‘Practical Sustainability’: A book that couldn't wait, and a responsibility that cannot
“The first Europeans in the Amazon reported people living in the rain forest, villages, and farms ribboned along the river with massive cities in the distance. Two centuries later, these reports were dismissed, believing the Amazon’s soils were too poor in nutrients to support large numbers of people, let alone cities and civilizations.
...Researchers created a digital twin of southern Amazonia—a soft copy of the region, allowing them to digitally peel back the jungle canopy and see what’s underneath. The result? Traces of a civilization ten million strong, and cities linked with villages, all interconnected by radiating roads in a system of systems.
How did the Amazon support so many people? They used a technology called terra preta, an ultra-fertile regenerative super soil, a carbon sink reportedly able to retain up to six times more carbon than normal—extremely useful if you’re trying to get to Net-Zero.
Terra preta was considered a natural phenomenon until as late as the 1990s. Then experts became aware that its mix of charcoal, bone, compost, and manure pointed to human origins. The broader implications are shocking - humans architected Amazonia and helped construct the rain forest. These were agrarian smart cities, and the technology was the very ground beneath their feet—a regenerative, fertile mix like soil on steroids...”
This extract is one of the many anecdotes about humans regenerating the earth and its species to thrive alongside sustainably that dot the book ‘Practical Sustainability’, written by Infosys Sustainability & Design business Head, Corey Glickman, and the head of Infosys Knowledge Institute, Jeff Kavanaugh. At the core of the dialogue is that humans, when faced with adversities and challenges, have always found practical solutions to create a sustainable ecosystem in the past, so there is nothing that can stop us now in our journey towards attaining the Net-Zero goal.
“Sustainability is multi-dimensional, whether it's the physicality of the environment and the technologies, whether it's the social aspects, whether it's the governance aspects.” - Corey Glickman Tweet
As Kavanaugh puts it: “It's (an) example where technology regardless of what stage it is, can help you address something and also that there's hope that if you can take critical thinking and apply toward a solution, you can build on it.”
In a very optimistic approach, the writers have drawn from their personal experiences, growing up in an industrial society and as professionals contributing to the sustainability journey. They have strived to offer practical approaches that can be replicated by companies and governments in their endeavour to create and connect smart spaces.
Interestingly, both writers have experienced life from two ends of the spectrum – one is a farm boy and the other grew up in an industrial town.
Society from different lenses
Glickman’s childhood in Pittsburgh was all a flourishing town of steelmaking and coal industry could offer in the late 1960s and early 70s. Everybody's father and grandfather worked in these factories, and it was given that the next generation would Glickman and his townmates too would work there. Hiking and fishing in the rivers were a normal part of his childhood, although not always the safest activities, given the region’s pollution.
Around 40% of all of the coal reserves in the US are within 100 miles of Pittsburgh. The town produced 80% of the steel around the world for close to a century. It was the symbol of the American Dream.
He recalls his people viewing the environment “as a way of supporting the community, of having a great lifestyle,” while adding that a strong economic lifestyle might have led to the acceptance of pollution and other aspects of the climate and the environment.
In the late 70s, however, all that changed when steel mills begun closing down and many people lost jobs. It was time for his folks to rethink the kind of community they would want to build. Biotechnology, education, and healthcare replaced manufacturing, and it was an opportunity for the locals to bring environmental health into the equation.
The 1970s was also the time when Kavanaugh grew up on a farm in southern Indiana. As temperature fluctuated and winter storms prevailed, scientists actually warned of a coming ice age. Life was pretty straightforward: work hard, plant crops, harvest them, and replenish the earth’s nutrients in anticipation of the next growing season. There was an element of practical innovation and frugality, where people made the most of the resources they had.
“The 1990s showed us an intricate, interconnected web that drove down costs and lead times. However, it also meant if there's a weather issue currency issue in one part of the world, it affected people elsewhere – sometimes everywhere.” – Jeff Kavanaugh Tweet
Kavanaugh’s later travels – across the US, India and Europe – got him thinking about the connectedness of climate change. Over the course of his long career he has been involved in engineering, manufacturing and supply chain, and seen the how each component is linked.
“The 1990s showed us an intricate, interconnected web that drove down costs and lead times. However, it also meant if there's a weather issue currency issue in one part of the world, it affected people elsewhere – sometimes everywhere. And seeing that impact, especially when there are issues like shortages, emphasized the importance of sustainable solutions that met local needs and also a global population.”
The second stage of realization for Kavanaugh was after he joined Infosys and travelled to places such as Bangalore and the many Infosys campuses across India. He witnessed the impact of climate change not just socially, but also commercially, and realized that they're all related, and connected.
