by Bill Conley — Originally published in the March/April 2016 issue of FMJ—“So easy a child can do it!” These fateful words have conspired to lure many unsuspecting FMs into treacherous territory. Push that button; just set that dial! There are many concepts and precepts in the world of facility management that sound simple, but are far from easy. Thus it is with sustainability.
Sustainability makes sense. In concept it seems simple enough and there’s plenty of information about it. However, having the proper tools and instructions is not a formula for success. Being able to find and apply the right knowledge and truly understand the ends and means of a process are the true keys to saving money, becoming more efficient and ensuring continued existence of a company or facility, as well as the environment.
Sustainability is a characteristic of a system — in this case, the global ecosystem — in which all defining processes, such as the maintenance of biodiversity at a high quality of life, are able to continue indefinitely.
Sustainable development is one of the most significant societal changes of the 21st century. One universal trend that has major implications for sustainability is the rapid evolution and application of technology. These disciplines are two of the most powerful drivers of change within modern economies and have the capacity to transform the relationship between governments, companies, citizens and consumers.
Facility managers are at the ground floor of the integration and implementation of these two forces. They both require facility professionals to rethink the nature of goods and services, their availability and their use. In this climate, it is increasingly important that the correct and applicable decisions are made.
Sustainability can be simply defined as doing the right thing, at the right time, for the right reason. Actions tend to be right when they serve to preserve the integrity, stability and beauty of the biotic community. They can be broadly defined as wrong when they tend otherwise.
There is a great reliance on technology to solve environmental problems around the world today, because of an almost universal reluctance by industry and government leaders to make the social and economic changes that would be necessary to conserve natural resources. There seems to be a failure to understand that sustainable development policies seek to change the nature of economic growth rather than limit it.
Conversely, though, technology does have the potential to transform modern business into a more efficient, cyclical, networked and sustainability-oriented system that pays returns for economic, ecological and social prosperity. Moreover, the right technology can be leveraged effectively to facilitate transitions to sustainability as long as positive and viable linkages are identified and utilized appropriately. It is also important that the technology can be customized to fit specific needs and address critical institutional
and organizational challenges and opportunities. This entails a new strategic methodology for gauging and assessing current and long-term needs.
Technologies are meant to be total systems that include experience, utilitarianism and procedures as well as digital, organizational and operational measures. Technology should not be categorized as just digital or just scientific. Instead, it is necessary to cultivate a broad view of the term that encompasses information technology as well as machines and equipment.
Skills, abilities, knowledge, systems, processes and common sense need to be part of the exercise in order to fully allow technology to fulfill its promise. Such technologies must be accompanied and supported by the parallel development of more holistic environmental and facility management strategies. This requires integrated planning and management, accountability, effective capacity building and informed decisions in implementing sustainable actions.
Over-arching all of this discussion is a cross-cutting focus on the role of information technology and
its contributions to development processes. The convergence of three new trends is creating opportunities for transcending barriers to sustainable development.
Globalization, the expansion of information and communication technology/infrastructure, and knowledge intensity of economic activity are becoming more and more inter-linked. This symbiosis is enabling technology to allow intuitive leaps in decision making by taking advantage of the contributions of IT to development.
Information technology facilitates the reduction of gaps between knowledge provision, access and diffusion. It supports key global initiatives in best practices and responds to demand for local and global content availability.
The Internet has led to an increase in information visibility and community building on an international scale. It allows for more teaching and learning, is a vast resource for research and capacity building, and highlights the role of technology in contributing to developmental processes.
Addressing operational IT strategies and investment development is the newly emerging Internet of Things (IoT). This discipline offers vast opportunities for transformational innovation and sustainable growth. Complementing industry efforts to reduce direct emissions footprints, IoT and other IT-driven technologies provide opportunities to increase mitigation efforts in reducing the climate footprints of other sectors of society. The potential benefits of IoT are estimated to include a 20 percent reduction of global carbon emissions by 2030 and more than US$11 trillion in new economic benefits versus a business-as-usual baseline.
IoT can help enable transformational accomplishments via intelligent efficiency. It can change lives and economy in ways as significant as the Internet itself did over the past two decades. IoT advances offer nearly limitless possibilities for incorporating smart technologies in ways that could not have been imagined even in the most recent past. With smart cities, smart transportation and other innovations, it could be possible to raise the quality of life in society, while decreasing humanity’s footprint on the Earth and its climate.
The term “sustainable technology” describes technologies that enable more valuable use of natural resources and greatly reduced ecological impact, among other technological benefits. It focuses on enabling significant savings through using less materials and energy. The technology allows for a shift from non-renewable resources to renewable ones; from persistent chemicals to bio-degradable substances; from extra-active systems that use up the eco-system to restorative ones.
Practitioners of sustainable technology have established three strategic commitments in efforts to address global climate change. First, the tech sector aims to reduce the carbon footprint of its operations by supporting corporate goals and policies that focus on conserving energy, reducing emissions of fossil fuels and generating or using renewable energy. It is committed to reducing the carbon footprint of technological products over the course of their life cycle.
