A conversation with IBM’s Lucy Baunay.
Click to read the full transcript of this episode.
[00:00:00] Alistair Croll: Hi, and welcome to an [00:00:10] interview with Lucy Barney. She is a member of IBM’s Customer Experience and Sustainability Strategy team and we’ve asked her here as part of these series of [00:00:20] conversations we have with industry innovators to talk to us about the challenges that governments face as they walk a balance [00:00:30] between sustainability and innovation trying to make sure that we introduce new technologies that make government work better and faster while also ensuring that there’s a long-term [00:00:40] vision for sustainability, that won’t break the planet and, and can strike a healthy equilibrium.
So please welcome Lucy. Hi, Lucy.
[00:00:49] Lucy Baunay: Hi, [00:00:50] Alistair. Nice meeting you.
[00:00:51] Alistair Croll: Nice to meet you too. I noticed that you have some unusual titles in your background. What is sustainability [00:01:00] strategy?
[00:01:01] Lucy Baunay: Sustainability strategy. So what you want to be doing as a business, the core of it, right, is [00:01:10] to keep your business thriving and looking at sustainability. Yeah. Really to think about. Okay. So how can I make sure that my business [00:01:20] still exists in a hundred years from now? Basically, and in order to do so the only way is to look [00:01:30] at well, how can I address today’s needs without compromising the needs of future generations, right, because you want to be in future [00:01:40] generations. So I’m working with companies from all industries and sectors in, in Canada and beyond to [00:01:50] see how can we actually adapt their, their activities, their products, their services, and then eventually, hopefully their business model [00:02:00] to actually be able to address today’s needs, including environmental and social metrics that [00:02:10] will allow the planet to keep thriving as we move forward.
[00:02:15] Alistair Croll: When you say sustainability, my first reaction was to think about environmental footprint, carbon [00:02:20] sequestration, those kinds of things, but of course, companies, organizations, governments, collapse for all kinds of reasons. Social injustice, cous, uprisings, [00:02:30] inefficiencies cultural problems, as well as unsustainable practices that can’t continue. How does, how does [00:02:40] an organization like a government think about all of the ways that they might become unsustainable rather than just the obvious ones like electrical grids. [00:02:50]
[00:02:50] Lucy Baunay: So it’s a very fair question. And it’s, it can become very overwhelming when you start actually looking into it. So. And, [00:03:00] and I’m saying us, but luckily lots of organizations today have actually put out some tools that you can use to see which [00:03:10] issues are actually the most material. So the most significant for you as, as a public organization, so that you’re able to [00:03:20] prioritize and you can’t treat everything at the same time. But depending on. What your strategic goals are, and depending on the impact that you actually want one to [00:03:30] have, and want to focus on then you’ve got frameworks that you can actually leverage to, to make these trade offs. But at the end, it definitely is a decision matrix, [00:03:40] basically that, that you have to leverage.
[00:03:42] Alistair Croll: So I let’s talk about electrical consumption for a second. I just read a study recently from the IEA that said that [00:03:50] even with all the work we’re doing to roll out solar and come up with efficiently DS and so on, we are adding electrical consumption to the grid faster than we can create [00:04:00] sustainable production. Like it seems to me like the most basic thing should be, are we putting more supply in than we are adding consumption? And we’re not doing that. [00:04:10] With society so reliant on digital technology for everything, from communication to logistics, to our lifestyles, how are we going to get to a place where we can fix [00:04:20] that?
