Data and AI for sustainability: how to innovate and drive real impact

Data and AI are pivotal forces for driving sustainable impact and innovation across industries. Discover the essential role of data and AI for sustainability and learn how businesses can leverage data to generate business value.  

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Data and AI are probably the defining technologies of our lifetime, as we’ve illustrated in our recent article on how AI will impact organisations. But which role do they play in a sustainable future and why do businesses and society need them to drive sustainable impact in particular? 

Today, our experts Noemi Rom, Head of Sustainability Transformation, and Lisa Falco, Lead Data Consultant and Femtech expert share their answers to these questions and illustrate the role of data and AI in societal and business transformation. 

Data and AI are not just the latest technology trends or advances but the backbone of modern solutions to some of the most pressing global challenges. ‘Data is a great tool if we make it accessible and understandable. It's about setting the right focus to have the biggest impact as an organisation, a company, or even as an individual’, says Noemi Rom. The essence of using data lies in its ability to highlight where our efforts have the most significant impact on people, planet, and profit – thereby ensuring we don't squander precious time and resources on initiatives with limited outcomes. ‘We simply don't have a good enough gut feeling when it comes to innovation’, Noemi emphasises.  

Using data and AI for sustainability can help address environmental, social, and business issues

Data and AI can have a massive impact on addressing a range of sustainability challenges across various industries, from improving the carbon footprint of production processes, facilitating a circular economy, setting new standards in the insurance sector, and empowering sustainable health solutions to tackling the global shortage of healthcare workers. Lisa Falco provides an example: ‘WHO estimates that we will be missing 10 million healthcare workers worldwide by 2050. This highlights a significant area where AI can make a substantial difference. AI can help businesses optimise task allocation, automate administrative duties, and support diagnostic processes. This not only maximises the productivity of existing staff but also enables healthcare professionals to focus more on patient care and less on time-consuming administrative tasks’. 

‘And the opportunities of data and AI go far beyond healthcare. We are collecting tons of data every day, and we have more information than we ever had before. The challenge is to make use of this information to guide us towards making the right decisions’, adds Noemi Rom. ‘And that is where data and AI can really make an impact’.  

Cross-industry use cases: how to leverage data and AI for sustainability

One other example is the topic of ESG and CSRD reporting. While we support companies in navigating the jungle of ESG regulations and tools, a task that’s already challenging enough, we are also thinking ahead with our clients and partners because the real value of data and AI for sustainability lies beyond the reporting itself. While companies are mandated to gather extensive data for ESG reporting, the true value lies in using this data to drive actionable change within and across organisations. By analysing data for sustainability, businesses can identify key areas of improvement, innovate for resource efficiency, and align operations more closely with their sustainability goals. It's about moving from simply reporting on sustainability efforts to leveraging data as a dynamic tool for fostering ongoing value and innovation, thus improving the organisation’s top or bottom line. This approach transforms ESG reporting from a regulatory exercise into a strategic asset. 

' Data and AI can really make a difference in identifying the right focus areas and making the right decisions to maximise sustainable business impact. '
Noemi Rom
Head of Sustainability Transformation

Noemi highlights one such example, where data has shown the true value of the sustainability initiative. Our client, Lantal, had set itself the goal of saving resources and emissions with an innovative carpet production process for aviation. Our team helped Lantal achieve this by carrying out a life cycle assessment and uncovering a surprising key learning – it was all about weight of the carpet. Even though the new production process resulted in a massive reduction in water usage and carbon emissions, the biggest impact lay within the carpet's usage phase. It turned out that a 35% reduction in weight meant 35% less CO2 emissions across the carpet's life cycle. 

There are also some promising data and AI use cases in retail as harnessing these technologies for sustainability enables businesses to pioneer innovative strategies. By analysing consumer behaviour, inventory levels, and supply chain operations through data models, retailers can optimise their processes, reduce waste, and improve product life cycle management. This not only enhances operational sustainability but also aligns with consumers' growing demands for responsible business practices. Moreover, AI-driven insights can lead to the development of new, sustainable, and customer-centric products and services. 

‘There are many more examples that highlight the transformative power of data and AI for sustainability but the key message is always the same – data and AI can guide strategic decision-making in any organisation, helping to pinpoint key levers for positive impact’, says Lisa. 

green sphere Data and AI can guide strategic decision-making, pinpointing key levers for positive impact in sustainability initiatives.

Harnessing data and AI for good will require overcoming bias and scepticism

In truth, adopting data and AI for sustainability comes with a set of challenges, including battling scepticism and resistance within and across organisations. ‘We've encountered barriers in breaking organisational silos and ensuring cross-functional data sharing’, says Noemi. ‘Additionally, there's a misconception that AI might replace human roles, particularly in sensitive areas like healthcare’, adds Lisa, ‘but data and AI are here to augment human capabilities’. 

‘All of us have biases. Overcoming them is hard work and for some – it’s impossible. AI tools use data sets and can be biased too. So, we need to be really careful. However, we can also include learnings and improvements quickly and change the algorithm accordingly. With one click, we can resolve biases. How cool would it be to have this capability as human beings?’, says Noemi.  

A practical example of how data and AI empower humans is their role in enhancing the diagnostic process. For example, AI can support doctors and healthcare professionals in radiology. AI can sift through hundreds of images to identify and highlight the few that warrant closer examination. This capability significantly reduces the time and effort required by radiologists to diagnose conditions, allowing them to concentrate on the critical task of making accurate medical judgments based on the most relevant information and focus on their most crucial role—caring for patients. 

On one of our projects, a Swiss hospital wanted to lessen the administrative burden for its personnel. In Switzerland, medical patient reports need to be classified with disease codes. At the time, this process was manually performed by a coding team consisting of highly trained doctors.  

Our team helped the hospital develop and evaluate machine learning algorithms to automatically classify patient reports to support the team in their daily work. These algorithms could be employed in an expert in-the-loop setting to increase the efficiency of the coding team.   

lisa Falco
' AI is a tool to create sustainable change, not the solution. It allows professionals to focus on what they do best. '
Lisa Falco
Lead Data Consultant

The way forward: data and AI as drivers for sustainable innovation

Looking to the future, we are convinced that data and AI are invaluable tools for addressing global challenges. Integrating these technologies into your strategic plans allows you to fast-track progress towards a more sustainable and equitable world, for people, business, and planet. Embracing data and AI for sustainability opens up new possibilities for creating real and ongoing business value. New technologies enable businesses to optimise their operations and play a crucial role in addressing some of the world's most pressing problems.  

Are you still sceptical? We have dedicated our professional life to creating positive impact and building a more sustainable and equitable world. We’d be happy to discuss the topic further with you! 

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    Noemi Rom

    Head of Sustainability Transformation

  • lisa Falco

    Dr. Lisa Falco

    Lead Data Consultant


    Lisa Falco is passionate about the positive impact that AI and machine learning can bring to society. She has more than 15 years of industry experience working in medical applications of data science and has helped bringing several AI driven MedTech products to market. Lisa has a PhD from EPFL, Switzerland, in Biomedical Image Analysis and an MSc in Engineering Physics from Chalmers, Sweden.