How to leverage the power of AI and data to drive sustainability

Business Insights

Artificial intelligence (AI) and data will be catalysts in the global effort to transition to a more sustainable world. This incredible technology is pushing companies to adopt more sustainable management practices and causing governments to rethink the way they address some of the world’s biggest social and environmental challenges.[1] AI technologies are closely associated with data science and analytics and have the potential to solve problems that humans and our current systems cannot. AI’s capability to generate new insights, to learn and to automate tasks on an unprecedented scale opens up a wealth of new possibilities. This technology has the power to transform industries and business operations across the globe - improving efficiency, speed and lowering costs.

Moonshot Challenges

The capabilities of AI and data management are already being harnessed in a variety of ways to tackle societal “moon shot” challenges for good – from curing cancer to tackling climate change. Both Big and Little Data, as well as AI, will be crucial to managing complex systems in the transition to global sustainability. Increasingly sophisticated AI algorithms will often be able to function without human intervention, allowing existing business models to be fine-tuned and streamlined. New software development platforms from Google, Amazon, Microsoft and others help automate the process of building machine learning systems, which lowers barriers to entry and greatly expands the number of software developers capable of accessing these innovative tech tools for mission-driven organizations, as well as reducing the costs involved.[2]

Technological Advancements

In recent years, software has become far more advanced and AI has been progressing at a rapid pace. Artificially intelligent machines are able to sift through and interpret massive amounts of data from multiple sources. As a means to augment human capabilities with expertise, AI and data solutions are emerging in a variety of sectors. For example, IBM’s Watson’s supports oncologists by providing analysis of a breadth of research that no human doctor could ever hope to read.[3] In addition, AI's capabilities to analyze high-resolution images from satellites, drones or medical scans have the potential to beneficially impact responses to a wide range of global challenges such as humanitarian emergencies, agricultural scarcity and climate change.[4] These technological expansions in AI allow for unprecedented business growth. The algorithms enable computers to self-learn by sifting through data and performing models based on internal examples rather than relying on programming by a human. For example, a machine-learning technique called deep learning, inspired by biological neural networks, has the ability to find and remember patterns in large volumes of data. These deep-learning systems perform tasks without being programmed and generally out-perform traditional machine-learning algorithms.[5]

Driving Sustainability

Examples of how AI and data are being used to drive sustainability can be seen in many industries, including:

Sustainable Cities

One primary area where the market is expanding is in smart city design. Academics and business leaders are currently exploring areas where AI can improve city design, the quality of life of inhabitants and optimize city operations as a result of data. Using this technology, city planners can produce design solutions that transform urban spaces, track residents’ wellbeing and behavior, and analyze data for new insights. Sensors placed on buildings can track how people interact with a property, move around a space and use it. These insights can help save both money and energy. The smart building market is expected to reach a value of USD $36 billion by the end of 2020.[6]


In education, AI programs can improve student outcomes dramatically. AI can be used in student homework programs to respond and adjust to their learning needs, resulting in a tailor-made curriculum. It can also, using facial recognition, give certainty to education authorities that the correct students are sitting exam papers.


The agricultural sector has been benefitting from technological advancements as well. Telefónica[7] and the United Nations Food and Agriculture Organization have entered into an alliance to collaborate in the development and implementation of digitization and data analysis initiatives in the agricultural sector.[8] This initiative is aimed at promoting the development of agriculture, food safety and nutrition that emphasizes the need for providing specific support to rural and local agricultural communities in terms of access to information and is part of a widespread initiative to involve the private sector in helping the UN reach its sustainable development goals.

Marga Hoek is a global thought-leader on sustainable business, international speaker and the author of The Trillion Dollar Shift, a new book revealing the business opportunities provided by the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals. The Trillion Dollar Shift is published by Routledge, in hardback and e-book. For more information go to

By Marga Hoek