Hi Daniela, please tell us about your journey from being a Computer Scientist at Bell-Labs and MIT to being a Founder of a high-tech social enterprise?
The passion for science combined with a strong interest for people and nature drove my entire professional path from Math to Computer Science and from research to sustainable innovation. I was fascinated by digital technologies and their ability to make a difference in people life. When wireless sensor networks started emerging in 2001, I was caught by their potential, combined with computing and modelling techniques, to remotely monitor and control remote phenomena.
While at MIT, I started focusing on real-time monitoring and new solutions to derive insightful information from noisy low-cost sensor data. In the past ten years, IoT-AI-based systems have shown their effectiveness in enhancing control and business productivity, lowering costs, and improving service quality and safety. I experienced their impact in solving sustainability issues, for instance, in water and energy management, but also the need for interdisciplinary collaborations to solve complex problems effectively. The coronavirus pandemic highlighted both aspects.
The prominent role of innovation and cross-sector collaboration led me to found ecoSurge, a new high-tech social enterprise focused on the design of innovative solutions geared towards UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). It integrates digital technologies with innovative business models, such as circular economy models, through active collaboration among SMEs, research labs and institutions.
Thank you for this question. Let me pinpoint a common misconception that conceives sustainability only in its environmental dimension, leaving out its social and economic aspects. The 17 UN SDGs show in a crystal-clear way how interlinked are the social, environmental and economic dimensions for sustainable development.
In addition to that, sustainability can represent an opportunity for business growth, as many success cases show. Several studies show that companies investing in sustainability are on average more competitive, have better market positioning, and are more likely to retain employees than traditional business as their work is perceived as impactful and purposeful.
SMEs represent worldwide more than 97% of global businesses and therefore are a vital component to realize a transformation. SMEs often perceive sustainability as a cost or a business threat and tend to be risk-averse. It is important to help them overcome those misconceptions. Radical changes are already in progress, and the pandemic accelerated them – it is impossible to hold flowing water with hands. Companies that will not adapt fast to emerging needs will likely lose competitiveness and unconsciously increase their risks. The mission of ecoSurge is to help SMEs engage in the sustainability transition and identify new business opportunities through digital and business innovation and cross-sector collaborations.
Digital has deeply changed our life in the past three decades. I experienced that evolution, from my first projects done in bulky, expensive computers at university labs and the advent of the Internet to microelectronics advancements and the diffusion of social media. However, I believe we are currently at a crucial turning point not just for the technological advancements and pervasiveness but for the opportunity to steer technologies to meet complex social, environmental and economic challenges.
We need to keep in mind that digital technologies are just a tool and therefore inherently neutral. Their effectiveness in addressing current challenges depends on our ability to drive them. For instance, they have the potential to support inclusiveness but also deepen inequalities, reduce carbon footprint but can also increase it.
Will we be able to drive this powerful tool towards our common good? Will we be able to ride this giant wave as a pro-surfer to accelerate SDGs or end up being overwhelmed by this rising wall of water? I want to imagine us at the beginning of a human-centered and purpose-driven digital phase that will see a boost of high-tech social companies. How exciting it is to run a successful business while positively impacting people’s lives and the planet!
The complexity of the challenges we face requires more active cross-sector collaborations, the core of SDG 17. “Collaboration” is a widespread concept, but it is still not easy to implement it. Among the barriers that discourage collaborations among SMEs, some of them are cultural. We need a mindset shift, we need to move from “my business circle and interests” to “our business circle and common interests”.
The pandemic showed us how interconnected we are – covid-19 will be defeated only collectively through global vaccination. This is an example where an altruistic approach coexists with the best-individual-interest approach.
Cross-sector collaboration means for us, tech folks, to open up to stakeholders viewpoints from the design phase. We cannot waste resources in developing technically great products that are little effective because of a partial view. It is essential to embed the “human factor” into algorithms and models, see faces and stories behind technical problems. It is time to “implant a heart” into each digital project and product.
That requires a mindset shift at the individual, business and community level, active listening and the ability to question our assumptions and common practices.
AI is gaining momentum and will undoubtedly play a vital role in the future, but again it is a tool, not a solution. I think our focus must be on people and environmental needs and on leveraging digital technologies to accelerate SDGs.
I think it is important for us, tech folks, to always keep in mind the “big picture” and drive technologies with a vision. An open-minded, collaborative approach will help us design and deliver more effective business solutions and products.
My recommendation is to stay open, curious, attentive to changes to quickly adapt and meet emerging needs in a fast-evolving social and economic context. Complex challenges call for diverse background, experiences and viewpoints. Diversity is a lever for innovation and growth.
Whatever is your current role and organization (e.g., CTO, developer, startupper, researcher), your work can play a key role in the sustainability transformation of your community. It can be contagious and trigger a positive shift, like a snowfall that starts small but rapidly gains energy and attracts whatever it encounters along its path.