From Sense to Sustainability: Four Lessons on Assessing the Impacts of Technology

March 30, 2016
  • David Korngold portrait

    David Korngold

    Director, Transformation, BSR

From smart home technology that helps decrease energy use to fitness trackers that encourage healthier lifestyles, most of us sense that technology has the potential to drive significant positive sustainability impacts across sectors.

The challenge, however, is to go beyond a general sense of these positive impacts to more deeply understand, demonstrate, and drive sustainability benefits from technology. To achieve this, BSR partnered with Dell to launch the Center for Technology and Sustainability, which aims to advance the deployment of technology solutions that address humanity’s most pressing sustainability challenges. Today, we are sharing our first three case studies from the center, by Arizona State University (ASU), Kaiser Permanente, and UPS®. These case studies highlight the value in measuring the potential positive effects of technology and in working toward common approaches for studying those effects. These case studies also point to several lessons for other companies looking at the sustainability impacts of technology.

First, indirect sustainability benefits can be huge drivers of impact. When thinking about technology and sustainability, it’s easy to focus on direct benefits like improved energy efficiency of hardware. Often, though, indirect impacts are crucial to assessing overall impact. For example, Kaiser evaluated the impact of moving from paper to electronic health records. Kaiser found that paper reduction was important, but the bigger impact was on transportation: Electronic health records allowed patients to interact more with doctors online, which reduced the need for patients to drive to medical facilities, avoiding emissions from fuel use.

Second, implementation and integration are crucial to generating benefits. Even the best technology will be limited in impact without an explicit focus on encouraging user adoption. For its case study, UPS examined the company’s ORION technology, a route optimization software program for drivers. UPS focused on promoting user adoption of technology to achieve successful implementation and sustainability impacts. To realize the potential of ORION, UPS dedicated more than 75 percent of the total cost of the project to testing and deployment initiatives, including gathering user feedback. For example, UPS used ride-alongs with an ORION prototype to bring the technology to life and educate internal stakeholders.

Third, such studies can go beyond environment to measure social results. While environmental benefits are often easier to measure, addressing social benefits can create opportunities for greater transformation and impact. For example, ASU studied the environmental and social impacts of its ASU Online education program for undergraduate degrees. ASU identified that online education generated estimated carbon savings of 33.2 metric tons for an undergraduate degree, chiefly from reduced student and faculty travel, as well as the reduced need for classroom construction. Beyond that, ASU found socioeconomic, system-wide effects from using online education to expand college access and affordability. ASU estimates that by 2025, the institution will be educating 100,000 students through in-person courses and 100,000 online, with nearly 75 percent of the total student body taking some portion of their classes online.

Fourth, studying the impacts of technology can help organizations rethink their business processes to power innovation and next-generation thinking, as demonstrated in all three case studies. Instead of continuing to benchmark driver performance to historical data, UPS developed new driver performance metrics by shifting to comparisons against an ideal ORION route to achieve and measure efficiencies. For ASU, studying the impacts of online learning highlighted that technology can help the institution reach more students and be more environmentally sustainable at scale. Kaiser, through its electronic health records study, identified an opportunity to shift patient feedback systems to a digital platform to streamline how the company gathers data.

Dell, ASU, Kaiser, and UPS each exemplify companies striving to better understand the holistic sustainability impacts of technology, and to use that deeper understanding to generate positive outcomes for organizational, social, and environmental improvements.

These efforts also complement a broader movement to promote a net positive economy, or “a way of doing business that puts back more into society, the environment, and the global economy than it takes out.” Several companies—including Dell—are partnering with BSR, Forum for the Future, and Harvard’s Sustainability and Health Initiative for NetPositive Enterprise (SHINE) to align on the principles of net positive, develop best practices and tools, and promote the concept of net positive.

By studying the sustainability impacts of technology, companies contribute to improved understanding of how individual companies, value chains, and broader systems can create value for all stakeholders.

If you are interested in studying the impacts of technology on sustainability or learning more about the Net Positive Project, please contact David Korngold at

Let’s talk about how BSR can help you to transform your business and achieve your sustainability goals.

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