Vijay Kanal first began working on sustainability issues in the technology sector several years ago when a client retained his consulting firm to identify market opportunities for sustainable design software. Intrigued by this assignment, Kanal—who began his career in the industry as an electrical engineer, and later held senior roles in marketing, partnership development, and product introductions at Sun Microsystems—made a personal investment in sustainability by educating himself on the opportunities for the ICT industry. Several engagements followed in developing sustainability strategies and identifying best practices for clients.

Recently, after serving almost 15 years in the technology industry, Kanal joined BSR as Director of the ICT Practice to, as he puts it, “have a much bigger stage from which to make an impact.” He spoke with us about his personal mission for his work at BSR, the one issue he thinks all ICT companies should be thinking about, and what other organizations can learn from high-tech’s “risk-taking” culture.

Tell us about your role at BSR? What is your personal mission in working with ICT companies?

I lead BSR’s global ICT industry consulting team, and my role is to work with our clients to not only make them more sustainable in their own business, but also help their customers embed sustainability.

My mission is to make sustainability a core element in every facet of an ICT company’s operations, from strategy to how they communicate with their stakeholders. I also want to work with them to identify opportunities to use technology to solve some of our sustainability challenges. And there are many, many ways in which technology can solve some of these problems.

Name some of those opportunities.

A key cause of GHG emissions is, of course, how we consume energy. Let’s just look at our energy consumption in buildings, in data centers, and at the desktop. What if we could use technology in a way that helps design buildings to be carbon-neutral, data centers that don’t need cooling, and the desktop computer that is replaced by a low-wattage thin client (terminal), with all computing done on a shared server, or, even better, in the cloud?

This is not a pipe dream, because the technologies to achieve all these things exist today. We just haven’t yet adopted them on a large scale because of lack of awareness, inertia, and the reluctance at many companies to make investments that have more than a three- to five-year payback.

Another example is wireless, and we are very excited to be working with the leading industry association, CTIA, to assess how wireless technologies are helping with sustainability through a wide range of applications: smart metering, fleet management, precision farming, and mobile health, to name a few.

What do you see as the top challenges for ICT companies today?

One of the biggest challenges is overcoming the perception that sustainability is primarily a philanthropic activity. Of course it is not. It can truly add value to the bottom line, by creating cost savings through energy efficiency and waste reduction, and the top line, through the development of new markets.

Consider the opportunities in software to help measure and manage energy. Studies have shown that just having more information about one’s energy consumption influences behavior, and energy usage drops by up to 10 percent. Or in technologies that can remove the digital divide and provide real-time access to markets such as the commodities exchange in Chicago, which gives farmers market-based and therefore fairer prices for their crops.

So the biggest challenge is really an opportunity in ICT: How can we use CSR to improve our business and the business of our customers, while contributing in a positive way to sustainability?

How do these challenges play out in the developing world? How can technology solve some of those challenges?

The developing world is where the biggest challenges are, but also the biggest opportunities. Most of the greenhouse gases in the future are going to be from the developing world. We have to find a way to reduce these emissions, and technology can and in fact needs to play a big part in that.  It’s also where there are many social problems, not just in the factories, but also in communities, which may lack quality education, clean water, and health services.

Again, there is a tremendous opportunity for technology. You see that with satellite broadband providing connectivity in rural areas for education and health care services from providers half the world away. And with solar-powered water-treatment systems providing clean—and affordable—water to whole villages.

How many ICT companies are looking at such opportunities to grow their business and have a socioeconomic impact at the same time?

What can other industries learn from ICT when it comes to taking on sustainability issues?

There’s more of an emphasis on risk-taking in the technology industry, and this mindset could be used by more industries to make investments in sustainability. It does take a certain leap of faith, but many companies have shown that there is real value to be derived. It’s not just a cost. Some benefits will be tangible, and some will be intangible, but in the long run, they’ll be better off for it.