Syed Abbas started thinking a lot about the climate in 2018. That he did so wasn’t a coincidence — it was the summer the climate strikes were taking place and for the first time, he and his team really started to notice the big movement happening all around them.
With over twenty years working in software, Syed and his team at 2Cimple started looking for an app to help them monitor their own carbon consumption. What they were looking for was roughly equivalent to “the health app on the iPhone that counts your steps — something that would record and capture some of our activities to protect the environment.” But they came up short: such an app didn’t exist.
It struck them that they might have to develop the app themselves. Working in the area they did – video business, shopping and entertainment – they were aware of just how much carbon data consumption generated. As Syed told me, most people underestimate the environmental impact of video consumption.
Did you know, he asked me, that carbon emission through data consumption is going to be far bigger than that caused by the airline industry? He calculates that a person watching a one and a half hour movie on Netflix in a 4K stream would consume about 10 gigabytes of data — this would generate 31,000 grams of carbon just by watching one film. This is a big deal, since three quarters of internet use is spent watching videos. “But people are just not aware of this. Syed decided he wanted to focus on carbon avoidance and reduce carbon creation through consumption.
In 2018, they devised the idea for Nano – an app that would gamify environmentally sustainable behaviour, giving people points for carrying out eco-tasks like recycling or cycling to work instead of driving there. It took about a year to build a functional platform and they did a test launch during a 2019 scout jamboree where they found it was really well received. The app has gone on to have an active user base and appeals to users of a wide range of ages, from 13 years old to much more mature players.
Syed notes the success of the app probably has something to do with the dopamine hit it elicits: “You know, if you give a dollar to charity, you feel good. It’s similar here: whenever you say, I’m not going to drink water from a single-use plastic bottle and you record you saved 80 grams of carbon, or refuse a plastic bag when you go to the grocery store, you feel good. You know you’re really contributing.”
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Syed hopes that if everybody downloaded the app and started doing these little eco-tasks, the world could be a better place. “Nano is really about behavioural change. We want to be going out of business in the next ten years because the world’s population would have changed their behavior towards the climate, therefore our focus will be directed to a new challenge.”
Syed believes startups are well placed to tackle issues of sustainability. “They can be bold, they can take chances, they’re small, nimble and so they can always change their course. Large companies might not be able to take a lot of chances because they’re afraid: what if this does not work? What kind of reputation will I have? What kind of press will they write about us? But startups have none of this baggage and they can be fearless and they can really try things out.”
What’s more, he believes that it’s an area of vast opportunity that startups should tap into. Firstly, he cites Gen Z (“famously passionate about social and climate issues”) who he claims have a spending power of about 145 billion dollars in the U.S. Then, he suggests looking at what big companies are doing.
“Look at Unilever – they’re the first company in the world to start to put carbon labels on their products, similar to the ones you see on a cereal box, what kind of calories and sugar are in it. You see Jeff Bezos committing $10 billion of his own money towards the climate. You see Amazon committing $2 billion to their Climate Pledge Fund. You see Microsoft committing a billion dollars. You see governments putting in a lot of money — Biden has a plan to spend $2 trillion on his climate plan. Unilever did a study along with others showing that the sustainability market is going to be worth close to 12 trillion dollars over the next 10-15 years. It will also be adding close to 300 million jobs. It’s a great opportunity in our view that companies can find a niche, find a problem they can solve and they can definitely make money and they can feel good, also.”
But it’s not all sunshine and butterflies. Syed points out that companies are being placed under an immense pressure by investors, customers and employees to do something tangible to prevent climate change and to ensure that the action they take is substantial enough to avoid accusations of greenwashing.
He notes the example of BlackRock, the largest investment institution in the world, replacing 53 CEOs and board members because these companies were making insufficient progress in integrating climate risk into their business models or disclosures. Syed also refers to the walkout of Amazon employees in 2019 as part of the climate march.
“So companies are under tremendous pressure and they really need a third party tool that would help engage employees, engage customers with a tool and have them record what activities they are doing to help the planet.” He suggests Nano could work both to educate employees and create a concrete record of sustainable behaviour that could be useful for corporate social responsibility texts or annual reports. “This data can be used as third party data that can be used to communicate to all their stakeholders. We really see there’s a huge issue that we can definitely help enterprises to solve.”
Syed thinks it’s important for companies to help one another, and wants to give his version of an Oscar speech shoutout to two companies in particular – Deutsche Telekom (we swear we didn’t pressure him for this answer!) and Amazon. He cites the hubraum sustainability award Nano won as vital to his company having provided them with a global platform to increase awareness about CO2 emissions from consumption, especially due to data usage.
This award also connected them to Patrick Wierschem at Deutsche Telekom. “There are about three and a half billion people in the world who have smartphones, consuming maybe 1 gigabyte’s worth of data a day. Do the maths. Simply using a phone is creating 10 million tonnes of carbon every single day. That’s why we’re passionate about working with them and being a partner in helping to reduce carbon consumption for data utilisation.”
He also stresses Amazon has been important in supporting them and helping them gain confidence. He’s especially grateful for having been connected to Ana Pinheiro Privette and the Amazon Sustainability Data Initiative. “They have provided us with cloud grants, promotion and have also made very critical large climate datasets available to us and everyone. These are datasets that aren’t easily accessible and which require a lot of energy consumption to compute and to store.”
However, Syed is clear on one thing: companies can’t do it alone, consumers need to step up, too. “If you are not willing to wait for your Amazon delivery two more days and if you’re going to order two dollars’ worth of products but you need it today or tomorrow, you are also responsible for creating a lot of mess.
If you are watching content on your mobile phone, why do you really need 1080 pixel video resolution? The more data you use, the more carbon you create. I think what we need is the realisation that people have to start taking the consumption part of carbon creation seriously in order to protect the environment.”
Syed Abbas answered the question of “What is the next big thing in green tech?” alongside Julia Profeta Johansson from Remagine, Melanie Kubin-Hardewig from Deutsche Telekom and Marcin Maciejewski from hubraum at the hubraum on air event on February 25th. Check out the replay here.
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