IoT and the Environment: Q&A with Steven Cristol

June 30, 2016
Enlighted Inc.

Steven Cristol is a management consultant working at the intersections of strategy and sustainable innovation, and has advised dozens of market-leading companies on strategy issues. He recently penned a piece for Sustainable Brands on the Internet of Things, exploring whether the IoT is actually a net positive or negative for the environment.

We liked his analysis so much that we approached him for an interview, to discuss this topic in relation to the smart, green building movement.

Q: When you think about environmental sustainability and IoT for the commercial real estate sector, what sustainability issues come to mind?

Steven Cristol: I’m very excited about the scale that commercial real estate presents for IoT-driven sustainable innovation, for conservation of resources, and for climate change mitigation, given that cities account for roughly three quarters of Earth’s carbon emissions. Intelligent building management systems are one of our great hopes for a more sustainable world.

But I’m also concerned that there will be a sort of arms race to make commercial buildings so IoT-enabled that the threshold of diminishing returns could be crossed. Before we fully understand the impacts on the environment or, for that matter, on value creation, there will inevitably be more temptation to make some marginal building components smart and connected that won’t ever provide the value that systemic solutions like lighting and temperature control can.

That could not only mean diminishing value to owners and tenants relative to added cost – not to mention opening up more security vulnerabilities – but could also diminish the net positive environmental potential of IoT when the sustainability benefits are more than offset by the resource intensity of IoT-enabled products.

After all, enabling objects for IoT implies addition of sensors, memory, and wireless networking components to products and materials that can dramatically increase those products’ dependencies on natural resources, and may also require additional use of chemicals of concern.

So while greener solutions are forthcoming, we still have to look carefully at the environmental impact of IoT-enabling products through the whole cycle from sourcing, manufacturing and distribution to product use and, hopefully, reuse or upcycling at end of life.

Let me be clear that I’m very optimistic that the environmental benefits of IoT will significantly outweigh its environmental burden, but being net positive for sustainability depends heavily on being environmentally disciplined in the choices we make in product development.

Finally, I would just add to this that when we talk about sustainable buildings there’s a tendency to focus only on the environmental aspects of sustainability. But obviously the social aspects are extremely important as well.

So when you asked what sustainability issues come to mind for CRE I’d be remiss in not mentioning supply chain social considerations when choosing building materials and products — such as labor practices and decent work environments, conflict mineral avoidance, and impacts on local communities.

Q: How can a building owner minimize the long-term environmental impact of an IoT installation in their building?

Steven Cristol: That could be a trick question [laughs]. Here’s why:

I’d rather not think in terms of minimizing environmental impact. I’d rather think in terms of maximizing it – for the better. As architect Bill McDonough has famously said for many years, “being less bad is not being good.” Operationalizing that philosophy is at the core of the net positive movement and the extraordinary work going on now in regenerative design. One of the most exciting questions on the sustainability table now is not about mitigation, but rather what can commercial buildings contribute in a net positive way to our environmental well-being and a more sustainable world? And the answer is, of course, plenty!

When we think about commercial building exemplars designed and operated to yield more resources than they consume, like the energy-positive Hikari in Lyon, France or, perhaps somewhat ironically, the water-positive headquarters of Chevron South Africa in Cape Town, I think the question for IoT over the long term is this: what can IoT enable and accelerate that will move buildings not just towards net zero, but ultimately past it?

Q: What can producers of IoT technologies for buildings do to make their solutions more environmentally sustainable?

Steven Cristol: Well, recently I’ve written about early-stage sustainability assessments of solution components and features before a solution or product is internally approved for commercialization. In other words, at the front end of design, with incomplete information, informed judgments can still be made on whether a new product or feature is likely to be environmentally net positive or negative given the components required to enable that product or feature.

And then there is the issue – and the opportunity – to ask this: how much of this solution’s functionality should reside in the physical products and how much should reside in the cloud? Obviously, the more that’s in the cloud, the less supply chain resource intensity – even if there is some incremental data center load that may have some indirect supply chain impacts, which would be relatively small. And waste in manufacturing and at end of life drops dramatically. In any case, getting the earliest possible view of prospective “sustainability load” vs. “sustainability benefit” of each IoT component, even if imperfect or incomplete, is a step forward.

Though I work more in the products arena than in the built environment, this same thought process that applies to manufactured products certainly applies to the built environment as well – something we discussed just a couple of months ago at the Congress on the Future of Engineering Software.

I would add one more thing here: whether I’m talking with our manufacturing clients or our enterprise software clients, we’re always cautioning them about over-featuring their products and solutions. There’s a tendency to load in extra features just because we can, when in fact their incremental value to customers simply don’t justify the cost or the environmental load. That’s why we put metrics in place to make potential over-featuring visible in parallel with looking at sustainability KPIs before development.

Q: Can you share any additional advice or guidance for companies that are seeking to make their IoT-powered buildings more environmentally sustainable?

Steven Cristol: Two things immediately come to mind, with the proviso that I’m a business strategist focused on sustainable innovation and not an architect or engineer.

First, we all know that building obsolescence is one our great environmental tragedies. Anything that designers of IoT-enabled commercial buildings, and the solutions that make them smart, can do to extend the life of those buildings and ensure that their components are upcyclable, or certainly at least recyclable, at end of life will be a huge win.

I also worry that the ever-accelerating pace of technology innovation means that the more technology we stuff into buildings, the shorter the useful shelf life of that technology and the more often things will need to be replaced. There goes more non-renewable natural capital, more e-waste, more emissions.

The second thing that I strongly encourage is doing whatever possible to leverage the power of combining IoT with biomimicry. If you look at what biologist Janine Benyus is doing at design consultancy Biomimicry 3.8, finding amazing solutions in nature to architectural and materials challenges in the built environment, you can’t help being dazzled by the brilliance of nature’s totally sustainable solutions – enabling breakthroughs like self-healing water pipes, or wireless controllers that more effectively communicate with each other using the protocols of ants, bees and fish, or the climate control system in the Eastgate office complex in Zimbabwe that was inspired by, of all things, the structure of termite mounds (not in the building!).

We can increasingly pair the power of nature’s solutions with the power of IoT. My hope is that commercial builders will always ask the question, as Janine does, what can nature’s 3.8 billion years of R&D teach us about better building solutions in a scarcer, climate-changing world that needs our cities and our buildings to become environmental heroes.

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