AWS Public Sector Blog

Collaborating for sustainability: How higher education and cloud providers foster change

Sustainability, planetary health, and climate action have become priority topics within governments and organizations of all sizes, with universities playing a pivotal role to inspire and empower the future generations.

On the journey of finding answers and solutions to address global sustainability challenges, universities are integral in delivering ground-breaking knowledge and scientific advancements. Collaborating with industry can in turn accelerate innovation through to practical implementation.

Arizona State University (ASU) is an example of focused thought-leadership, with President Michael M. Crow declaring, “In a world of exponential change, unparalleled technological advancement and persistent inequality, institutions dedicated to knowledge creation have a critical responsibility to help forge a better future.”

ASU’s focus on thought leadership and innovation hasn’t gone unrecognized, with the university being ranked first for innovation in the USA for the eighth year in a row in the annual Best Colleges rankings by U.S. News & World Report.

Innovation is essential in developing solutions that address global sustainability challenges. Fostering innovation means creating the right environment with supporting processes that enable university researchers, students, and external partners to engage effectively. ASU and Amazon Web Services (AWS) have been effective in joining forces to drive innovation and impact through the creation of ASU’s Smart City Cloud Innovation Center (CIC).

The relationship between a cloud services provider, academia, and students, has led to innovative solutions to address sustainability challenges in the Phoenix metro area and beyond. One notable project extended its impact to the Municipality of eThekwini, which includes the City of Durban and surrounding towns in South Africa, where water scarcity threatened the population.

The CIC team employed the customer-centric innovation process, which starts with a deep understanding of the customer and its needs. This process is at the heart of the Amazon’s innovation processes and ASU has successfully adopted it as part of its CIC working practices and utilized it in the case of eThekwini’s water challenge. The municipality’s water resilience issues derived not only from water scarcity, but were also exacerbated by a growing population and aging infrastructure.

Furthermore, the Municipality of eThekwini, multiple sources of siloed, non-standardized data made it difficult to respond and to plan for strategic action. A central element of the proposed solution was to create a data platform that centralized and standardized all data. At the core of this solution is a data lake supported by the scalability of the Amazon Simple Storage Service (Amazon S3) and Amazon QuickSight for data integration and business intelligence insights.

The outcome of this innovation helped city officials to understand the causes of water losses, giving them the ability to take strategic action to reduce them, along with addressing future challenges. This case exemplifies the power of technology, cross-industry collaboration, and cross-geo collaborations in generating impactful results, specifically the introduction of water conservation practices for a geographical area susceptible to droughts and critical water shortages.

Data-driven innovation for sustainable development

Data and digital technology can create a pathway to data-driven decision-making, assisting in addressing not just existing obstacles but also proactively identifying and managing environmental risks. An important development in this regard is the application of digital twin technology, which uses aggregated datasets to visualize anything from buildings and systems to entire ecosystems and habitats to accelerate scientific research and facilitates scenario modelling, as has been the case with the Natural History Museum in the UK.

The ASU CIC has also been exploring the use of digital twin technology and developed a digital twin platform for Downtown Phoenix, Inc. to both assist in visualization of what exists today—from buildings, to business and traffic—and to enable data-driven decision making for investments that support a sustainable future for the city’s constituents. The digital twin solution allows for analysis and simulations of policy and investment and is being used to guide decisions with sustainability in mind, modelling additions like pedestrian-friendly streets or bike lanes.

ASU CIC projects exemplify collaborative action, with technology and innovation expertise fostering community engagement and tackling the city’s and region’s pressing challenges.

Empowering experiential learning

While the ASU CIC projects are powered by AWS, they are driven by ASU researchers and students. The direct involvement of students in these real-world projects provides an opportunity for experiential learning. Students develop not just technical skills, but also learn how to create methods for innovation and deliver impactful solutions. This enriches the student learning experience well beyond the classroom.

“Being part of the ASU Smart Cloud Innovation Center has been an eye-opening experience. Collaborating with AWS and other partners to tackle sustainability and other challenges has shown me the power of technology in making a real difference in our community. It’s truly empowering to know that our efforts as students can have such a positive impact on the environment and pave the way for a more sustainable future. I believe embracing digital technology is essential in accelerating our path towards a greener world.”

 -Nilo Exar, ASU Student

Tackling complex challenges of environmental sustainability requires collaborative efforts spanning multiple-disciplines and those between higher education institutions and technology companies are proving particularly fruitful. Embracing digital technology and data-driven decision is integral in this pursuit, as is active involvement of the current generation in finding solutions for lasting impact. Through the development of new and innovative solutions, and by harnessing the power of technology, we can create a positive impact on the environment and pave a way for a more sustainable future.

As institutions of higher education continue their journey in shaping minds and acting as an innovation hub, the use of digital technology is essential in finding solutions to accelerate the sustainability journey.

Learn more about how education customers are using AWS services and how AWS is enabling sustainable solutions.

Read more about AWS collaborating with institutes of higher education for sustainability:

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Professor Brian MacCraith

Professor Brian MacCraith

Professor Brian MacCraith is senior adviser to the president of Arizona State University (ASU). His responsibilities include the development of European initiatives, support for the University Design Institute especially in the area of sustainability, and a Professor of Practice position in the College of Global Futures. Prior to this ASU role, he was president of Dublin City University (2010–2020), during which time the university underwent major transformation and grew significantly in terms of scale, footprint, and reputation. DCU developed major academic and research partnerships across the globe and was ranked consistently as one of the world’s leading young universities. Professor MacCraith is internationally renowned for his research achievements in the areas of chemical and bio-sensor technology, photonics, and advanced materials. In 2020, he was appointed by the Irish government to lead the High-Level Task Force on Covid-19 Vaccination. He is currently Chair of the External Oversight Body of the Irish Defence Forces.

Neelima Kadirisani

Neelima Kadirisani

Neelima Kadirisani currently serves as senior sustainability business development manager at Amazon Web Services (AWS). She is supporting public sector customers in accelerating sustainable development using cloud technologies, across Europe, Middle East, and Africa. With a background in sustainability leadership roles across multiple industries, Neelima specializes in carbon emissions reduction, circular economy solutions, and environmental and social product lifecycle assessment.

Wendy Corns

Wendy Corns

Wendy is a global business development lead and a member of the Environment Sustainability Technical Field Community at Amazon Web Services (AWS). Wendy assists education organisations in adopting cloud technology and achieving their digital transformation goals, for the benefit of their organisation and the student community.