Navigant Research Blog

Can Technology Solve the Dysfunction of Sustainability?

— November 30, 2017

Sustainability is a term that, by itself, can be meaningless. The downfall of “green” into “greenwashing” is a cautionary tale for sustainability champions. In a recent Triple Pundit article, “The 8 Dysfunctions of Sustainability,” a Penn State University professor articulated the problem: “[My critique] is meant to both reclaim the original fullness of ‘sustainable development’ but even more to point to the baggage we must leave behind. In a word, sustainability has to grow up.” Professor Erik Foley’s criticism is sound and defensible. The question then becomes: How can we course correct and make sustainability a relevant and impactful metric?

It is important to define a scope of action to make the concept of sustainability concrete. Let’s look at the commercial buildings sector as an ecosystem of business, economics, and people that can provide structure to the analysis of sustainability. Technology can be deployed to alter how we operate and assess the value of buildings against the environmental, social, and governance lenses of sustainability. To be specific, data, analytics, and automation can represent three pillars of a mature solution for the buildings sector that ensure continuous and ongoing improvements in the buildings sector from a sustainability perspective. Let’s examine two dysfunctions from Professor Foley’s article to highlight how technology can be the pathway forward.

#2: We measure what we can manage even if it doesn’t matter.

The bottom line here is action. We have tracked the evolution of the intelligent buildings market for years at Navigant, and it is evident the technology can make significant impacts on sustainability metrics. We have tracked the transformation from traditional building automation solutions that improved scheduling and reduced hot and cold calls in the biggest buildings to software as a service (SaaS) applications that provide enterprisewide insight on building operations—the key shift is action. Effective intelligent building solutions provide an end-to-end solution for gathering, communicating, and analyzing data that is translated into meaningful information with integrated automation and controls that enable continuous improvement in operations. What that means that customers can utilize technology to reduce costs, improve experience, and lower environmental impact through a systems-based strategy.

#4: Efficiency ≠ sustainability.

Foley’s fourth dysfunction sets up a further explanation of the sustainability improvement opportunities tied to the systems-based approach to building operations made possible by intelligent building solutions as described above. The smarts of the data-driven approach to intelligent buildings are rooted in the idea of holistic insight and operational improvement. This approach is a perfect counter to dysfunction #4. Take, for example, our historic approach to energy efficiency and demand management—these two objectives were seen as isolated strategies for energy management that delivered different and possibly competing benefits. The real-time insight and continuous operational changes made possible by integrated automation and controls with analytics enable reduced costs, lower environmental impacts, and increased comfort. One side does not have to take precedent over another but can be prioritized at different times to meet a larger goal. From a sustainability perspective, an intelligent building solution can support overall energy use reduction, but also optimize equipment operations so energy is used at peak time if there is onsite solar, for example, or reduce energy during peak if reliant only on grid power.

Today, there is a real opportunity to re-envision sustainability to deliver operational changes that provide sustained social, environmental, and governance improvements. Interested in more of Navigant Research’s point of view on sustainability? Check out our recent report, Intelligent Building Technologies for Sustainability.


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