Industry 4.0 and the sustainability goals

As a society, we are experiencing an increasing number of challenges to the environment and our way of living. Although some things may be out of our control, others have been of our own making as we have gone through several iterations of industrialisation. We also now seem stuck in the cycle of consumerism, “Make -> Consume -> Dispose”. The health of both the planet and its inhabitants have suffered due to the emphasis on productivity and economic growth rather than their wellbeing. In this, the first of a series of short articles, we will be looking at the 4th Industrial revolution, its effect on the environment and exploring how it links to the 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) as defined by the United Nations.In our opinion, the 4th Industrial revolution will be the cleanest (yet). It could help to repair the damage of the past using new technological advances that shall become ubiquitous and increasingly cheap to use. We will have the tools to not only stem the damage to the environment but to start reversing it. An example of this could be reducing CO2 in the atmosphere. Success, however, depends on investment to stimulate sustainable solutions, using the new technologies wisely and changing our current behaviour.

Over the past 250 years, three industrial revolutions have transformed and shaped the way we create and use value. The first Industrial Revolution started in Britain’s textile industry in the mid-18th century, sparked by the mechanisation of spinning and weaving. Over the subsequent 100 years, it transformed every industry, gave birth to many more and helped the leading countries at the time to increase their annual growth rates from about 0.2% per annum to between 2% and 3% per annum by 1850 ((Shaping the Fourth Industrial Revolution – Klaus Schwab)). However, this monetary value was created in what would now be considered to be less than safe and healthy working conditions. They had a profound effect on the health of the workers and led to environmental degradation. The pollution generated by the factories, which was driven by burning fossil fuels, blackened the exterior of buildings and we presume the interior of the workers and their family’s bodies. They inhabited the dwellings surrounding the new factories. From about the 1840s, an area of the midlands in England even became known as “The Black Country” due to the buildings being covered in soot from the Iron and coal factories. This area housed approximately one million people at the time who suffered the ill-effects of pollution.

With the increasing speed of global warming and climate change and the increase of wildfires in numerous countries, one realises that the environment is suffering tremendously from the effects of these past Industrial Revolution periods and the products that they have produced. If we focus solely on monetary wealth creation, instead of wellbeing and a healthy environment, what kind of future are we building?
Can the technologies of Industry 4.0 help us create a more sustainable environment where society can grow and prosper? Can the combination of the Internet of Things (IoT), Cyber-physical Systems (CPS), Big Data and cloud computing services pave the way to a better and more productive way of life?
Technology alone shall not solve the problems we are facing.  Unless we change the mindset of people, applying these tools may make things worse. A good starting point for many organisations would be to look at how they can achieve the SDGs set out by the United Nations.  The SDGs were adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015. They provide a shared blueprint for peace and prosperity for people and the planet, both now and into the future.
Although all of the SDGs are interrelated, not all of them will seem immediately relevant in a business context. Five of the SDGs are directly related to industry. Later we shall see the impact of industrialisation on the other SDGs.
  1. Ensure access to affordable, reliable, sustainable and modern energy for all (Goal 7)
  2. Build resilient infrastructure, promote inclusive and sustainable industrialisation and foster innovation (Goal 9)
  3. Ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns (Goal 12)
  4. Take urgent action to combat climate change and its impacts (Goal 13)
  5. Conserve and sustainably use the oceans, seas and marine resources for sustainable development (Goal 14)

The application and use of technology could either improve or compound the current climate and societal challenges depending on whether organisations embrace the SDGs as part of a corporate strategy. They could be considered as non-functional requirements when designing OT/IT architectures supporting corporate strategy and policy. An example of something which has been made easier due to cloud computing is the fact that we can easily scale down resources when not required and thereby reduce energy use. Another example is encouraging organisations and owners of buildings to become “prosumers” and generate their own clean (solar) energy.  This would help counter-balance the fact that buildings alone account for 40% of EU energy consumption (( Sustainable is good, but eliminating unnecessary and wasted consumption, even better! This requires a cultural mind shift and resetting of priorities.

Besides the technological and cultural changes, we should review our current processes and see if they are transparent, lean and sustainable. The concept of measuring something from “Field to fork” using Blockchain technology may sound futuristic but can be part of our future to help source local produce in a sustainable manner, thereby reducing energy waste in transportation and packaging. The current lack of information and insight into where and how a product has been sourced is hampering us in making conscious decisions related to the true cost of a product, with the latest technology this should get easier. However, as with most things, there needs to be a sense of urgency to make things happen. In the near future the need for transparency in the supply chain will be driven by both the consumer and government directives. The environmental issues around us have mobilised numerous organisations to take action. Still, we are far away from achieving the SDGs goals by the 2030 target. We believe governments will steer (corporate) behaviour with laws, regulations and stimulation funds. The consequence of this is that adherence to the SDGs is likely to become part of an organisations’ Corporate Responsibility (CR) policy.

In the following articles, we will expand on these issues and look forward to you joining us.

Colin Chalmers & Michael Oosten