CEF Spotlight

Environmental Sustainability at IBM: From Internal Operations to A Smarter Planet

BaltaIBM has had a continual, unambiguous commitment to environmental leadership for decades. Former IBM Chairman & CEO Thomas J. Watson, Jr., put his stamp on it with a formal corporate policy statement back in May 1971. The reason is simple. It makes good business sense.

We’ve sustained that commitment regardless of whether or not the topic is popular at any given point in time. And we’ve sustained it regardless of short-term business cycles. We manage environmental sustainability as a strategic imperative (i.e., strategic, not tactical … and imperative, not discretionary). We maintain a high level of capability. We endeavor to anticipate and prevent, rather than react and fix. And we leverage our work through purposeful internal and external communication. For example, in 2013 IBM published its 23rd annual voluntary Corporate Environmental Report, uninterrupted since 1990.

We sustain sustainability by recognizing and managing this topic as the operational business issue that it is – and making it systemic. It’s not an episodic fad. It’s not a demonstration project (helpful as they can be), and it’s not a marketing campaign. It demands global awareness, forward looking leadership, internal integration across functions, business processes, plus a focus on good old fashioned roles, responsibilities, and accountability.  And when you’re responsible for fixing something, it demands that you handle it with at least the same competence and priority you’d apply to anything else.

An understanding and recollection of the past; present-day capability; and a readiness to change today based on headlights into the future are helpful perspectives to keep around. Goals, objectives, and intentions are essential, but a record of leadership is only earned and deemed credible through demonstrable actions and results. IBM is honored to have been favorably recognized around the world as an environmental leader in a wide variety of ways. One gracious observation came not long ago from The Motley Fool on Earth Day 2013: “Perhaps more than any other major U.S. corporation, IBM has been putting environmental stewardship front and center for over 30 years now.”

Running your own operations responsibly is highly motivating and fulfilling. It engenders pride, loyalty, and respect for your workplace. As a business, it can get even more fulfilling when you’re also able to help clients address their challenges in environmentally favorable ways.

IBM has been uncovering an increased number of such opportunities since launching its Smarter Planet growth platform back in 2008. At the time, we said the way the world works is not smart enough to be sustainable. We’ve been integrating technology and business acumen since then to develop solutions to some of our clients’—and our world’s—grand challenges. There are many diverse examples. Water, food and transportation constitute three of them:

  1. Water resources are diminishing while demand is increasing. Water infrastructure is aging, which in turn threatens water quality. The impacts matter. Most of the world’s water is used for agriculture. Millions of children die from water related diseases. A lot of surface water is used to produce energy. And the success of many industries is directly tied to clean, abundant water. Given this background, smarter water management solutions can leverage “big data” (from sensors, video, texts, tweets, etc.) with analytics to anticipate and prevent, versus react and fix; to coordinate resources for better efficiency; and optimize use of limited capital.
  2. Food security grows more important every day. It’s affected by increasing population, shortages in clean water, limited arable land, environmental damage, climate change, and decreasing fertility of land under cultivation due to inadequate soil management. Food supply chains are getting longer and more complex. Consumers are getting more distrustful and demanding. Although these are daunting challenges, new techniques for smarter agriculture can use technology to improve food science, safety, production, tracking, and sustainability. It can help optimize the decision of when and how much to irrigate and fertilize, and the ideal time to pick and ship. It also offers end-to-end visibility across a global web of growers, packers, shippers, processors, and retailers.
  3. Transportation trends also demand fresh thinking and solutions. With the migration of increasing populations to the world’s cities, urban traffic congestion is as big of a problem as ever. Travel demand is increasing with limited ability to add road capacity. The economic and personal costs keep increasing, as does pressure to reduce greenhouse gas emissions. In light of this, new intelligent transportation systems can integrate “big data” from interconnected instrumentation for system-wide, real time visibility of traffic with corresponding ways to improve forecasting, adaptation, situational response, and asset management. It also allows smarter tolling, parking, and road charging systems.

Environmental sustainability is a global imperative for both present and future generations. Managing one’s own affairs responsibly is one of two major ways to lead. Developing solutions that help make the world work in a more sustainable manner is another. At IBM we are committed to both, recognizing that what we learn from the former helps to inform the latter.

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