Faculty & Leadership Blog / Research and Practice

5 Digital Super Powers: An Approach to Sustainability with Digital Technologies

Post by Ruben Mancha and Sinan Erzurumlu

Digital technologies such as cloud computing, analytics, artificial intelligence (AI), the internet of things (IoT), blockchain, mobile computing, and augmented reality are bringing unprecedented connectivity to the company, its customers, partners, and even competitors. These fast-evolving and increasingly complementary technologies are poised to work together with high efficiency in the design of resilient solutions. Besides, digital technologies are, more than ever before, becoming available for the development and deployment of novel products, services, processes, and business models.

These aspects of digital technologies make them candidates for developing corporate social innovations in response to environmental and social sustainability challenges (e.g., global warming, pollution, biodiversity, human rights). In particular, sustainability challenges demand the coordination and collaboration between diverse stakeholders. The connectivity spurred by digital technologies will be the key to corporate social innovations addressing and counteracting sustainability challenges.

Corporate social innovations strike a balance in the impact an organization has in the natural and social systems in which it operates, ensuring its long-term survival and harmonious development. That blended value (i.e., with social and commercial impact) could enable an organization to differentiate itself and identify new trends and patterns that could lead to novel, innovative business ideas. That is like giving super powers to an organization.

We identify five super powers, created with digital technologies, that can improve the sustainability efforts of the organization and its clients and help gain better operational performance from the entire business ecosystem:

  1. Sensing powers. Organizations can deploy IoT and mobile devices to sense the environment in which they operate, detecting small changes before they amount to large events. When combined with cloud computing and an increased capacity to collect and analyze data, companies can gain the ability and quickly identify and correct their course of action.
    Virgin Atlantic and Delta use IoT devices to collect engine performance data and identify suboptimal performance. This optimizes maintenance, decreases fuel cost, and reduces emissions. As another example, smart factories with IoT devices and AI can detect deviations in the production quality and alert personnel or stop the production, decreasing defective production and the unnecessary waste of raw materials.
  2. Predictive powers. Organizations can use cloud infrastructure and analytics to anticipate changes in demand and adjust their operations. For example, Infor, formerly Predictix—a cloud-based company offering predictive and machine learning solutions for retailers, is used by food retailers to forecast demand, determine replenishment, and adjust prices. In the food industry, solutions like Infor reduce waste.
  3. Remote control powers. Organizations can digitize their products to remotely adjust their performance and update their features, extending their life and reusability. Recent developments in automotive industry reveal the extent of digital technologies in helping automotive companies manage their vehicles in operation. A Tesla car could generate and send data about its performance and also receive updates remotely, prolonging the life of the vehicle.
  4. Engagement powers. Through apps and mobile technologies, organizations can engage real-time with customers and employees, share with them its sustainability goals, and influence their behaviors. Home automation systems (e.g., Nest learning thermostat) allow the harvesting of real-time data with a network of programmable, self-learning, sensor-driven, Wi-Fi-enabled thermostats, smoke detectors, and other security systems. Those data enable organizations to provide better real time service in home heating and cooling, helping consumers save energy and reduce emissions.
  5. Innovation powers. Digital technologies change the dynamics of innovation, which results in customized product and increased product-market fit. Through APIs, companies can share their data with prosumers and other businesses, enabling models of open innovation and co-innovation, reducing redundancies within and across industries and waste.

These super powers enabled by digital technologies create super charged business models. To get these powers, entrepreneurs need to think differently in spearheading digital transformation in major ways. Most importantly, they should consider that their positioning is not about the organization, but the extent of the network now. One way to think differently and innovatively is to ask “What sustainability challenge can you solve for your consumer?” and identify the startup’s super powers in the sustainability context. The digital entrepreneur can then find unique ways of serving the customers, environment, community and society.