[00:04:22] Lucy Baunay: So yeah, well, and did it, if you’d look at 2021 to 2022. Okay. That that’s, [00:04:30] that’s the case. Now if you actually look a bit further heads IEA actually says that renewables will become the largest source [00:04:40] of electricity generation to, to really surpass coal in 2025. So that’s really going to be the case. Very heavily in Europe, in the US. Asia [00:04:50] still has a long way to go, but that being said, China and India are really catching up really fast. And by then, you should have around 65% of concrete [00:05:00] to renewables, but there’s no silver bullet. We’re in a transition period. So that means that you’ve got, you know, the, these very positive [00:05:10] market movements happening. But you also have. From past market structures. And so, you know, in order for the system to change, you actually [00:05:20] have to have all actors move in, conjunction in the same way, you know? And and I’m, I’m happy to, to expand a bit [00:05:30] more on on these actors if you’d like. But basically you need to look at, you know, the grid, right? The electricity grid, make it more flexible, more [00:05:40] adaptable. Because you’ve got some times when demand is peaking, right? And so you have to make sure that the grid doesn’t collapse and at the same time, you’ve got [00:05:50] other times where there’s unused power. Right. And so how can we leverage this? Especially when solar and wind are relatively unstable in terms of their supply. But that’s [00:06:00] one, that’s one actor. Another actor is the, the investors and investments in clean tech. They absolutely have to [00:06:10] step up. Right through innovations systems, operators are going to be able to change their practices. And at the same time, we’re going to be able to be smarter in the way that we manage the [00:06:20] grid. So you’ve got lots of solutions out there that exist already in IOT and AI to really, you know, optimize your energy use. And then, [00:06:30] and then the investment community’s playing a huge role in actually increasing the pressure on the system to change. And so, you know, you’ve got these huge, [00:06:40] actors like BlackRock, right? Because that’s demanding companies to disclose their plans for how their business model is going to work in a net zero [00:06:50] economy. That’s completely shifting the way that you know, companies and organizations are looking at energy efficient.
[00:06:58] Alistair Croll: Yeah, Chris Sacca, [00:07:00] who’s set up a bunch of those big funds. And I mean, he’s sort of parodied in Silicon valley. The guy with the three commas is both modeled after Chris Sacca, he just raised [00:07:10] lower carbon capital. He just closed an $800 million fund in a matter of days. And I was actually talking to a friend of mine who is in the insect protein business. [00:07:20] And investors were saying to her, like, we want you to invest your insect protein in certain verticals because we’re more able to prove the carbon [00:07:30] capture or carbon reduction than other verticals. So it’s already shaping, you know, who receives investments in what those investors will back in terms of product roadmap. For sure. That’s, [00:07:40] that’s going to be a big forcing factor from the capital side.
[00:07:43] Lucy Baunay: Yeah, exactly. So, you know, the government has a huge role to play, right. In terms of whether it’s in terms of carrots [00:07:50] or sticks. And, and there, the evolution of the regulatory framework is going to shave a lot of it too. But, but, you know, it’s, it’s not the [00:08:00] only play at stake here. And, and, you know, one last thing is obviously regulators, you know, must provide enough visibility to [00:08:10] companies and two organizations for the system not to collapse, right? When they come up with these very forward-thinking policies. But if you do actually take the inputs from these [00:08:20] other authorities and stakeholders into the process, then you’re, you’re going into the right direction and changing the system. So I’m hopeful.
[00:08:29] Alistair Croll: [00:08:30] You mentioned elasticity of the grid, the ability to increase. One of the things that makes me hopeful about sustainability is the technology gives us the ability [00:08:40] to create shared or fractional resources. I don’t need a car. I can use Uber and I’m using a car for the 30 minutes I’m in it or communal tow or whatever. Same thing [00:08:50] with cloud computing. I don’t need to buy a machine. I can buy an instance for an hour. Do you see that kind of fractional use or tech enabled [00:09:00] elasticity happening elsewhere in our lives in ways that are gonna make the world more sustainable?