In his trips to India and elsewhere around the world, Kavanaugh discovered a treasure trove of sustainability stories and examples that he thought must be shared. Glickman’s and Kavanaugh’s professional experiences working in the sustainability field triggered the idea to put all the learnings, insights, and recommendations together in one place.
“We really drove into the idea of sustainability, and to say what it would take to actually have this movement and this impact. I don't think we could do this without creating a book,” said Glickman. “I mean, there are specific and detailed ways that we think about technology or what we know, as engineers or specialists to say that we can solve things.”
“Sustainability is multi-dimensional, whether it's the physicality of the environment and the technologies, whether it's the social aspects, whether it's the governance aspects and across there, and it's a combination of what did we know, who did we know and what they thought, or experiences they had,” he says.
Solutions for a sustainable future
At the heart of the authors’ practical solutions are five essential elements, namely regenerative future, circular commerce, human experience, system of systems, and digital twins.
Glickman reckons that buildings were the first focus area when they started talking about writing the book. “We spend 90% of our time in buildings. … as you create buildings, whether it's refurbishing buildings, or putting up new campuses, this impacts the environment of the communities around you. You have a social and economic responsibility to make an impact. If you can do this with buildings, you're actually impacting 40% of the problem. They are responsible for 40% of the greenhouse gas emissions.”
“You have a social and economic responsibility to make an impact. If you can do this with buildings, you're actually impacting 40% of the problem.” – Corey Glickman Tweet
He added buildings are a real laggard in technology, and there is currently more sophistication in our smartphones than in buildings. However, buildings are a necessity, and they are everywhere, so they have a potential to drive a huge change and make the earth more sustainable. Commerce is another area that the authors think needs to be carefully considered for practical sustainability. In a material world, goods will need to be created, but through circular commerce a significant amount of waste can be avoided.
As engineers and technologists, Glickman and Kavanaugh define the role of physical and digital technologies in this expedition towards a sustainable future. Technology has always been around in one form or another. With the explosion of new digital technologies such big data and machine learning, the scope to solve environment problems becomes much larger.
“Where a local solution exists, whether high tech or low tech, we need to adopt it, implement it, generate value from it, and then share it widely. We need to use the long lever of technology, and solutions at scale, because that will accelerate progress and make up for a lot of lost ground,” said Kavanaugh. “Both global and local solutions are important, because one can be at scale and the other tailored and applied locally… that really is the ultimate inclusion, and it also respects different levels of innovation.”
The authors also highlight the important role indigenous solutions play in this goal of improving lifestyles and increasing longevity. The Amazonia anecdote, for instance, speaks of the power of indigenous knowledge and solutions. This example shows that a large group of people cannot access technology like the way the most developed economies can.
“Both global and local solutions are important, because one can be at scale and the other tailored and applied locally… that really is the ultimate inclusion.” – Jeff Kavanaugh Tweet
“We're asking those countries to sign up to be part of the solution, but maybe at the exchange of having a good economy, right? … But to be fair, they're saying ‘we haven't a chance to build our economies.’ And for the first time in history, that this technology is now prevalent, where they can use the tools that have been developed and are globally available. They're saying, it's not a fair playing ground, at this point,” said Glickman.
He believes that wealthy countries are going to have to subsidize and to be able to invest because if someone is left behind, ultimately everybody will fail.
The dire cost of inaction
There is a sense of urgency that needed to fight climate change impacts, and there is no better time than now to do it.
Kavanaugh stressed the later we act, the bigger the challenge. “The sooner we react, the more effective the response, in a nonlinear way, it’s as simple as that,” he said. “Legendary strategist Clayton Christensen talked about the fallacy of marginal improvements, taking small adjacent steps that produce tactical gains. But they aren't reinforcing your core, your purpose. And I think that purpose driven will actually drive the large moments”.
“The cost of inaction is dire,” Glickman warns. “20 years from now, 30 years from now, it's very hard to keep that promise, right? We'll always have an excuse to say, but this is more important now than this, until we suddenly hit this critical situation… Destiny really awaits across there.” The two authors hope that the book will provide a practical structure that can be applied without abandoning the commercial objectives companies need also. The book is a kind of mental scaffolding that supports both pursuits.
Ultimately, humankind needs to remember, as they said in Bhutan: “we borrow the future from our children.” If that is so, the sustainability script needs to flipped from negative to positive, so that our children have an practical and optimistic view of the future driven by innovation and purpose, instead of constrained by fear of doomsday and dystopia.
“In the race to sustainability, we need our steely-eyed missile men and women to guide us home—or perhaps, to guide us to our next home,” as the authors say in the book. No matter how tough it may seem, the book finally inspires with the Star Trek mantra: “Go, Boldly, Go.”