Can digital innovation support global environmental sustainability?
This is a million-dollar question. What is certain is that, over the past few years, sustainability has become one of the most relevant topics in many sectors. The increasing perishment of the planet has raised many questions about our future. Constant debates are in progress all over the world and companies and people have committed to finding the best solution to achieve sustainability. Innovation and digital transformation appear to be significant strategies that involve disparate sectors and markets.
New digital transformation era
We are currently in the fourth wave of digitalization. The transportation industry has been using digital technology and methods for some time. However, the current digital era is radically transforming the way the transportation industry supports the sustainable development of society to reverse the dramatic consequences of pollution and help the world thrive again.
The expectations of how the industry reacts to environmental challenges are quickly evolving and so this new era presents opportunities for both operators and travelers. Therefore, conscious analysis of all current challenges may represent one of the keys to making public transport even more environmentally sustainable.
Can digitalization transform public transport into a more frequent choice when traveling and support emission reduction?
What makes public transport more appealing to passengers?
It is not only comfort. Nor is convenience the only expectation that leads customers to opt for a train or a bus, rather than driving their car. They also expect transportation services to be affordable and timely.
To meet the changing expectations of the modern commuter the consequences of technologies and new advanced integrated platforms will help the transportation industry move in parallel with the 4th wave of digitalization.
It appears that the border between transport operators and customers became much thinner than it used to be. Passengers can rely on onboard digital solutions to express preferences in real-time having a more direct and responsible impact on transport operators and their strategic sustainable development. It is not only a matter of data collection at the end of the journey but also a continuous and meticulous control over passengers’ feedback on sustainable solutions.
People believe that sustainability is one of the top priorities to improve the world we live in, and Digital Transformation seems to be perceived as a key enabler.
Passengers’ expectations in 2050, according to the Statista Research Department, show that:
“96% of passengers stated that they expected that aircraft would need to be more environmentally sustainable in 2050”
Therefore, today the best way to improve services is to work more closely with passengers to fully understand what they need and expect in terms of digital solutions and services. And how these, in turn, drive cleaner and more sustainable transport solutions.
Opportunities to support the environment
The fourth wave of digitalization also referred to as the Internet of Things (IoT), is now contributing to improve the market and create new opportunities for the transportation industry aiming to increase efficiency, lower costs and facilitate accessibility.
IoT is a powerful foundation to enable sustainable development. The ability to collect data through advanced information technology is now much easier and more accurate thanks to a plethora of internet-connected devices.
The data comes from different sources and is typically collected in real-time. This volume of data, also known as “Big Data,” can now drive real-time decision-making by transport operators and travelers. Eventually, the collected data is highly relevant for the strategic planning of any transport provider, which is a crucial step toward the actual development of a more sustainable transport system.
For example, the China Urban Transport Database (CUTD) was developed in 2010 to pursue more sustainable urban transport through “Big Data” collection, analysis, and resulting improvements. China’s need to reduce traffic congestion and air pollution prompted the idea that public transport could represent the most promising way to face and solve these issues. Therefore, the China Urban Transport Database collects essential data to help China tailor sustainable solutions to user needs and expectations
The full potential of IoT goes beyond big data collection. It allows remote management of the vehicles that help prevent and resolve challenges in real-time. For instance, a sustainable fleet management system plays an essential role in improving time reliability, decreasing accidents, reducing congestion, and eventually it supports a better environment.
The sustainable fleet management guide defines three types of measures to build a sustainable fleet strategy on:
- Transport demand management: aiming for route-optimization and mileage savings to reduce fuel and mileage costs, emissions and even the size of a fleet where necessary.
- Cleaner fuels and technologies – aiming to use the lowest emission vehicles and explore new technologies such as electric vehicles or sustainably produced biofuels
- Efficient vehicle use – efficient driver performance and vehicle maintenance have both a significant impact on fuel reduction.
Main factors toward sustainability
The above features belonging to the fourth wave of digitization enable consequences that will eventually make a difference and increase environmental sustainability in this sector.
The truth is that without complete and readable data, the efforts of any transport operator result in less robust attempts to achieve sustainability.
IoT enables a deep analysis of several aspects concerning transport and passengers, allowing full optimization of key factors such as the routes, time-tables, style of driving, or vehicle sizes, eventually determining the means for a direct emissions reduction across the public transport system.
Moreover, efficient public transport attracts more passengers, reducing emissions coming from the non-public transport system.