[00:09:06] Lucy Baunay: have it in, I mean, it’s a movement is actually happening [00:09:10] across all industries. You can see it in, in some form. You know, whether it is even in retail, right in clothing, you see it a lot too. Where [00:09:20] the, the, the sharing economy is that is a huge, is a huge trend to actually, you know, move consumers far further [00:09:30] away from over consumption and get into this more circular way of, of managing the economy. The, it [00:09:40] all comes down in the end to, to how streamlined your customer experiences. If you make it so that it addresses the real [00:09:50] needs of your users and that you’re making it as, as lean as possible then, you know, it’s, there’s high chances that it’s just going to keep, keeps running.[00:10:00]
[00:10:03] Alistair Croll: So seems like government is the original shared infrastructure by definition, right? That’s kind of what government is. It’s when we decide that [00:10:10] if we pulled our resources, things will go better. But we’ve had a hard time redrawing the lines of what government should do and what the people should do for [00:10:20] themselves. Most people are okay with government building a highway. Very few people are okay with government becoming a broadband service provider, for example. Do you think we’re going to [00:10:30] see a redrawing of what is considered collective and elastic and therefore delivered by government services and what is considered individual and [00:10:40] proprietary and therefore best delivered through traditional capital ownership.
[00:10:44] Lucy Baunay: Yeah, well, definitely. And I think, you know, it, it’s, it’s also a matter [00:10:50] of reframing it towards the impact that you’re trying to, to have. Right. And so governments let’s go back to the mission of governments, right? [00:11:00] We’re, we’re here to serve people and if you’re able to frame it as such and really tackle it as, you know, what’s the impact it’s going to have [00:11:10] on people’s lives. And if it’s actually, you know, generating enough benefits, then that’s how you get you get momentum and, and you [00:11:20] potentially convince skeptics now easier said than done. But always going back, going back to these two to the impact on people’s lives. [00:11:30]
[00:11:30] Alistair Croll: So Kevin Kelly, who was the editor at large at Wired Magazine has written a number of amazing books. One of his books is called What technology wants. [00:11:40] And Kevin doesn’t define technology as, you know, a computer, but as the creation of tools that make us more productive so that we can build [00:11:50] more tools and he refers to the global massively interconnected system of technology, that’s vibrating all around us. It seems like what [00:12:00] technology wants is more technology, that we are creating a world in which the things that we build give us new ideas, you know? [00:12:10] There’s a, there’s a, you’ve probably heard of this, but I’ll explain it for the listeners who haven’t. There was an economist, William Stanley Jevons, in the [00:12:20] industrial era who was tasked by the British with measuring how much coal was available. He measured the amount of coal. It took to do some [00:12:30] work, but while he was doing his research, a new Cummins steam engine was replaced by James Watson’s steam engine, which was four times as efficient. So all the math and all the [00:12:40] economists think, oh, that should mean we consume a quarter of the coal because now I’m four times as efficient, but of course that’s not what happened, consumption accelerated. And [00:12:50] this is known as Jevons paradox, but it says that when something becomes more efficient, we find new uses, when those new uses become popular, they increase [00:13:00] demand, which therefore increases consumption. We are seeing a ton of emerging technologies, machine learning, non [00:13:10] fungible, tokens, blockchain, and these things have amazing power. They can give us very strong predictions, they can make user interfaces compelling, they [00:13:20] can create works of art, they can sign things or give them physical properties. But our pursuit of these things means that we’re consuming more and more. GPT-3 [00:13:30] consumed several thousand seconds, days of computing power. That’s several thousand quadrillion neural network computations per [00:13:40] second for a day. So will good enough ever happen. Do you think we’re going to get to a point where we can. You know what 4k is just fine. I don’t need [00:13:50] AK or like, you know, this is good enough and we are satisfied with it. How do we satisfy technology’s hunger [00:14:00] for better technology?
