ECS Panel
  • Published on 08 Jan 2020
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Start-ups, data and the role of society: ECS enabling sustainability

Start-ups, data and the role of society: ECS enabling sustainability

At EFECS 2019, representatives from agriculture, healthcare and energy delivered speeches on the theme of sustainability, including its environmental, economic and technological dimensions. From data privacy to cross-sector collaboration, they highlighted what they’re currently working on, what is most important to them and why this requires the help of the entire ECS community.

Involvement from the earliest stages

“Agriculture is a very old profession, but we’re not old-fashioned,” begins Max Schulman, owner of Stor-Tötar farm and an advisor for the Central Union of Agricultural Producers and Forest Owners. “Society is trying to become more sustainable in many ways and so we’re looking into precision farming and digitalisation through smart applications. We already have the hardware, like tractors, but we’re missing interconnectivity. A lot of information from outside cannot easily be tapped into.”

He mentions matching his own data from the field with weather data as one area in which farming can be made more efficient and thus more sustainable. This issue extends beyond agriculture, however. Healthcare, for instance, can benefit from the nutrition expertise of farmers, who in turn can find use for on-site electricity production. “We need to make sure that data can flow quickly between actors: a ValueNet that brings together agriculture, health and energy,” Max explains.

“We’ve started to work on a Code of Conduct on European Agricultural Data Sharing, which will allow the first flows of data. We sat down with some of the main actors in the field to talk about the obstacles and opportunities and there were very few places where we had to agree to disagree. It’s slowly moving forward and we feel quite comfortable with it, but we need your help as we’re only scratching the surface.”

In some ways, agriculture is at a disadvantage: when questions of digitalisation arise, many people’s thoughts turn to manufacturing or automotive long before they consider farming applications. This is something Max would like to change. “We are very seldom asked to join in at the beginning of projects,” he points out. “Often, people come to us and say, ‘this is what we have, what will you do with it?’ We want to make sure that we’re involved from the idea onwards. You’ll see that we’re easy guys to work with! We love technology, both hardware and software. The main thing is to show how it can make our lives easier or bring us benefits, then we’ll adapt to it. Seeing is believing.”

From sickcare to healthcare

On that note, Theo Ruers takes the floor. As Head of Surgical Oncology at the Netherlands Cancer Institute, he outlines why current modes of healthcare need to change. “37% of the population has the chance of reaching 85. Already, more than 50% of people have at least one chronic disease such as dementia or diabetes.” As the former figure rises, so too will the latter. Health costs in Western Europe are thus expected to rise by over USD 500 billion between 2017 and 2022, which will almost certainly prove unsustainable in the long run.

“We have to change from ‘sickcare’ to healthcare,” continues Theo. “70% of healthcare costs are caused by cardiovascular disease, diabetes and cancer. We know that the indicators for the first two are weight, glucose, blood pressure and cholesterol, all of which we can measure. For cancer, we can start screening programmes, which are far more effective than the medial treatments we spend billions on. We’re moving into personalised medicine. But we need a couple of enablers: AI, digital health, big data and sensor technology.”

Security and privacy are key topics to consider here, especially in the wake of 2018’s General Data Protection Regulation. “It’s important that we protect our data,” notes Theo, “but we’re facing enormous problems. It’s difficult to get clearance to share data even between hospitals for scientific research. To evaluate our results, we have to go to a general board to ask whether we may analyse our own data. That’s not what the GDPR is supposed to be for. I understand why it’s there, but we need to reflect further in this particular sector.”

In any case, the digitalisation of healthcare is a long-term project: in order to make the biggest impacts with these technologies, the current generation of 50 to 60-year-olds must be educated in them before they reach the age at which they need them. The benefits apply to both patients and staff. Sensor monitoring in the home, for instance, allows individuals to live independently for longer; data algorithms, meanwhile, help medical personnel to manage their time and provide a higher standard of care. “The most important thing is to make the technology intuitive,” adds Theo. “It’s just a matter of which organisations will strive to do the best job and win.”

The bottom-up factor

The third speaker is Thomas Hammer, Senior Principal Research Scientist for Energy Systems at Siemens, who begins with a reflection on the Paris Agreement. “If we are to reach the 1.5 degrees target, we are going to need to reduce CO2 emissions very quickly. At some point between 2060 and 2080, we will also have to remove CO2 from the atmosphere. Every additional tonne of CO2 that we emit today will need to be removed in order to maintain a lively planet, so there’s a long way to go.”

For Thomas, the energy system of the future needs to be multimodal, flexible, decentralised and digital. The first challenge is smart, efficient energy conversion and storage components – after all, he reminds the audience, “if an energy system in a hospital becomes corrupted, you are gone.” Stable, resilient on-site energy systems and secure transmission and distribution grids also pose difficulties. “Is this really the market for electronics? Between now and 2050, 13.3 trillion dollars will be invested and a major fraction of that will be in inverter-based power generation like solar and wind. We need to address these technologies early on and in a long-term strategy.”

Throughout the conference, participation frequently emerged as an important theme. This applies not only to partners within projects but to society as a whole: how do we guarantee the involvement and uptake of users? “We can only get society behind us when it sees that there are certain benefits,” says Thomas, providing an example of his own experience in a bottom-up project. “There was a small village in which the population decided that they needed to have a renewable energy system. They understood the long-term value of sustainability, and electricity providers also saw that they had something to gain from being involved. Nothing will work if people are asked to take part but don’t see a benefit.”

He’s also keen to note the increasingly important role that start-ups can play in all of this. “A good example is aggregators, which don’t need a lot of investments but do need digital technologies. Start-ups are playing a role in the market by aggregating the energy from solar plants in order to allow 24-hour scheduling, for example. But when it comes to regional energy systems, the investments are so large that you also need to involve established companies.” With its mix of players from all sections of the value chain, EFECS 2019 certainly proved the ideal place for such collaborations to arise and grow.