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Gnarly sustainability challenges and smart solutions

15 August 2017 – In this guest blog, CISL alumnus Jon Z Bentley shares a very personal reflection on his work leading IBM’s innovation programme with clients across water, energy and the environment.

After more than many years consulting in a variety of industries, from oil, gas and utilities to retail and banking as well as in the public sector, I took on a role to lead IBM’s innovation programme.

In planning our approach we explored a broad range of questions:  How could we at IBM become more innovative in our work with clients? In turn, how we could help our clients be more innovative in their operations? In their products and services? In addressing their most ‘gnarly’ challenges? This helped us understand the most important areas for innovation in the products and services we deliver to support their needs.

When examining innovation strategies, time after time, a consistent problem we came up against was how to address the impacts of climate change.  This was at a time when influential leading businesses and their executives were beginning to force the climate change agenda. They were asking how they could face up to their commitments and deliver their ambitions to "green" their businesses?  And they were demanding the same of their suppliers, peers and governments. As part of my exploration of potential solutions, I attended a leadership programme on climate change run by the Cambridge Institute for Sustainability Leadership (CISL).

The CISL programme taught me a lot, and helped me to make important links across the business community. It helped inform my on-going professional development and, later, the work I did with companies around renewable energy strategies. As a result of the CISL programme I was certainly better educated and equipped to identify the challenges ahead, and to consider how to overcome them and explore opportunities to lead my clients towards a sustainable future. A key influence on the success of the programme was the interaction with people from a broad range of organisations and backgrounds, whether these were tutors and speakers or other delegates.

My subsequent journey, over the past decade, has been profoundly influenced by this time spent examining and understanding issues related to climate change, the environment and our future energy system.

At the time there was a rise in interest amongst businesses on the issue of mitigating greenhouse gas emissions and more broadly limiting their "footprint" on the planet, led by some high profile players such as M&S with their "Plan A".  

However, as a consequence of the financial crisis in 2007 and the subsequent years of economic difficulty, unfortunately but inevitably, many organisations’ business focus was diverted away from the climate change agenda. The commercial realities for a provider of professional business services and technology solutions, such as IBM, meant this also impacted upon the traction of our work in this area.  As a response, we focussed on where there was a clear and obvious synergy between our core business, the client base and the climate change agenda. We asked ourselves where we could make both a significant impact and offer cost effective solutions. 

The emerging renewable energy sector, buoyed by government initiatives and fuelled by technology developments and increased engagement amongst the general public offered an opportunity to drive the sustainability agenda forward.  Consequently, we put our efforts into supporting businesses in the energy sector, from incumbent energy utilities to start-up hydrogen fuel cell businesses, as they navigated these changes.  

To achieve sustainable solutions, IBM is bringing our expertise in data, information technology, business processes and organisational change into collaborative partnerships with companies that specialise in water process technology, design and engineering.

For the past four years, I have been leading IBM’s work with the larger Water and Sewerage Companies (WASCs) in the UK and Ireland. Part of our work in this sector seeks to reduce the sector’s impact on the environment. It was a natural transition from looking at the role of "smart systems" in the energy networks to bringing what IBM called "Smarter Planet" approaches to water companies who are both large-scale energy users and producers.

With our industrial partners, we are helping Thames Water with their strategy to process the waste they treat to generate renewable energy, develop renewable schemes across their land estate and drive energy efficiency measures to reduce their carbon footprint.

We are also looking at ways to improve the quality of treated waste water returned to rivers, the safe levels of abstraction to provide raw water into the clean water system and preventing sewer floods and discharge breaches. To achieve sustainable solutions, IBM is bringing our expertise in data, information technology, business processes and organisational change into collaborative partnerships with companies that specialise in water process technology, design and engineering and with the operational expertise of Thames.

A key thrust in the asset management community is to design and build smarter solutions that rely more on data, insight and operational processes and less on the capacity of the capital assets – to ‘pour less concrete’, both figuratively and literally. These lighter solutions are more sustainable economically, industrially and environmentally.

When IBM presented me with this challenge in 2006, I couldn't have predicted we would have come so far and it is no exaggeration that my time spent at CISL, the people I encountered and was able to learn from whilst there, were fundamental to starting this phase of my own journey.

Our executive education programmes offer senior leaders insight into innovative, commercially compelling ways to address global trends. They build the leadership capacity and skills to generate action.

About the author

Jon Bentley

Jon Z Bentley is an Executive Partner in IBM's Energy & Utilities practice in the UK and Ireland where he leads IBM’s Water Sector and continues to work on innovation, energy & the environment. 

Jon completed CISL’s Climate Leadership Programme in 2008.

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Guest articles on the blog do not necessarily represent the views of, or endorsement by, the Institute or the wider University of Cambridge.