IBM’s David Solsky on driving change towards sustainability

One of the biggest sustainability challenges for organisations is translating their lofty environmental goals into real and meaningful change

Envizi is a Sydney-based provider of software that helps organisations understand their carbon footprint, sustainability journey and performance. Acquired by IBM last year, the company was co-founded by David Solsky, CEO of Envizi, VP of Sustainability Solutions at IBM and an alumnus of UNSW Business School. 

Dr Christine Van Toorn, Director of IS Co-op Programs and Senior Lecturer in the School of Information Systems and Technology Management at UNSW Business School, interviewed Mr Solsky alongside Mikayla McEwan, a Product Specialist at WiseTech Global. Ms McEwan is a recent UNSW first-class Honours graduate from the UNSW Co-op Business Information Systems undergraduate program.

During the interview, they discussed Mr Solsky’s journey with Envizi, the company's acquisition by IBM, and Mr Solsky’s unique leadership style, approach to innovation, and the importance of collaborations between industry and academia in encouraging students to pursue careers in technology and sustainability. All three were recently part of a collaborative research project (alongside Dr Yunfei Shi, Lecturer in the School of Information Systems and Technology Management) which explored how business analytics can support short and long-term environmental sustainability.

The sustainability mission behind Envizi

Envizi was co-founded in 2008 by Mr Solsky and Bill Clasquin. As a passionate tech and environmental advocate and entrepreneur, Mr Solsky recognised a need for businesses to better understand and manage their carbon emissions, energy usage and environmental impact. So he set out to create a solution to help them do just that. Under his leadership, the company has scaled into a global leader in sustainability software, serving customers in a wide range of industries worldwide. Today, the IBM Envizi ESG Suite is a sustainability software solution that helps organisations manage environmental impacts.

Last year, when IBM acquired the company, Envizi was a company of 70 people and is now part of IBM’s 270,000-plus workforce. While the acquisition came with both opportunities and challenges, Mr Solsky said it had been a blessing to have access to the global resources of IBM and be part of their journey to deliver “technology for good".

Mr Solsky explained: “Envizi does a really good job at helping organisations to capture and manage data, report, and track where they're at along their sustainability journey. But the reality is, you can look at the data coming out of Envizi for the next 10 years. And unless you take action on the insights provided by the data, you won't be able to reduce your emissions profile."

The real work of reducing emissions and operationalising sustainability must be done within the organisations themselves, continued Mr Solsky. “Envizi is an essential part of the solution, but the real work needs to be done operationally within organisations. With Envizi, IBM is helping clients operationalise sustainability and bring it into everyday decision-making. Overall, we are helping our clients bring sustainability decisions into business-as-usual thinking,” he said.

Driving sustainability in big business

IBM's vision is to bring together multiple technologies that help organisations make sustainable practices a part of their everyday decision-making. And according to Mr Solsky, sustainability can be achieved through innovation and efficiency, which can both increase profits and have significant environmental benefits – and he spoke about two recent case studies.

One is Sund & Bælt, an owner and operator of some of the largest infrastructure projects in the world, including the Great Belt Fixed Link – a 17km-plus long bridge and tunnel combination in Denmark. The company knew that one of its greatest challenges was the slow and manual process for conducting regular maintenance inspections. To inspect bridges, Sund & Bælt often hired mountaineers to scale the sides and take photographs for examination. An inspection could take a month.

Sund & Bælt wanted to leverage digital solutions to improve their maintenance approach and collaborated with IBM to create what became the IBM Maximo for Civil Infrastructure solution. With the new solution, Sund & Bælt gathers data from drone photographs to monitor status without dangerous and time-consuming human inspections.

The Great Belt Bridge was built for a lifetime of 100 years, but with the right use of data and digital solutions they expect to increase the bridge’s lifespan by 100 years. By increasing the lifetime, they also decrease carbon footprint – in the order of 750,000 tons of CO2. So a project that started out as a maintenance solution has delivered a measurable sustainability impact.

Mr Solsky said: “What we've realised is that sustainability is value lead; it's about doing things more efficiently. It's about innovating. It's about reducing waste. It's about increasing profits and having this incredible environmental sustainability outcome all at the same time.”

The importance of collaboration in driving systemic change

Several research opportunities exist for universities and industries to collaborate and create more sustainable solutions that mitigate environmental issues. “How can we get more innovative big businesses to connect more deeply with the education sector and really create pathways and growth opportunities?” asked Mr Solsky. “IBM is the kind of organisation that universities can collaborate with to find pathways and connections between students and the workplace.”

While Mr Solsky said he is optimistic that progress can be made in shifting from advocacy to action. He also noted that governments, organisations, and individuals need to work collectively to tackle climate change and drive decarbonisation. "Thankfully, the narrative has changed. In the last three or four years, I think we would all acknowledge the growing commitment from the government and the corporate sector to embrace the challenge of climate change and plot a path to a net zero future. With this new narrative, we're moving from the advocacy phase to the action phase," he said.

Mr Solsky reiterated that cooperation among various stakeholders, including governments, companies, and individuals, is essential to create a sustainable future, as no one company, government, or individual can solve them independently. But he acknowledged that governments that create a stable policy environment can give organisations the confidence to invest long-term in areas like renewables and decarbonisation technologies.

"The big challenge for organisations is how do you get from these lofty, aspirational goals into driving meaningful and tangible change? It's not easy to decarbonise, particularly in emissions-intensive industries like cement, steel or mining and resources. But, it’s encouraging to see the progress of some of the early adopter organisations, but there is still much work to be done,” he said.

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The role of the individual in driving changes towards sustainability, both in their organisations and governments, remains crucial. “We all have voices; we are the ones who have fundamentally changed governments, which has led to important policy changes. As we enter our workplaces every day, we need to have a voice; we need to be bold enough to push our employers to invest in innovation and aggressively drive the necessary changes in their operations,” he said.

“Corporations are where the biggest change needs to happen; governments will give us the policy stability, and people will hopefully bring the heart to the climate change debate and inspire each other to want to go out and make these changes for a better future."

In 2023, the UNSW Co-op Program celebrates 35 years. As an original sponsor and staunch supporter of the program, UNSW would like to acknowledge and recognise IBM's valuable contribution to its success.


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