How are perspectives shifting toward sustainable practices in the tech business world? In this article, experts from Arm discuss how companies that build conservation technology can incorporate sustainability into their mindset of success.
Trending Toward Sustainability
By Fran Baker, Fiona Riggall, and Ed Miller
For people working at the ‘pointy end’ of conservation, you need no introduction to the climate crisis and sustainability issues. Working in a sustainability role at a tech company provides a different perspective on these topics, as my role and that of those on our team is to manage the relationship and tradeoff between the organization’s needs and the needs of our greatest stakeholders: this planet and its people.
Businesses (and the people that work for them) don’t exist in a vacuum, and are part of the industry we operate in, society we are part of, and planet that we live on. As such, businesses have a responsibility and significant role to play in contributing solutions to some of the world’s biggest challenges. The issues of global health, biodiversity loss, climate crisis and inequality are inextricably linked, and even from a purely economic perspective, you cannot have sustainable business on an unsustainable planet. We are motivated by the risks that exist in technological development to both society and the environment, as well as the opportunities for existing and emerging technologies to contribute solutions to the collective challenges we are all facing. It is important to note that technology is not a silver bullet, but a tool that can be used to help address these challenges.
Sustainability considers both planetary and human impacts across different time frames. Meeting the needs of the present without compromising future generations’ ability to meet their own needs is the common, though sometimes criticised, Brundtland report definition. This leads to significant difficulties, tensions and tradeoffs. Corporate Sustainability considers these tradeoffs in relation to sustainability issues and their impact on business, and business impacts on sustainability issues for people and planet alike.
Sustainability trends in business
There are good examples of where companies are proactively switching their business models in favour of sustainability as their forwardthinking strategies demonstrate that this is the way to best ensure their continued existence in a low-carbon economic future. The increase in companies voluntarily reporting to CDP (formerly the Carbon Disclosure Project), up 233% since 2015 with 18,700+ companies disclosing in 2022, demonstrates the increasing corporate commitments to publicly respond to climate change, water scarcity and deforestation, and put their efforts out there for all to see.
But moves to be more sustainable are not only being driven by the enlightened - they’re also being driven by new legislation such as the Task-Force on Climate Related Financial Disclosure (TCFD), mandating large companies to report on their impact on climate change, and conversely, the impact of climate change on their business models as determined by financial risk assessment. Corporates are also looking to keep pace with their peers and the voluntary standards set by the Science Based Target’s Initiative (SBTi) is one way in which best practice is driving ambition across sectors.
The SBTi encourages companies to take more responsibility for all their emissions, measure that impact, and take action to reduce their emissions across all Scopes, including Scope 3 - both upstream (supply chain) and downstream (how their product is used after it leaves their gates). This means companies can no longer just look at their own operations in a bubble – they have to consider sustainability up and down the value chain. To date, 4,918 companies have committed to the SBTi, including many big players in the tech sector.
Conservation and software challenges
As a conservation-minded technologist, an Arm employee and a WILDLABS member, using technology for the good of the planet is always top of mind for me. However, technology can have negative impacts such as related carbon emissions and e-waste. The negative impacts should be minimized and weighed against the positive to strive for sustainable development.
As a volunteer with a nonprofit, BearID Project, I develop machine learning applications to identify individual brown bears in photos and videos. These applications enable researchers to better understand bear populations, which in turn can better inform conservation practices. On the other hand, training and running machine learning models produces greenhouse gasses. While it is difficult to assess the value of protecting a keystone species like brown bears versus the carbon footprint of the applications, we should adopt sustainable practices which continuously evaluate and minimize the impacts of these technology solutions.
Life Cycle Assessment (LCA) is an established methodology for analyzing the environmental impact of each stage of a product or service, from raw materials through manufacturing, distribution, use and disposal. Software should be approached with a similar carbon-aware mindset, considering the impact of development, deployment and use. For example, applications running in the cloud should consider the energy sources of their service provider as well as the resource utilization of the application. Most cloud service providers publish best practice guidance for cost and performance optimization, which often leads to reduction of environmental impact as well. More efficient applications cost less and they use less power. For embedded devices, efficiency should also be considered, but so should upgradeability. Extending the life of the hardware through software updates improves the overall carbon footprint of conservation technology. Software developers can have a significant impact on sustainability by adopting carbon aware programming patterns.
Sustainability considerations arise at many stages of hardware and software development journeys and come from different perspectives; a materialist approach, for example, might consider the resources required to enable the physical infrastructure of software – from mining, to device production, data centre building and so on. There are also associated social implications of technologies, and consideration for the human and non-human harms in any given deployment is important, as the impact of software doesn’t end with environmental considerations.
In its broadest sense, biodiversity changes can have pervasive effects on the earth’s system function, increasing the vulnerability of terrestrial and aquatic systems. Whilst extinction is part of nature, current and projected biodiversity loss rates form the sixth major extinction event in the history of life on earth, and the first driven by effects of human activities (IPBES, 2022). For life on earth to flourish, we must remain within hardwired biophysical limits, which include remaining within acceptable limits of biodiversity loss (Ibid). The relationship between these ecosystems and humanity’s ability to survive and thrive are interlinked.