[00:14:02] Lucy Baunay: This was almost a philosophical question. They, yeah, well, I mean it’s and it’s it, it is [00:14:10] complicated. In first off, you know, when you’re talking about machine learning or AI technology in so many ways is critical [00:14:20] to address the climate crisis and to provide solutions for it. Now, the environmental impact from computing power is truly concerning as you were [00:14:30] mentioning. You know, actually there’s a study that was published last year that showed that training a large deep learning [00:14:40] model actually produces, you know, it produces vehicle and of the lifetime emissions of five cars. So, you know, as, as models grew bigger, [00:14:50] their demand for computing is, is really outpacing the improvements in hardware efficiency. So. So the growing costs in, in energy and carbon emissions of machine learning [00:15:00] or AI is becoming truly alarming. Yeah. Luckily there’s awareness right about these issues today is, [00:15:10] is way more reality than it was when, when Coles efficiency gains was, was being discovered. Right? And, and so there’s frameworks and strategies that are [00:15:20] actually being publicized and tested to tackle the problem. You, you can sometimes get good enough for that without using deep [00:15:30] learning or really energy intensive models, the, the whole, you know, difficulty and what’s really important is to have the robust strategy to make these trade-offs and say, okay, [00:15:40] what does good enough actually need for, for us and for the impact we want to have? One thing, one example that I, that is quite evocative is [00:15:50] you know, last year researchers at the IBM Watson AI lab actually came up with a method for unpacking a scene in a video, [00:16:00] they wanted to, you know, build an AI model to pick up on certain things in a video and, and they were actually able to do so just from a few glances as, as humans [00:16:10] do, right by just selecting the most relevant data. And the thinking behind this is, well, humans don’t pay attention to every last detail. So why should our models? [00:16:20] Right? And so they’re able to able to show that we can actually use machine learning to adaptively, select data at the right level of detail and actually make these [00:16:30] models more efficient. So, you know, it all comes down to your ability to build these technologies, build these systems, you know, you were talking about [00:16:40] and if NFTs, how can we make sure that we’re building a platform or next iteration of technology, that it will turn into a more sustainable [00:16:50] form, right?
[00:16:52] Alistair Croll: I, I love that idea. I remember reading about the great horse manure, your crisis of [00:17:00] 1896, that linked the governments of the world were getting together in a panic because the streets of New York, we’re going to be nine feet high in horse manure. And there was literally a conference of all the [00:17:10] world’s mayors and they left go, we don’t know what to do with this. And of course, 20 years later we had the car and it was over and it does seem to me like the solution is going to be, as you said, [00:17:20] partly being careful and knowing when you shouldn’t throw energy or, or cost or, or infrastructure as a [00:17:30] problem, but also, you know, technologies like, I dunno, thorium reactors or carbon sequestration, and concrete that we’re going to get there through this marriage of [00:17:40] innovation and curation or, or sort of custodianship. How do you think government executives and leaders should [00:17:50] take a big philosophical idea like that and turn it into like their day to day. Like how do they run meetings differently with that mindset?
[00:17:59] Lucy Baunay: [00:18:00] So there’s, I mean, there’s a matter of awareness first off. Right? So getting, getting educated on the matter. [00:18:10] Acting and changing the, your activities in a sustainable manner requires that you actually change behaviors and behavioral change is [00:18:20] always a very, very complicated topic where we’re creatures of habits. So really getting educated and starting to do things differently. Just a random [00:18:30] example. You’re, you know, a meeting with the video on will increase the power energy that it requires by over [00:18:40] 90%. So, you know, we’ve been, we’ve been very you know, we’ve been very vocal about this in the sustainability team at IBM at, you [00:18:50] know really encouraging people to start your meetings with, with the camera on you need, especially in this remote COVID world, we’re still not in the office, it’s [00:19:00] been one year and a half, but we started the meetings, have this physical connection. And then when you actually get to, you know, the serious conversations that were being done, you cut off your video whenever possible, [00:19:10] you know, and actually starting to question the impact of, of what you did. And, and. There’s so much there’s so much today that [00:19:20] you can learn from responsible computing practices, regardless of, you know, what the scope of your, of your job is. There are ways you can make it more sustainable. [00:19:30] Just got to find the right documentation and education too.
[00:19:33] Alistair Croll: It does seem like the press, the sustainability puts real pressure on leaders that [00:19:40] it forces them to be much more mindful of what they’re doing to plan differently. But yeah. In order to fix many of these problems, we’ve talked about it we [00:19:50] require some pretty significant, significantly bold leadership. What do you think the pressures that sustainability puts on leaders are [00:20:00] and how, other than what you just said about, you know, learning, getting informed, how to leaders could kind of change the culture of [00:20:10] governments so that this becomes the norm, this way of thinking becomes the norm.