Even as these technologies are created to improve quality of life, the tech sector is devoting renewed attention and resources to ensuring that these products leave a more positive mark on the world. Industry leaders are taking into account the carbon footprint of the technology by considering sustainability and energy efficiency in their creation, packaging, use and disposal.
There is a lot that can be said to support these claims. A sustainable technology is planned to be economically viable; it aims to create more value than it costs. In the case of energy savings, a sustainable device will be designed to save more money in energy conservation than it cost to create.
Sustainable technology is to be managed so that it does not irrevocably destroy any resource that is not renewable and is durable enough that any renewable resources it requires can be replenished during its life. It will create a trend of reduction in resources required per unit so that overall resource consumption remains constant or decreases even as population and economic growth increase. A sustainable technology and the training required to operate and maintain it should be proportional in value.
The challenge arises when ideals meet with reality. Knee-jerk reactions or technological “fixes” sometimes do more harm than good. Instead of trying to solve pollution with pollution control technology, attempts should be made to devise technology that does not pollute. Rather than using natural resources conservatively, use only renewable resources. The point is to look at technology that is appropriate as well as sustainable.
There are tried-and-true sustainable technologies that are helping to actively reduce the carbon footprint of operations over the life cycle of facilities and align FM with corporate goals and policies.
FMs can develop energy-efficient practices and networking systems through a number of right-out-of-the- box solutions. They can investigate and implement innovative and/or diverse solutions for resource efficient data centers. Used products can be reused, refurbished or recycled to extend their life spans. Understanding and employing relevant green label brands and developing green procurement programs can lead to better resource utilization. ENERGY STAR or other energy benchmarking systems are available to help measure and monitor facility operations.
Looking forward, there are glimpses of the transformational innovation that is possible leaning toward more assistance from technology when wrestling with sustainable operations.
Smart grids offer sensors deployed in both traditional electric grids as well as distributed generation networks.
This helps increase transmission and distribution efficiencies and promotes greater visibility to improve system reliability through the use of big data techniques.
Technology has enabled smarter manufacturing processes and engines that are making factory floors far more efficient and productive. Building energy management systems and building automation systems create the opportunity for a comprehensive, systems-based optimization of energy in commercial and industrial buildings. Intelligent transportation systems and connected vehicles are reducing vehicle emissions while making traveling easier and safer. Smart city projects are setting trends for municipal leaders to follow that can provide more livable and more resilient cities at less cost.
The right technology can foster resilience — enhancing the capacity of a system to absorb disturbance and reorganize while undergoing change — to still retain essentially the same function, structure, identity and feedbacks. Resiliency will prove to be the next major component of business continuity and sustainable development.
So many choices
Facility management should not be a profession that relies on the stagnancy of the status quo, and when it comes to the health and well-being of this biosphere, the status quo is unacceptable. But neither should FMs be led down the garden path. They should be determined to use their innovative minds to find solutions to the challenges that sustainability and technology present. It is prudent to identify the opportunities that lie ahead to reduce carbon emissions and conserve natural resources. The research and development of new, sensible advances that can help lead the transition to a vibrant, sustainable, livable world should be supported.
People would be hard-pressed to run into a challenge that has not been faced by someone else. Answers are out there; finding the right questions is the issue. What is needed is the implementation of a structural learning process that will define the criteria for correct solutions and applications. The key components of such a process is knowledge derived from real-world experience, coupled with the facility management expertise and insight that is capable of transforming that knowledge into action.
Sustainable development is probably the most daunting challenge that humanity has ever faced, and achieving it requires smart choices. In all respects, the role of science and technology is crucial to success. Scientific knowledge and appropriate technologies are central to resolving the economic, social and environmental problems that make current development paths unsustainable.
However, just as the Industrial Revolution seemed like a good idea at the time, technology should be viewed with a long range eye-glass. FMs must be cognizant of the repercussions and ongoing impacts of any processes they implement or technology to which they may ascribe. A good example is plastic; built to be a less expensive alternative to glass, plastic does not degrade in landfills, because it was created to
Technology can only serve sustainability if its aims are designed with the ecosystem in mind, rather than the immediate short (sighted) term solution. Thus comes the caveat: not all technology will work for specific needs; not all technology will work well in the sustainability realm. Like anything else, one size does not fit all. FMs should embrace technology, but be careful what you hold on to: the match may not be ecological.
Bill Conley, CFM, SFP, FMP, LEED AP, IFMA Fellow, is facility manager at Yamaha Motor Corp. in Cypress, California, USA. Prior to that, he served as owner and chief sustainability officer of CFM2, a facility management and sustainability consulting company. Conley has more than 40 years of experience in the facility management profession and has been a proponent of sustainable operations for more than 20 years.
Conley has served on the IFMA board of directors, is a recipient of IFMA’s distinguished member of the year award and has received the association’s distinguished author award three times. He has been a regular contributor to FMJ for more than 20 years and has authored more than 50 FMJ articles.