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Tech UK: The Positive Potential of Digital Technology

The technology industry has the unique capacity to not only reduce its own resource consumption, but to help others do so as well. From digital solutions to artificial intelligence and the Internet of Things (IoT), tech can be embedded into a vast range of products and sectors to boost sustainability by enabling more circular practices.

In the latest episode of our podcast on the Circular Economy, we got some great insight about what’s happening from Craig Melson of Tech UK, a trade association that works to harness the positive impact of technology on people, society, the economy and the planet.

Helping tech companies reduce resource consumption is a big part of Tech UK’s remit. “We're seeing more and more companies changing their business models to become more circular,” says Craig. This is being driven by tightening policy and regulation, on the one hand, and increased demand from the end users of products, on the other.

Tech UK’s membership is diverse, spanning producers of hardware like laptops, servers, televisions and games consoles, to telecoms networks, backend software companies and those working on AI and machine learning. For each type of company, the approach to circularity is slightly different. Manufacturing traditionally has the highest environmental impact, but it’s also where some of the biggest sustainability gains can be made. In data centres, for example, 80 percent of carbon emissions come from the manufacturing phase, so implementing a reuse and recycling model can significantly cut the company’s environmental impact and lower costs. 

At the same time, more and more purpose-driven start-ups are emerging with the circular economy at the heart of their business model. Grey Parrot , for example, uses AI-powered video recognition software to identify reusable or refurbishable items at waste sites. Olio is a sharing platform that lets users offer unwanted food, furniture and household items to neighbours. Meanwhile, TV and telecoms giant Sky have moved towards a leasing model for their equipment, which can then be returned and refurbished after each use—saving a huge amount of e-waste and, again, cutting costs. 

Like every sector working to become more circular, one of tech’s biggest challenges is creating, compiling and accessing value chain data. This is a problem that a number of the companies and organisations featured in this podcast series are solving—with the help of technology. Tech UK is supporting its members with a campaign called Material Focus, which looks at how companies can comply with e-waste rules by identifying the critical raw materials, making it easier to understand the persistent organic pollutants (POPs) in products and providing information on how to recycle them safely. 

There’s also some tension between circularity agendas and issues such as safety. “If you make a product easier to disassemble so anyone can have a go at repairing it, you're also potentially exposing that person to electric shock risks or perhaps breaking it entirely so they need a whole new one after all,” explains Craig. Another challenge is the cultural stigma around adopting used products, especially in the business IT sector, where second-hand can be a synonym for substandard. “The sector has to do a better job of showing that they can be just as good,” he says. 

As for what the future holds, Craig is optimistic that circularity will continue to flourish throughout the tech industry, which can in turn empower companies from other industries to become more efficient, circular and sustainable. “Whether it’s fashion, food and drink, or retail: as they try to become more circular, there's a huge opportunity for data-driven and digital companies in the start-up and scale-up scene to offer their services and develop solutions that can help them do that,” he says. From asset and electronic waste tracking to supply chain transparencies, technologies like IoT, remote sensing and data analytics play a crucial role. Within the tech sector itself, excitement is growing as the investment community increasingly looks at Environmental, Social and Corporate Governance (ESG) criteria to determine a company’s future financial performance. 

Investors’ acknowledgement of the importance of sustainability represents a more widespread shift in values. “[The circular economy] is becoming much more integrated into everyday thinking,” concludes Craig. “It’s probably a long way down the line, but at some point the circular economy will cease to exist—because it will just be the economy.”

About the author

Barry O'Kane

Barry O'Kane

Barry is the founder of HappyPorch. With 20 years in the web development industry as a programmer and agency owner, he has a preternatural ability to decipher the systems and processes code that holds many teams back from achieving their goals. Partners say Barry gets to the root of issues quickly and makes it downright easy to deliver good work.    

While he's unbelievably grounded, it's not uncommon to find him sailing through the trees as he paraglides his way round the world.