How can technology startups collaborate with corporates to reimagine sustainability?

The current digital era poses challenges that were barely recognisable during the first three industrial revolutions. The fourth industrial revolution highlights digital systems, artificial intelligence (AI), Data analytics, and the integration of digital and physical technologies, along with concerns like climate change and resource depletion. Enterprises now realise that sustainability must be at the core of their business. 

T-Hub works to enhance the scope for sustainable business practices through startup initiatives like Atal Incubation Centre (AIC). It has collaborated with enterprises like HCLTech and SAP to initiate positive change. Achyut Chandra, Lead – Open Innovation and Technology Venturing at HCLTech, and Manish Gupta, the Director of Industry and Customer Advisory at SAP, share how companies drive sustainability within their business processes. 

Starting an enterprise’s sustainability journey 

Achyut Chandra explains, “Our approach was to align sustainability with our annual business goals and initiatives. With the burgeoning amount of data, enterprises are continuously investing in data storage space, and our next-gen green data center methodology makes it both cost-effective and environment friendly. It is critical to view technology as the backbone of sustainability. We have a mature startup accelerator program that works with startups to develop radical innovations. These startups have proved to be the most equitable partners in this journey.

Manish Gupta says, “Sustainability is a journey, not a destination. Most companies and industry segments are at different stages of maturity. They have three agendas in common: 

(1) meeting current and anticipated regulatory compliance needs 

(2) improving the efficiency of existing systems by embedding sustainability metrics 

(3) creating socially equitable solutions. 

Startups can help corporations ensure compliance and participate in the circular economy. With this, they can create easy-to-adopt solutions with minimal disruption and provide measurable outcomes.”

Collaborating with tech startups to reimagine sustainability

Achyut Chandra says, “At HCLTech, United Nation’s 17 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) act as our guiding path for scouting and partnering with startups. We have been working toward solutions to reduce wastage in industries such as hospitality and manufacturing. For example, to drive freshwater conservation, HCL has partnered with UpLink (an innovation platform of WEF) to support water-focused entrepreneurs – ‘Aquapreneurs’ who can drive innovation in freshwater resource management through this program titled the ‘Aquapreneur Innovation Initiative’.

Manish Gupta points out, “Investors, regulators, and consumers want solutions that reduce waste, greenhouse gas emissions, and social inequality across their full lifecycle.” 

Most organisations are at one of these phases of adoption:

Ensuring regulatory compliance to address data transparency, taxation and sanctions and establish integrated, auditable and real-time reporting.

Driving de-carbonising, eliminating waste and promoting social responsibility across supply chains with an end-to-end solutions portfolio.

Developing sustainable products, services and business models with a holistic view of data, processes and regulations.

Each phase calls for different solutions for which startups and corporates can collaborate and co-innovate.

Dealing with sustainability challenges

With sustainability comes the challenge of transforming ideas into actionable plans for businesses. 

Achyut Chandra continues, “There are two ways of looking at sustainability. What environmental and social impact are we creating and how much business value are we enhancing? Our initiatives use technology to detect wastage. One such initiative in hospitality helped save 50 percent of food waste from the previous day. Similarly, we also partnered with the World Economic Forum on Scale3600 circular innovation to rethink consumption and production.”

Manish Gupta adds, “The main challenge is to make sustainability profitable and profitability sustainable. At SAP, we identified process readiness as the key hurdle. Most companies lack the transparency of value chain impact on sustainability goals and fail to enable KPI-focused operational decision-making. In essence, sustainability is a resource management issue. Success depends on process action and data transparency.”

Using technology to address sustainability challenges

Technology will continue to play a critical role in fighting sustainability challenges. 

Achyut Chandra remarks, “With an attempt to contribute to the target of achieving net zero emissions by 2040, we associated with T-Hub to present our ideas on climate innovation technologies. We also helped set-up a startup incubator at a global university with one of its focus areas being intelligent plastic segregation, using technology.”

Manish Gupta tells us, “We feel sustainability is the new frontier of digital transformation”. He points to SAP’s vision of Chasing Zero to achieve:

Zero Emissions: Taking steps to enhance environmental management, product footprint management and e-mobility.

Zero Waste: Creating responsible design and production, product compliance, EHS management and waste management, rural sourcing management and logistics business network and material traceability.

Zero Inequality: Driving social responsibility initiatives for improving health and safety management, business integrity screening and product compliance.

He adds, “Technology can boost operational efficiency by activating sustainable business processes and connecting with socially responsible partners. By balancing bottom- and green-line objectives, stakeholders can make data-backed decisions to ensure sustainable process execution.” 

Employing new startup technologies in sustainability

Achyut Chandra points out, “Technologies like AI, analytics and track-and-trace will remain crucial to help monitor progress. It is important to see how these technologies can integrate with business processes and how other technologies like 3-D printing can promote circular packaging. In a way, all major technologies will contribute to a sustainable future”.

Manish Gupta remarks, “There’s enough room for innovation in sustainability. By identifying adjunct areas to complement SAP solutions, startups can contribute. 

He concludes by saying, “Businesses once had to choose between profitability and sustainability. At SAP, we strive for both. We have the people, technologies and processes to bring it all together—Profit and planet, productivity and people, innovation and conservation—across departments, functions, industries, supply chains and markets. That’s Economics!”