[00:20:16] Lucy Baunay: I mean, yes, yes, pressure. At the same [00:20:20] time, pressure also means opportunity, right? And who better than the government to actually be stewards in this and, you know, investing in [00:20:30] actually building a more viable and more equitable and variable world, which, you know, pretty much underlies any initiative that you do to what sustainability is [00:20:40] also, you know, at least, at least in, in my thoughts, what governments are here for. Right. And, and, and so it’s a hundred percent aligned with the mission [00:20:50] of public service. So going back to the actual purpose, you know, why did you start working as, as a public official? [00:21:00] What, what was it that actually drove your sense of meaning? And then, you know, finding the courage to ask the tough questions without [00:21:10] necessarily having the answers, but provoking these conversations on, you know, how can we change and do better. And oftentimes you’ll find like-minded individuals with [00:21:20] this forward thinking, visionary mindset that really actually rallies up and, and it’s so it’s, it’s so exciting, really. [00:21:30] It’s it’s just, it’s just a new way of doing things that will probably make things better. So, I’m assuming most people are looking for that. [00:21:40]
[00:21:41] Alistair Croll: One of the things we touched on, you know, thinking about the elasticity of shared resources and how to enable that balancing the sort of austerity, turn off your [00:21:50] video with the ability of technology to come up with the, the new things that, that are overcome, those problems, you know, we’re only authority and reactor or [00:22:00] carbon eating buildings away from siccing some of these problems at scale. This sounds like a fascinating area of study in general. And it’s great to see people applying design [00:22:10] thinking to technology and innovation like this. If somebody’s really kind of taken with the stuff and wants to learn more about sustainability, not just [00:22:20] ecological sustainability or energy sustainability, but sustainable cultures and all that kind of stuff, what’s the best way for them to start learning.
[00:22:28] Lucy Baunay: So I would direct [00:22:30] you. The Ellen MacArthur Foundation has an absolutely stunning website with lots of great resources, concrete use cases [00:22:40] and you know, everything around circularity, notably and business applications. Then, you know, I’ll necessarily have to [00:22:50] direct you to IBM’s sustainability page because, we’ve, I mean, the, the scope of industries that we’re covering is especially, you know, in the, in the [00:23:00] public sector really gives you concrete examples of how governments and companies around the world are applying sustainability. And through [00:23:10] that, you’ll find you know, Thames, you’ll find principles and concepts that you might want to learn more about. And that’s going to help you [00:23:20] direct your research because it can become very overwhelming. So find, you know, what, what interests you in sustainability? You know, what area that you like, and then dig [00:23:30] deeper and, and never hesitate reaching out.
[00:23:33] Alistair Croll: Awesome. Well, thank you so much, Lucy. This was a great conversation and I’m glad we managed to make it a little philosophical as well.
[00:23:39] Lucy Baunay: Thank you, [00:23:40] Alistair.
From the first time we used a lever to lift something our arms couldn’t, or drew on a cave wall to share hunting tips, technology had us hooked. In a few thousand years, our use of physical tools has gone cognitive, changing how we think and work, and even who we are as a species.
Technology, as Kevin Kelly points out, wants things. It wants advancement. It wants more, faster. And as its creator, we’re caught up in that race. But is it sustainable?
Lucy Baunay works on design, sustainability, and innovation with IBM. In this Industry Innovations conversation, we talked about striking the balance between progress and patience. Sustainability, as Lucy points out, is more than energy consumption or carbon footprint—it’s culture, business model, and everything that helps an organization last as long as possible.
We touch on Jevons’ Paradox, the Great Horse Manure Crisis of 1894, and the new challenges leaders face in both public and private sectors when trying to reinvent organizations for sustainability. We look at how tech has made it easier to share resources, from cloud computing to car shares, and the balance of innovation and austerity that will help us keep moving tech forward sustainably.