The Management and Practice of Sustainability: Part 2

The rise of ubiquitous sensor technology and artificial intelligent: A solution to sustainable management?



Part 2:

Here’s the next instalment from my Masters research from 2010 which covers elements of identifying the problem and knowledge at the time.

Since then we have moved on from a technological perspective and with the subsequent rise of ubiquitous sensor technology, especially via smart phones and artificial intelligent, especially machine learning, the potential solution (or maybe pathway to a solution) to sustainable management can now be further broadened and enhanced. This is an area that needs to be explored further within the context of sustainable management; I believe, as do many, that we have the technology to deliver a sustainable future, whether we have the social willpower and vision to do so is another matter altogether.

2.1 The practical problem/issue

There are two distinct themes within this research: ICT use, which is ubiquitous throughout UK society (ONS, 2007 & 2008), and sustainability, which carries varied messages and interpretations (Sneddon et al, 2006; Blewitt, 2008).

The interrelationships between the differing and often contradictory perspectives of sustainability are complex. For example, the development aspect of sustainability might be considered as being to do with developing social justice or human rights through to improving the quality of an economy and environment with the more efficient and effective use of resources, without increased consumption of resources. A different perspective would see this development aspect as sustained economic growth.

The political nature of sustainability can vary between state interventions, such as through regulation, to allowing more open free market forces. There is also a tension between self-interest and social responsibility; this is closely related to the political nature of sustainability.

Equity is another perspective which can mean implementing policies that could, for example, lead to every global citizen having an equitable individual allowance to emit a predetermined quantity of greenhouse gases – this is called contraction and convergence, which carries significant implications for current western lifestyles.

This complexity of sustainability and how it might be assessed will naturally influence how local authorities implement and assess their own policies, with particular consideration needing to be given to how they translate “the informational content from indicators into action” (Hezri & Dovers, 2006).

Being able to merge these different themes into readily applied business processes that can help to deliver a sustainable service may be seen as problematical. However, a positive foundation onto which a sustainable service can be built already existed due to the extent of existing ICT use and potential for further development due to the UK Government’s support of a ‘Digital Britain’ (DCMS & DBIS, 2009), which aims to improve nationwide availability to high-speed online digital services.

By identifying the range of available ICTs and their applications, the range of sustainability indicators (SIs) used for managing an amenity service and then identifying how they were implemented in practice, this research will be able raise awareness of sustainability issues and provide examples of how ICTs can be effectively used to assist amenity managers in delivering a more sustainable service.

To gain an understanding of how the sustainability of amenity services was measured and assessed, this research looked at the wider impact a service could have on a local community. Particular emphasis was placed on the different environmental, economic and societal indicators used, which provided an insight into not just the range of SIs, but also the prominence given to managing for sustainability.

For this research to succeed it was important to identify the types of ICT applications that were being used by local authorities as well as how they were used in practice. In addition, it was necessary to identify which ICTs assisted in providing data for the different SIs.

The final element of the research was to identify whether any sustainability assessment tools (SATs) were used by managers in the overall evaluation of the sustainability of the service; this provided a basis for recommending how to evaluate a service for sustainability.

How managers evaluated and provided feedback to stakeholders on the sustainability of a delivered service was also a component part of the research because stakeholders require appropriate information on which to form opinions for their contribution to the sustainability process (Bell & Morse, 2008, p. 164).

2.2 Existing relevant knowledge

There was a wide range of literature that identified the types of ICT available for use in business processes and also about the concept of sustainability and associated sustainability frameworks and indicators (Singh et al, 2009). The existing knowledge base, however, was poor for how these related to the outdoor amenity environment: this research extends the available knowledge.

Wireless Sensor Networks (WSNs) are ICTs that are currently implemented within a wide range of fields, of which a number are relevant to the outdoor amenity sector: These include environmental monitoring (weather, habitats, soils, pollution, energy), outdoor surveillance (safety aspects, monitoring of site usage), building monitoring (energy usage), traffic monitoring (for travelling between sites), vehicle monitoring (user safety, planning maintenance regimes) and asset monitoring (by using Global Positioning System (GPS) tracker, Radio Frequency Identification (RFID) tags) (Garcia-Hernando et al, 2008).

A WSN (Lu et al, 2007) is a contemporary technology which managers of the outdoor environment could integrate into their business processes to enable them to improve the quality of information that is used to manage operational tasks. This research identified how widespread sensor technology had become embedded within amenity departments. For the successful implementation of this technology the driver might come from the amenity department, but collaboration would be required between different service departments, such as IT support and other corporate central services who would typically direct local policy requirements and influence sustainability initiatives.

The use of automated people counters in parks and open spaces has been proposed (GreenSpace, 2005) as a means of providing management data and for supporting development proposals to funding bodies, such as the Heritage Lottery Fund, however, there was little evidence to suggest that these were widely deployed.

Nakamura et al (2006) discusses a broad outline of how ICT might improve process efficiency and sustainability within eighteen different services, however, only two indices were used for the analysis – cost savings and carbon dioxide reductions, both of which indicated a positive correlation with ICT utilisation. Other research (Brynjolfsson & Hitt, 2000) has asserted that IT is an enabling technology that can be used to improve work processes and production efficiency. Whilst these examples were not conclusive evidence of how ICT can improve the sustainability of a service they did provide tentative evidence of the positive benefits that could result from the effective use of ICT.

Other research into ‘The future impact of ICTs on environmental sustainability’ (Erdmann, et al, 2004) concluded that the potential impact of ICT was uncertain and variable depending upon the scenario posed. The report offers little tangible evidence to support the notion that ICT improves sustainability but it did reinforce the message of earlier examples of the importance of investigating the environmental benefits and disadvantages of ICT within specific situations and not to rely on generalisations.

