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Gen AI and Sustainability: Strike the balance

Have you thought about how using generative AI will affect the sustainability of your company? 

Maybe you’ve heard about how Gen AI has the potential to:

🟢 Improve efficiency. Gen AI can automate processes and optimize how we allocate resources. This benefits business operations by reducing waste and possibly, environmental impact.

🟢 Inform data-driven decisions. Gen AI has advanced analytics capabilities, meaning businesses can gain deeper insights into their operations. This enables informed decision-making that prioritizes sustainability goals and fosters responsible practices.

🟢 Foster innovation. Gen AI empowers businesses to explore new avenues of sustainable innovation. It can be used to come up with novel, eco-friendly solutions or product designs to improve company sustainability.

But with all these new, exciting applications for Gen AI, how can we make sure it adds value to our organization and the Earth?

Find the balance

There’s a lot of energy that goes into Gen AI. Training one AI model can use more electricity per year than 100 American homes

Then there’s the data centers. These are the buildings that host the computing infrastructure to make Gen AI possible — and they have a huge energy cost. Just one center can consume the same amount of electricity as 50,000 American homes. And as demand rises for Gen AI, so will the need for more data centers. 

But the potential Gen AI has to make our businesses more efficient and sustainable is undeniable. So we have to consider the negative impacts as well, especially if they could get in the way of our organization’s sustainability goals.

How do we do that?

Well, we can start by learning from author and entrepreneur John Elkington’s description of sustainability. He defined it as three overlapping, interconnected spheres

💸 Prosperity – the economic sphere: How do our decisions affect us and others financially?

🙋‍♀️ People – the social sphere: How do our actions affect others: colleagues, clients and the communities where we live and work?

🌍 Planet – the environmental sphere: How do our actions affect the planet? 

Answering these questions together help us holistically understand the long-term impact of our decisions on all three spheres

Analyze and align

Asking questions is just the beginning. Once we know more about the impact of our actions, it’s important to: 

Analyze what we have. Take all the information and compile it. Figure out how different pieces affect each other positively or negatively. From there, it’s easier to make a balanced, informed decision about how to move forward. 

Align to company values and goals. Now that you have a fuller picture, understand how it all fits together. Look for opportunities to align what you now know with the overall goals for the company (including sustainability-related ones). 

What could this look like?

Imagine that a manufacturing company wants to start using Gen AI to make their business operations more efficient. But, they want to be mindful of how Gen AI could impact their company’s sustainability and workforce. Before they use Gen AI internally, they: 

🟢 Ask. The company finds out what it would take for them to implement Gen AI. They ask questions and research things like: 

👉 how much investment it would take to use Gen AI for their purposes?

👉 what technological and human resources they’d need to accomplish their Gen AI goal?

👉 what are the ethical and environmental implications of the Gen AI they’d use?

🟢 Analyze. Now they know how much Gen AI implementation will cost, what resources they’ll need, and what impact those resources will have on their people, planet, and prosperity long-term. 

They weigh the pros and cons of different scenarios, and decide on which combination makes sense for their business. 

🟢 Align. Based on their analysis, they work collaboratively with departments across the business to create a comprehensive Gen AI strategy. The strategy outlines exactly how they’ll use Gen AI, how they won’t, and how it impacts their sustainiability-related goals (including counter-measures for negative impacts). 

🟢 Adapt. Because Gen AI technology changes quickly, they make sure their strategy is adaptable and make plans to update it regularly. 

It’s unlikely that using Gen AI will be 100% positive or negative for a company. But taking the steps above helps one make thoughtful, informed decisions that embrace new technology and further their sustainability goals. 


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