7 tips to make your business sustainably Net Zero whilst maintaining a competitive edge

On 27th April 2021, Slingshot Simulations hosted an event via Leeds Digital Festival: Net Zero: Where on earth is the starting line? With a panel of experts ranging from Rainforest Trust to Digital Twin Consortium, there were key themes around tackling Net Zero that tied this wide variety of industries together:

  1. We need to start now
  2. We need data to help us find our starting point
  3. We need to tell the story of Net Zero to encourage people to start
  4. We need to work collaboratively, not competitively


Why now and why should we care?

The panel made this very simple: we should care because it is a crisis. Erin McCreless, Rainforest Trust, pointed out that Net Zero goals are in place because there is global recognition that if we do not achieve these goals, we will suffer the full effects of climate change worldwide.

Lorna Walker, Modomo, echoed this and reminded us that a crisis that is not inescapable, including businesses, and if we leave it till later then the crisis will be on top of us before we know it and by that point it will be too late.

Both these points made it very clear not only why we should care but also why we need to start now without delay. That led to the very reason why the attendees were there: If we need to start working towards sustainability and Net Zero now then how to we start?

Our 7 tips for achieving Net Zero

Tip 1: Understand the issue

Net zero means that any human-caused greenhouse gas emissions are balanced out by removing them from the atmosphere through carbon removal. Currently 40% of carbon absorption is dealt with through natural resources such as trees, leaving us with 60% to deal with ourselves.

Erin pointed out that whilst carbon emission tragedies, such as deforestation, do a huge amount of damage to ecosystems and homes for thousands of species it also puts at risk other life necessities such as medicine, a quarter of which are sourced from plants found in rainforests.

Whilst the more emotive elements of climate change will consistently strike close to home for many, organisations must be more pragmatic about the effects that not achieving Net Zero will have on their business. As Richard Betts, KPMG, noted: its about finding what your business, or your client’s businesses, risk point is when it comes to carbon emission and work from those to build a Net Zero roadmap.

Tip 2: Know your carbon

Lorna also pointed out that its not as simple as just carbon, there are different types of carbon such as the Operational and Embodied types of carbon you find in the built environment. This would imply that all industries need to start by understanding what type of carbon they emit so they can start calculating their current footprint and therefore begin to offset their emissions in the most fruitful way possible.

Tip 3: Look at (and beware of) your Data

All panellists agreed that data is the starting point for developing sustainable initiatives when it comes to achieving Net Zero goals. Sally Walker, Human Digital Thinking, emphasized that by starting with the data we can put into place more effective and sustainable crisis management solutions. By being able to look at your data and identify the high risk points you can start to mitigate those risks, and this reduce your carbon footprint.

Dan Isaacs, Digital Twin Consortium, added to this point by highlighting the importance of storytelling these datasets via methods such as Digital Twins. If you can insert all your available data into a digital twin and see not only what your current carbon emission situation looks like right now but how it could look like in the future depending on what crisis management actions you take based on that data.

But there is a warning label attached to data. Chair of the panel David McKee, Slingshot Simulations, noted that even data has a carbon footprint. Dark Data (data that is not being used to derive insights or decision making) accounts for about 52% of all information an organisation produces can result in the release of about 6 million tonnes of CO2 into the atmosphere each year.

Therefore, it’s not as simple as looking at your data, you also need to acknowledge which data is actually useful for decision-making then putting actions in place to remove/archive data that is giving you nothing except a higher carbon footprint.

Tip 4: Know the cost

Slingshot Simulations has always been very clear about their approach to sustainability: Economical and Environmental. Net Zero is so widely publicised as being purely environmentally focussed that the cost of making these goals a reality is overlooked or hyperbolised.

Both Lorna Walker and Dan Isaacs brought to light the importance of marrying these climate goals with the circular economy system to make Net Zero goals more maintainable and feasible for companies. Environmental sustainability can only be achieved if it is also economically sustainable, and we need to know and understand the cost implications of taking a positive decision versus the future cost implications of not. There is cost either way. One now or one later.

Tip 5: Support sustainable-oriented digital tools

When asked how the panel saw digital tools playing into solving the sustainability and Net Zero challenges, Erin noted that there are lots of datasets and mapping tools that greatly improve our ability to identify high value conservation areas and monitor our progress. To extend past the Rainforest Trust the same values apply. On the highest level, digital tools can help us identify, assess, amend and monitor; a process that will greatly aid a more sustainable, and circular, business approach to achieving Net Zero goals.

And there are many ways that individuals and organisations can support sustainable and Net Zero driven companies. Identifying and sharing useful data with these companies can be extremely valuable as it will help them be better informed and therefore make better decisions. Being more informed and making better decisions are two of many reasons why digital twins are being perpetuated as the ideal digital tool for increasing sustainability. A tip in itself that we deal with last.

Tip 6: Prioratise Collaboration over Competition

The subtitle of this panel event was sustainability with a competitive edge, and it was this statement that was a poignant crux during the panel discussion. Sally Walker was the first to address this issue, indicating that collaboration in this form is inherently contrary to how organisations operate with each other as it requires the sharing of information.

Richard Betts agreed and encouraged organisations to see Net Zero and sustainability initiatives as a business opportunity as the market is big enough for everyone to play in. Being able to prove that the market is big enough is painfully simple: the market is big enough because carbon reduction is, as we heard from Lorna, everyone’s problem. The market has the same capacity as the current global population.

“Whilst it’s a big market, this has to be treated as a matter of life or death.” emphasized David McKee, “This is crisis management and crisis response on a scale that we have never seen before. We either all win or all lose”

Tip 7: To continue to be healthily competitive: Invest in a Digital Twin

Digital Twins were highlighted by Dan Isaacs as being an ideal digital tool for achieving Net Zero goals and improving your sustainability as it provides a mechanism to bring all the data into one ecosystem to give a holistic and contextual understanding of what is currently going on.

The Digital Twin Consortium’s official definition of a Digital Twin is: A digital twin is a virtual representation of real-world entities and processes, synchronized at a specified frequency and fidelity. (Full definition here). So how can this help achieve Net Zero. In basic terms it can be seen as a toolkit that is the enabler for tips 1-6.

Dan Isaacs gave a good example of how a digital twin can be applied in this context:

If you can understand how much energy a building is using, and for what purpose, and at what times of day within the wider context of the city suburb, you can not only see where, when and how much energy needs to be supplied, you can also see how energy storage can be used to make this more efficient, which leads to the planning better use of energy resources.

Once you have got your digital twin initialised, you continue to gain better understanding and insights by synchronising it frequently. This could be every hour, every day etc. and therefore allows you to react in real-time to environmental, social, or business changes. In turn that means you can ensure that your Net Zero strategy is working, and then you can improve or pivot as appropriate.

In Summary

Whilst there were many more insights from the panel discussion, the one message that blared from the foghorn was act now.  Here is how to go about it:

  1. Know your stuff
    Understand the issue and understand your carbon
  2. Assess your resources
    Pull together the data you have and figure out the cost
  3. Make a Net Zero Network
    Find organisations on the same journey as you, get off your high-horse and work together to make sustainable and well-informed choices for Net Zero.
  4. Invest in digital solutions
    The star of the show in this panel was a digital twin solution. Start your digital twin journey now.