Successful outcomes following the deployment and implementation of ICTs will frequently require process or lifestyle changes to occur (Jones & Orlikowski, 2007). To achieve these changes amenity managers would preferably need a good understanding of the types of ICT that can be utilised within their own environment; one objective of this research was to provide suitable recommendations for their utilisation.

An aspirational case for how ICT can contribute to a low carbon economy is given in the report ‘SMART 2020: Enabling the low carbon economy in the information age’, (Climate Group, 2008) but asserts that the effective integration of these initiatives into business processes, and society in general, are needed to deliver a more sustainable future with reduced carbon emissions.

A common theme from the existing knowledge was the need to apply ICT in a planned and focused way: evaluating a range of potential and likely scenarios before implementing and integrating selected ICT systems and processes would significantly improve the effectiveness of its utilisation.

‘Local authorities are committed to green rhetoric and visions’, states the ‘Green Veneer or Green Revolution? – greening the local authority ICT estate’ report (IPL, 2008), however, the report demonstrated that turning this into action still presents challenges to authorities. Particular problem areas included the integration of sustainability into the operational management of departments and in providing direction on who should lead on introducing and then assessing the uptake of green initiatives throughout a council. In the report technology was seen as being a key enabler of sustainability in 87% of local authorities, however, this was mostly reflected in the procurement, use and disposal of the equipment, rather than how the technologies could influence process management in providing a sustainable service. The report goes on to state that the operational implementation of a sustainability strategy would move authorities from rhetoric to action: two key targets in improving this would be to firstly remove barriers, such as lack of clear targets and insufficient importance given to sustainability and secondly for adequate feedback to be given to staff on the sustainability performance of the authority, thereby increasing stakeholder engagement and commitment.

Bell and Morse (2008) discusses the complex issues around how to identify and implement SIs for a concept that is contested from differing perspectives. There is a diversity of views of sustainability and how it might be defined. Central to the concept is that of space, which identifies the boundary over which sustainability is being discussed and that of timescale, in particular how long is the period of time that is being considered. An intergenerational timescale is a typical consideration within the concept of sustainability, however, the extent of this generational aspect is not defined in the Brundtland report (WCED, 1987) which first brought sustainable development to the world stage. Some of the roots of the contested nature of the concept can be understood from its subjectivity because “it is a concept dependent upon the various perceptions of the stakeholders residing within the problem context” (Bell & Morse, p. 127).

Ready-made solutions to measuring sustainability are not given by Bell and Morse, which is understandable considering its subjectivity and complexity, but the discussed methodology can be developed further because valuable suggestions and proposals are provided for using system approaches in measuring and evaluating sustainability. In particular, the discussion on the use of a band of equilibrium for SIs to acknowledge differing stakeholder perspectives and the use of a graphic tool (AMOEBA) to display the status of a sustainability assessment could be readily utilised by amenity managers; these approaches should be considered as a basis for positive change when contemplating how their service delivery model can form part of a sustainable community.

A large quantity of sustainability indicators has been developed (DCLG, 2009a) by which central government judge the effectiveness of local authorities, however, only a few of these indicators are relevant to the operational management of outdoor amenity areas. More specific indicators for parks, open spaces and horticultural services have been published by the Association for Public Service Excellence (APSE, 2008b) although the majority of these are mostly economic performance indicators; with environmental and social indicators being under-represented. Critically for both sets of indicators there is no included methodology that shows how these indicators can be integrated into operational management regimes to evaluate the overall sustainability of a service. Other ways of measuring the value of parks and green spaces through the use of different indicators are also given by the Commission for Architecture and the Built Environment (CABE, 2009b), however, the emphasis of the report is on economic measures which challenges current accounting methodology in valuing the outdoor amenity environment rather than assessing its sustainability.

There is a wide knowledge base of methodologies in assessing sustainability (Ness et al, 2007; Singh et al, 2009) that can be utilised and some of these were found to be in use during this research, however, many of the identified financial methods would be unsuitable for the outdoor amenity environment because they are more relevant to assessments on a national economic scale.

Frame and Brown (2008) argues that many of the outcomes from these assessment methods have frequently been disappointing, primarily due to inadequate stakeholder engagement. This illustrates the need for continual development and refinement of sustainability measurement and evaluation so as to meet the needs of all stakeholders, otherwise social engagement will continue to be inadequate and unacceptable; the involvement of stakeholders is an essential part of the sustainability process. One particular sustainability assessment method, multi-criteria analysis (MCA) has been shown to provide a positive driver for facilitating stakeholders and the general public (Gamper & Turcanu, 2007) and this could potentially provide a means to adapt and integrate other methods into a suitable sustainability evaluation tool for amenity managers.

One significant engagement method that can be developed is that of how managers within public service organisations can contribute to the wider aspect of a networked local community (Day & Schuler, 2006) by the mutual sharing and receiving of digital information. In particular the opportunity to utilise new web technology, called Web 2.0, is an area that local authorities can embrace to provide an interaction between their services and the local community. This new technology has grown exponentially in recent years and is especially used for the real time exchange of data, whether for social networking, to finding the location of local services using smart phones to a smart network where user interactions provide the ‘collective intelligence’ for communities (O’Reilly, 2005) and which could be used in a positive way to contribute to maintaining and developing a local community.

The use of the Internet and web applications to find news and information has been shown to increase, in many cases, community involvement by individuals (Jung et al, 2007): Amenity managers can make an important contribution to this involvement due to the nature of the services they provide.

For the next part, I’ll miss out the research methodology as that’s not really of interest for this blog, so will jump to some of the selected analysis and interpretation of the findings.

Chris Gray, 7th November 2018