IBM’s Sustainability Accelerator: Empowering Non-Profits Assisting At-Risk Populations

By Charles King, Pund-IT®  March 30, 2022

“Sustainability” is not a new concept, but over the past decade or so, the word has become a catch basin for a wide range of environment and climate efforts. Those include everything from hands-on habitat conservation and restoration projects to business strategies aimed at reducing organizations’ carbon footprints to government programs designed to positively impact millions of people.

However, the importance of sustainability efforts has grown as the literal challenges and dangers of climate change have become better understood. For example, the latest report by the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), the United Nations body that annually assesses science related to climate change, concludes that 3.3 to 3.6 billion people globally live in settings that are “highly vulnerable” to climate change. The report also notes that 32 million is the lower estimate of additional people who could fall into extreme poverty by 2030 due to climate impacts without adaptation.

While individuals and groups should be lauded for the time and resources they are devoting to sustainability projects, can businesses do anything to speed or enhance broader climate-related initiatives? During the first quarter of 2022, IBM made several announcements in this area, including the acquisition of Envizi and the recent launch of the company’s new Sustainability Accelerator. Let’s consider how these efforts demonstrate IBM’s focus on sustainability and its intention to improve the work of climate-focused organizations.

The IBM-Envizi connection

The acquisition of Envizi, a data and analytics software provider that develops environmental performance management tools, is merely the latest IBM investment in climate-related technologies. In 2016, the company purchased The Weather Company’s digital assets, including its B2B, mobile and cloud properties and WSI, which housed the company’s data science and enterprise services.

By leveraging those technologies along with IBM Watson AI and IBM Cloud, the company has been able to provide highly localized weather forecasts to clients, offering vital information impacting business processes and planning. Those efforts further evolved into the Watson-enabled IBM Environmental Intelligence Suite the company launched last October and consulting services IBM is providing in these areas.

Envizi clearly complements those solutions, and also builds on other IBM AI-powered software, including IBM Maximo asset management offerings and IBM Sterling supply chain solutions. More importantly, Envizi should also enhance and advance two of the most important practical issues that organizations need to address: operational decision making and credible reporting processes.

Why are these issues vital? Because businesses are facing increasing pressure from customers, shareholders, consumers and regulators to develop more sustainable and socially responsible business operations, and demonstrably verify how they are successfully implementing these measures.

Sustainability solutions for non-profits

Where does IBM’s new Sustainability Accelerator fit into all this? The fact is that the non-profit and government organizations the program is aimed at face many of the same challenges that businesses do in terms of developing provably workable programs and initiatives and enhancing operational processes.

The Sustainability Accelerator is a global pro bono social impact program that applies IBM technologies, such as hybrid cloud and artificial intelligence solutions, and an ecosystem of IBM experts to enhance and scale the operations of non-profits and government organizations focused on populations vulnerable to environmental threats, including climate change, extreme weather and pollution.

In February, IBM announced the inaugural participants of the Sustainability Accelerator’s initial pilot program which focused on sustainable agriculture. The three participants, The Nature Conservancy of India, Heifer International and Plan21 Foundation for Sustainable Human Development, all successfully completed the Phase One process in December 2021.

IBM’s Sustainability Accelerator follows a three-step process over a two-year period:

  1. Define – Each year, IBM defines one theme for the RFP (request for proposal) process and project selection from non-profit organizations that belong to that year’s cohort.
  2. Determine – Engagements kick off with Phase One discussions at the IBM Garage which applies IBM design thinking and agile techniques to speed innovation and cultural change. During this process, IBM experts work with beneficiary non-profits to identify their needs and establish a clear roadmap to determine public challenges and potential solutions.
  3. Design/Deploy – In Phase Two, IBM cross-industry experts configure resources and technology designed to help participants meet their community and environmental impact goals. Potential technologies include IBM Watson, IBM Cloud, and the Environmental Intelligence Suite. In addition, beneficiary organizations will receive monthly IBM Cloud credits, weather data credits mentorship, and access to the IBM partner ecosystem. IBM experts will also support pilot deployments of solutions to help facilitate optimal implementation, scale long-term impact and drive key societal outcomes.

Along with announcing the progress of the sustainable agriculture cohort participants in the Sustainability Accelerator announcement, IBM also invited non-profit organizations to apply to a public RFP for the 2022 cohort’s focus on clean energy. Proposals are due by April 30, 2022, and should be presented through the company’s Submission Portal.

Final analysis

IBM’s Sustainability Accelerator appears to be as well designed as it is well-intentioned, and the company should be applauded for its efforts to assist non-profit organizations helping at-risk populations. However, the Sustainability Accelerator also qualifies as an intriguing example of how innovative solutions developed for challenges of one kind can be successfully applied to others.

This is not the first time that the company has turned its attention, often counter-intuitively, beyond the needs and problems of its myriad enterprise customers. As an example, many of the scientists and technicians employed at IBM Research labs are examining subjects that initially appear to have little, if any connection to business organizations. The company’s acquisition of The Weather Company’s digital assets also spurred head-scratching among pundits unable to parse the association between climate events and business outcomes.

Defining challenges, determining strategies to address them, and developing and deploying successful solutions is an evolutionary process common among successful individuals and organizations of every sort. IBM’s Sustainability Accelerator appears well-positioned to assist groups that can use the company’s technological innovations to serve people and communities that are most at risk from climate change and other environmental threats.

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