resolution multispectral imaging.
  • With precision agriculture, farming practices are undertaken at an accurate place with a specific timing, instead of giving every crop the same treatment. The benefits are worth the effort: it reduces the waste of water, food, fertilizer, and pesticides while increasing the crop yield and the economic gains. Precision agriculture is possible with the use of robotics such as drones and autonomous unmanned ground vehicles, but also with advanced AI models, cloud technologies, and deep reinforcement learning.
  • Mobile app services could provide more connectivity between agricultural stakeholders and farmers and enable access to climate-smart practices.
  • In genomics, scientists develop future-proof crop varieties: high-yielding, nutritional, stress tolerant, and insect resistant. With bioinformatics tools, the vast collection of data can be decoded to develop these varieties.
Pictogram of AgTech solutions
Agricultural drones and robots, plant sensors, soil sensors, data monitoring and management systems, and apps are only a few examples of digital farming (Source: insidetelecom)

Clean water

Longer periods of drought, water pollution, salt seawater contaminating freshwater sources, ... Access to potable water will become more difficult due to extreme weather events and water quality violations, especially in developing areas. Given the severe health risks linked to poor water quality, cities need to ensure they can provide their citizens with accessible, clean water.

  • Water treatment systems (wastewater treatment, drinking water treatment, desalination) are complex and are difficult to generalize, but AI technologies are more and more applied to turn the data into actionable knowledge. This way, decision-making and operations are improved without a significant cost increase.
  • On a city level, digitalization could enable real-time water quality audits. When a water quality issue arises, decentralized smart technologies will automatically activate water treatment processes, ensuring clean water for all.

Energy and industry

Not only do we need to make the energy grid greener, we also need to prepare for a higher demand in the future. Despite the great progress in renewables, the challenge of matching offer with demand remains. The peak times of energy usage don't always match the peak times of the renewable sources, and the energy supply from renewables such as solar fluctuate.

Besides this offer/demand issue, there is also the need to optimize the energy processes in industry. The industrial and transport sector represent over half of the global energy consumption, but the energy loss in the majority of their processes is enormous: between 15 and 55% is wasted as residual heat. Energy management is vital, and digitalization can enhance energy efficiency and provide sustainable alternatives:

  • Distributed energy generation: whereas the traditional power grid is designed around a centralized generator (usually a large power plant with fossil fuels), renewable energy grids are often decentralized. Electricity can be generated close to where it's needed, which avoids transmission losses and saves the consumer costs.
  • Moreover, with the smart grid integration of renewable energy sources, variations in one energy source can be balanced with another. These AI-managed energy systems coordinate the energy flows and manage offer and demand.
Scheme of a smart grid system
In a smart grid system, different energy resources are coordinated to match offer and demand intelligently (Source: Mbungu et al., 2020)
  • In the transport sector, the use of data logging becomes widespread. With dynamic route optimization, optimized maintenance needs, driving monitoring, and better capacity utilization, both road transport and ships can save fuel and cut emissions.
  • Smart manufacturing: Industry 4.0 will rely heavily on digitalization and work towards sustainable manufacturing. It will not only make use of the smart grid, but also pay attention to the entire product life and supply chain. Waste reduction and material reutilization will for example be crucial to be resource efficient. Optimization of the production can be achieved through simulations of virtual manufacturing, but also through the standardization of systems and machine-to-machine communication of cyber-physical systems.
Scheme of smart manufacturing
The ideal product life cycle in Industry 4.0 is integrated with material, energy and information flows through digital technologies (Mondejar et al., 2021)

Check out our posts about energy and industry for more examples on these fields.

Let's digitalize!

It's clear: the implementation of digital technologies offers many possibilities for the sustainable development of a growing population on a changing planet. Agriculture, water systems, and energy are only a few of the industries that can benefit from it.

Are you looking to digitalize, but do you need some help? Noldev offers custom software development, transition to cloud technologies, automation via API integrations, and technical expertise on-demand. Reach out to us, we would love to hear your project.