Ilan Oshri: businesses can improve their use of AI for sustainability

Opinion: AI is being used in everything from energy and agriculture to transportation and urban planning. Professor Ilan Oshri says it can be used better.

Professor Ilan Oshri is the director of the Centre of Digital Enterprise at the Auckland Business School.
Professor Ilan Oshri is director of the Centre of Digital Enterprise at the Business School. Photo: Chris Loufte

We hear a lot about New Zealand’s sustainability challenges but not as much about how digital technologies can help address some of these challenges.

The Centre of Digital Enterprise (CODE) in the Business School has designed a Digital Sustainability Index, an assessment tool for companies to evaluate how well they are harnessing digital technologies for sustainability.

In CODE’s research, we applied the tool to several New Zealand companies and discovered them to be far from digital sustainability maturity.

Government, organisations like the New Zealand Tech Alliance and businesses are well aware of the key challenges associated with sustainability, as a major concern for humanity. While there has been an emphasis on carbon emissions, other concerns such as environmental degradation, resource depletion, inequality and digital exclusion are important.

There still is some conflict between business targets and sustainability objectives and, for most enterprises, the sweet spot between the two has not been discovered and institutionalised.

The good news is that many tech consultancies are clearly aware of the potential in deploying digital technologies and the positive impact these would have on sustainability targets in various sectors, from energy to transport.

Of particular interest is how Artificial Intelligence (AI) technologies can help. AI is already used across the spectrum, from energy and agriculture to transportation and urban planning. Many of these AI solutions optimise resource utilisation, enhance predictive modelling, and can devise strategies for more sustainable practices.

If we’re looking at examples, take agriculture. AI promotes sustainable farming practices by using big data collected from application programming interfaces such as sensors, satellites and drones. This information helps farmers optimise irrigation, fertilisation and pest control, minimising resource use and environmental impact.

There is still  some conflict between business targets and sustainability objectives.

Professor Ilan Oshri, Centre of Digital Enterprise, Auckland Business School Waipapa Taumata Rau, University of Auckland

When it comes to weather and climate, AI-driven models inform decision-making for climate adaptation and mitigation strategies. Big data and algorithms generate insights into complex climate change patterns and help us make ‘best estimate’ climate predictions.

Another example might be Auckland City Council’s recently launched Flood Viewer, showing the likelihood of properties flooding across the city, which has been created by deriving data from a number of sources.

The council is also using AI to preserve wildlife. AI-powered solutions significantly benefit wildlife protection and biodiversity preservation, through image recognition and big data analysis.

When it comes to energy, AI supports real-time monitoring and control of energy systems, leading to more efficient distribution and consumption. Take, for example, smart grids powered by AI algorithms. These AI-guided grids balance energy demand and supply, reduce waste and enhance renewable energy integration.

Whenever you talk about Auckland, the next word might be traffic. But algorithms and big data can improve transportation systems by optimising traffic flow and transport networks, aiming to reduce road congestion. We just need to get them all talking to each other.

Still, there are challenges to be considered as tech leaders adopt AI-enabled solutions to address sustainability targets. First, AI uses significantly more energy than other forms of computing, and training an algorithmic model is a very high energy-consuming activity. Other considerations broadly reviewed in scientific and popular media include issues of inherited biases in AI, which are usually the outcome of a biased data set used to train a model. Ethical concerns arise when such biases create skewed decisions that could have a negative effect on certain communities. However, other algorithms are self-learning and challenge science to understand how to build ethics into a ‘black-boxed’ AI.

CleanTech start-ups face under-investment – the funds needed often fall significantly short of the amounts invested by governments and investors in similar small and advanced economies.

Professor Ilan Oshri, director, Centre of Digital Enterprise Auckland Business School, University of Auckland

Another area of concern is privacy rights. Algorithmic modelling requires vast amounts of data, and collection of this is likely to expose individuals, if not governed properly.

CODE’s research shows that when deploying digital assets such as AI to address sustainability targets, businesses need to develop three key capabilities: digital maturity, partnership and governance. Digital maturity is an organisation’s ability to create value through the use of digital assets. Partnership involves working with other organisations, such as service providers, to access capabilities not available in-house. And governance is the maturity of the practices, processes and rules that the business puts in place to bring together the digital unit (aka IT department) with the business units.

New Zealand businesses fall short in both digital maturity and partnership capabilities. To become a strategic leader in digital sustainability, they need to partner with both tech and specialist service providers, to advance the country’s digital landscape and its ability to deploy digital assets towards sustainability targets.

My view is that we will make progress in these digital sustainability capabilities in the next two to three years. One reason is the growing pressure from the regulator, customers and investors who all signal that businesses need to do more. And our businesses want to use more technology in their sustainability operations around achieving targets of net zero, waste reduction, water conservation and energy consumption.

The second reason is the growth of the CleanTech sector, high-tech businesses with solutions to help solve environmental problems. Our CleanTech sector has great potential, demonstrating creativity and innovation as well as commercialisation at the global level (e.g. Allbirds, CoGo and CarbonClick).

The stumbling block? CleanTech start-ups face under-investment – the funds needed often fall significantly short of the amounts invested by governments and investors in similar small and advanced economies. So we come back to partnerships needed: between government, businesses, professional associations and academia to educate about the potential of technology to address the challenges the planet is facing, and to create talent, opportunities and resources to boost the New Zealand CleanTech sector. That’s where we’re at.

Professor Ilan Oshri is the director of the Centre of Digital Enterprise at the Auckland Business School.

This opinion piece first appeared in the September 2023 edition of UniNews