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The only green data is shared data.
11

Sustainability: What’s data got to do with it?

And four other questions for Stephan Ramesohl, sustainability researcher at Germany’s Wuppertal Institute

This issue of Transform looks at connectivity and, in particular, the carbon handprint. What's data got to do with that?
A large part of our ability to achieve climate targets depends on data. It starts with proper ways of measuring emissions and climate change, but it certainly does not stop there. Digital data is a critical enabler because it paves the way for managing complex systems solutions involving multiple stakeholders. This, in turn, makes possible innovations such as circular business models and smart, clean decentralized energy systems.

Following this logic, do we have to collect even more data than we do today?
Yes and no. We certainly need more data in many areas, but the greatest property of data is that it can be used by an infinite number of actors at the same time without losing its value. I think we need to take full advantage of this by sharing data much more frequently than we do at the moment. So, while data is not being consumed as fossil fuels are, its collection, storage, and processing have a sizable carbon footprint. With increased re-use of data, this footprint can be minimized. So the question is not about more data, but getting more value from data.

What do you think is needed to encourage data sharing?
I think we need to build data sharing into all products. One way to achieve this is so-called product passports, which aim to gather data on a product and its supply chains. The passport includes all the life-cycle information about the specific product, including how to disassemble and recycle it. However, we also need to work on common standards for data exchange across companies; shared trusted data spaces; and joint efforts for improving data analysis. In a nutshell: we need to build collaborative data ecosystems.

Can you think of a good example?
Examples include the work of the International Data Space Association and GAIA-X, or, more specifically, Catena-X, which covers the automotive value chain. Notably, only a minority of the projects under the GAIA-X initiative feature sustainability as a focus area. In other words: data ecosystems need more orientation towards green purposes. This failure to connect the dots reflects a need to change how we think about data in the context of sustainability. As part of this change, businesses need to kiss their siloed thinking goodbye. Without a fundamental change in the data culture, the best infrastructure and standards can do very little.

That’s the same as for the sustainability transition as a whole, isn’t it?
Absolutely. A little greener will not cut it. We need to profoundly change our behavior, and we have to do it quickly.

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