Interview Of The Week

Interview Of The Week: Helen Burdett, Climate And Tech Expert

Helen Burdett is responsible for work at the nexus of nature, climate, and technology at the World Economic Forum. Her work bridges the organization’s Centres for the Fourth Industrial Revolution and for Nature and Climate, including initiatives focused on Tech for Climate Adaptation and Earth Observation. In addition to her academic and research background at Georgetown University, Helen has over ten years of experience in strategy and operations consulting, international development, and software development. Prior to joining the Forum, she was a Director at Globality, a SoftBank-funded scale-up bringing digital transformation and artificial intelligence to the procurement industry. She recently spoke to The Innovator about tech and innovation’s role in the climate crisis.

Q What is tech’s role in climate adaption and what is the connection with business?

HB: Climate and weather-related disasters have surged over the last 50 years, peaking at a five-fold increase in the first decade of this century. In that period, they have caused over 2 million deaths and $3.5 trillion in economic losses. A set of data-driven and digital technologies – all compatible with artificial intelligence – are emerging as mission-critical tools for climate adaptation. They provide leaders with new forms of intelligence to adapt and build resilience into their businesses and communities. Businesses can harness these technologies to not only mitigate emissions but also to enhance climate intelligence, form novel partnerships and tap into new markets for climate-resilient products and services.

At the Forum’s annual meeting in Davos, we published a report entitled “Innovation and Adaption In The Climate Crisis: Technology For The New Normal.” It outlines the roles that data-driven and digital technologies can play in supporting climate adaptation, from strengthening risk analytics and climate-proofing supply chains to powering R&D and discovery processes to yield the next generation of climate technologies. A complementary action toolkit to help leaders apply the report’s insights will launch in the coming months.

Q: What is the best way to do this?

HB: More and more businesses are waking up to the challenge of protecting against both sudden onset events and slow onset events. To do so, the first step is to more fully comprehend the risks associated with the impact of climate change. Leaders can apply technology to ask: What are the main risks we face and how vulnerable are we? What is the potential impact on our business, community and stakeholders and how do we quantify that impact? Advanced technologies have a remarkable ability to pick out anomalies and weak clues from huge amounts of data. They can help organizations see threats before they occur. Once the risks are understood, businesses can build resilience against future climate change impacts and unlock new opportunities. Then, when an extreme weather event occurs, leaders and their organizations are prepared to respond.

Technology is a critical tool across all three steps. For example, drones provide aerial data collection of physical assets to assess vulnerability, IoT technology can be used to network heat sensors to detect wildfires; satellite-enabled data collection can advance the scientific understanding of atmospheric conditions; cloud-based supercomputing can be used to power GPU-based climate models and make them accessible; and AI can be used to create digital twins for forecasting climatic conditions with greater resolution and for climate risk analysis.

As the report notes, AI can also be used to build resilient supply chains. According to a recent study by Oxford’s Environmental Change Institute, over $122 billion of economic activity -$81 billion in trade alone – is at risk from climate-induced impacts.  While climate-related optimization has mainly focused on emissions to date leaders can use the same approach to optimize for supply chain resilience.

Q: Are companies making the most of technology to identify, adapt and mitigate risks right now?

HB: Not yet, though many are gaining momentum. For example, Earth observation data and services have the potential to revolutionize the way we approach sustainable development and prepare for and respond to climate change, but its full potential remains largely unexplored. Today, more than 100 Terabytes of satellite imagery data are being collected daily and as decreased costs have led to more satellites; however, the usage of the data they collect is not keeping pace.

Mid-sized companies may not have the resources to go out and obtain every single data set that may pertain to their business, but they can start by using technology to understand their own operations. The first step is to digitize. That advice hasn’t changed in 30 years, and it is still relevant.

Q: Businesses are already struggling with becoming more sustainable. Is this a whole new category that needs to be placed on the C-Suite’s to-do list?

HB: As the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change points out in their 2023 Synthesis Report mitigation and adaption strategies are aligned. Many businesses are already beginning to integrate adaptation through their risk management approaches. For example, expanding renewable energy sources and improving energy efficiency can reduce vulnerabilities to energy-related disruptions during extreme weather events. Sustainable agriculture practices sequester carbon and improve soil health and water retention, making communities more resilient to drought. The point here is that applying technology to adaption and mitigation doesn’t add to the to-do list; it can streamline it.

However, technology is not a silver bullet. Complex climate challenges require expertise and resources from government, business, civil society, and academia. Collaboration among these groups will lead to more effective climate action and facilitate resource pooling. That is why the Tech for Climate Adaptation Working Group, hosted by the Forum’s Centre for the Fourth Industrial Revolution, includes leaders and experts from technology, industry, the public sector, academia, and civil society. We need to get everyone around the table.

Q: What would you like business leaders to take away from this interview?

HB: Businesses that recognize climate as a key risk often focus on responding to sudden-onset events. The idea we want to get across is that you can make decisions about how you run your business that make it more sustainable and more resilient by acknowledging climate change and preparing accordingly. To justify the substantial investments that resilience requires, businesses need to be able to calculate the cost of inaction. Technology can help you get there. Science is aligned. Changes are coming. There is an opportunity to position your business on the side that is prepared for that. The future of leadership belongs to those who see mitigating and adapting to climate change not only as an obligation, but as a catalyst for transformation.



About the author

Jennifer L. Schenker

Jennifer L. Schenker, an award-winning journalist, has been covering the global tech industry from Europe since 1985, working full-time, at various points in her career for the Wall Street Journal Europe, Time Magazine, International Herald Tribune, Red Herring and BusinessWeek. She is currently the editor-in-chief of The Innovator, an English-language global publication about the digital transformation of business. Jennifer was voted one of the 50 most inspiring women in technology in Europe in 2015 and 2016 and was named by Forbes Magazine in 2018 as one of the 30 women leaders disrupting tech in France. She has been a World Economic Forum Tech Pioneers judge for 20 years. She lives in Paris and has dual U.S. and French citizenship.