Solutions for a brighter future for us and the world we live in are around the corner. If more and more people took advantage of public transport, there wouldn’t be any need for additional spaces dedicated to car parking and these areas could be assigned to better and more sustainable uses.
Efficiency enables the coverage of public transport to increase supporting more sustainable cities and living. This also includes safety and facilitated access for the elderly and disabled.
The German town of Annaberg-Buchholz represents a major digital project for the transportation industry. The development of new interlocking technology, a signal apparatus that doesn’t allow trains to proceed unless the route is proven to be safe, have enabled a more economical and sustainable development of rail transport. It has helped reduce resources, emissions and ensure greater efficiency for passengers through the installation of intelligent communication.
Digitalization is no longer a trend but rather an advancing evolution that is now an actual part of our daily lives.
Taking concrete actions
As of today, we all have a role to play supporting the SDGs (Sustainable Development Goals), a significant global initiative. These goals have been set by the United Nations in 2015 to promote sustainability and protect the planet. Transportation is a key instrument in achieving the goals. It has an impact on a vast range of matters such as health, pollution, energy, and economic growth.
The role played by these goals will have a fundamental meaning in achieving the implementation of all measures for sustainable transportation infrastructure with a CO2 emission reduction of 50% by 2050, as stated by the United Nations.
Looking at the statistics, it appears that the
“Railway energy efficiency has doubled since 1975. Electrification has expanded to cover one-third of the global network and powers almost 45% of all rail activity. Rail companies are choosing to invest directly in renewable energy, which now powers more than 20% of electric-powered trains”
- MOBILIZING for DEVELOPMENT Analysis and Policy Recommendations from the United Nations Secretary-General's High-Level Advisory Group on Sustainable Transport, available online, p. 35
It is now clear that technology has a significant impact on all areas of sustainable development and can play an essential role in achieving the goals. New technologies can support sustainable solutions throughout several global angles:
- Socially, advanced technology can guarantee better safety or public transport, together with increasing affordability. It can make transport more accessible for people with disabilities or the elderly.
- Environmentally, technology offers new and enhanced opportunities for a cleaner, more climate-friendly transport system, and less pollution.
- Economically, an increase in efficiency of the transport technology results in economic growth through cost-cutting and waste-cutting.
At this stage, it is critical to work together. Investors and decision-makers are expected to create a coworking environment where technological innovations have space to develop and integrate into society strategically. This potential outcome must be drawn over a long-term plan nourished by a futuristic vision and sensitive emphasis on the present moment, where the need for actions around environmental sustainability is stronger than ever before.
We all aim for a better world. We all feel in need of significant changes in front of the dramatic degradation affecting our planet. In front of the evidence, mankind has finally developed a much deeper awareness, and this is the reason why digital transformation aims to efficiently drive the transportation industry to a new fully sustainable era.
“The answer to these problems is not less transport - it is a sustainable transport. We need more systems that are environmentally friendly, affordable and accessible”
Former U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon
- Rusul Abduljabbar, Hussein Dia, Sohani Liyanage and Saeed Asadi Bagloee Department of Civil and Construction Engineering; Swinburne University of Technology, Hawthorn, VIC 3122, Australia, 2019.
- The Fourth Wave of Digitalization and Public Transport: Opportunities and Challenges Paul Davidsson, Banafsheh Hajinasab, Johan Holmgren, Åse Jevinger and Jan A. Persson Internet of Things and People Research Center, K2—The Swedish Knowledge Centre for Public Transport, Department of Computer Science, Malmö University, Malmö 20506, Sweden, 2016.
- Mariah Venice Afable, Sustainable transport solutions - Mobilizing the world’s sustainability goals, Bold Business Magazine, January 2019.
- Transportation Industry Matrix, United Nations and KPMG, 2016.
- MOBILIZING for DEVELOPMENT Analysis and Policy Recommendations from the United Nations Secretary-General's High-Level Advisory Group on Sustainable Transport, available online
- Sustainable Transport Data Collection and Application: China Urban Transport Database, Tian Jiang, Zhongyi Wu, Yu Song, Xianglong Liu, Haode Liu, and Haozhi Zhang, China Urban Sustainable Transport Research Center, China Academy of Transportation Sciences, Ministry of Transport, Beijing 100029, China, 2013,
- Digital Transformation of Railway, Jana Pieriegud Department of Transport SGH Warsaw School of Economics, 2018