As well as these longer term, existential considerations, responsibility in AI is a key consideration, particularly in the conservation space where there are inequalities of inclusion, access, and power over these technologies. Responsibility in AI in relation to credit scoring, criminal justice, and surveillance is well documented (Zuboff, 2019). Considerations are less obvious and less explored when AI systems and algorithmic impacts fall under the banner of ‘AI for Good’, and specifically within the conservation space.
With automation of data collection, cleaning and analysis driving a new field of ecological informatics, some scholars within the WILDLABS community and beyond consider the ethics of AI in relation to ecological conservation (Adams, 2019) and conservation monitoring technologies (Pritchard et al.,2022), including the Principles for the socially responsible use of conservation monitoring technologies (Sandbrook et al, 2021). This is a welcome shift, though values can be both computationally encoded into conservation monitoring technologies (CMTs), and societally encoded through principles that aim to govern them. Endangered species protection using CMTs, for example, represents an acute case of ethical decisions embedded in AI applications about who or what should be prioritised in a resource-constrained world.
As readers will likely know well, CMTs have advanced significantly through device capability improvements (e.g., drones), imagery developments (e.g., satellite), data capture capabilities (e.g., remote sensing), and other tools enabling sophisticated data collection, analysis and inference beyond traditional ground and paper-based surveying methods. These tools can be attached (e.g., radio collars) or remote (e.g., camera traps) (Simlai and Sandbrook, 2021) and reflect endangered species’ conservation as a microcosm of interrelated sociotechnical challenges associated with AI applications, where outcomes between communities of people and species are directly impacted by their use.
As such, there are significant challenges to regulating or governing a complex sociotechnical system, including potential to reinforce discriminatory social structures that benefit different people, communities and species differently. Therefore, there is a need for a multitude of governance mechanisms at varying levels that are part of AI governance toolkits, particularly for issues that transcend imaginary borders and have impact at a planetary scale.
Arm, Fauna & Flora, and WILDLABS
Whilst we often see technology portrayed as the saviour to our current and impending challenges, it is irresponsible to continue on our current path in the hope that technological innovation will come to the rescue. That is not guaranteed. Whether driven by impact, innovation or economic incentive, business should and must respond to the pace and scale of the challenge, both inside and outside of their organisations. We must be intentional if we want technology to be a supporting tool in solving some of the world’s biggest crises.
But here’s the good news: intention is turning into action and showing the way for others to follow, with many examples of this positive change happening within the WILDLABS community. One of the ways in which we have been working to do this ourselves at Arm is through partnering with the problem-holders and bringing together our respective areas of expertise. For many years, Arm has partnered with Fauna & Flora as part of our sustainability approach, supporting a variety of programming. Through this partnership and together with Google, we supported the inception of WILDLABS in 2015, which has since grown into the platform you know and love, with programmes designed to bring together conservationists and technologists to innovate solutions to real world issues in conservation and biodiversity.
In 2019, we supported the building and launch of the ‘Conservation Tech Lab’ at Ol Pejeta Conservancy, designed to research, test, support and develop new technology-based solutions to conservation-challenges around the world, and to bring the prototyping of conservation technologies closer to the action. Next in 2021, we supported WILDLABS’ groundbreaking State of Conservation Tech research and report, which highlighted where conservation technology currently stands and where innovation is heading next. And in 2022, we supported the first Women In Conservation Technology programme in Kenya, an important step toward training conservation leaders to use technology in their own critical regions.
Sustainable transition trends
As an optimist working in sustainability, I am definitely seeing the shift in importance across the board. Whilst tipping points such as the Planetary Boundaries represent our hardwired biophysical limits which we much not pass, there are other positive tipping points happening now: The carbon impact of AI is back in the spotlight; e-waste is becoming a focal point in the transition to a circular economy, particularly in the EU, legal cases are being filed against businesses failing to act on environmental commitments; Responsible AI is receiving more welcome attention through recent generative and multimodal AI developments; global backlash against greenwashing and impact washing; and ‘conscious quitting’ is on the rise as employees choose employers considering sustainability. Likewise, conscious consumption is on the rise, and steps forward in sustainability disclosures alignment and governmental legislations around the world mandating change are resulting in a significant shift in tempo toward positive action.
So, whilst there is a lot of work to do, there are many reasons to be hopeful. There are transformations underway in government, business, society and culture as our collective conscience wakes up to what the world needs to sustain our work, and just as importantly, ourselves. Tech is what we make of it, and considering how it can help us achieve what the world needs, whilst also consciously considering justice in relation to the people tech affects, can help us along our journey to a more just, sustainable and equitable world.
*Header photo by Stephanie O'Donnell
This article is from our latest editorial series, Sustained Effort: Community Thoughts on Conservation Tech Sustainability.
Our series Sustained Effort brings together conservation tech users and makers to share their own perspectives on this topic. Through these case studies, we'll consider the current challenges of working sustainably in our field, but more importantly, how we can all take realistic, practical, and effective steps toward not only lessening our negative impact right now, but discovering larger steps toward the longterm, system-wide change needed to make conservation technology truly sustainable for our planet.