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Biodiversity and the big picture

Real Conversations podcast | S5 E21 | November 9, 2023


Pia Tanskanen is Head of Environment at Nokia. She is responsible for the environmental strategy, climate, circular and biodiversity programs, and environmental management systems. 

Everything in the world is connected and nothing works in isolation. Against this broad backdrop Nokia’s own engineer turned environmental crusader, Pia Tanskanen, discusses biodiversity and the big picture.

Below is a transcript of this podcast. Some parts have been edited for clarity.


Michael Hainsworth: Technology has a place in saving the planet. Much like the circular nature of a natural ecosystem, our industrial and enterprise ecosystems need to look at Environmental, Social, and Governance issues with a 360-degree digital view. Pia Tanskanen is the head of Environment at Nokia’s ESG division and tells me it’s important to cooperate with suppliers to ensure we’re meeting our ESG goals. We began our conversation by talking about her 20-year evolution from engineer to environmental crusader.

Pia Tanskanen: It actually was my second job after graduating from university when I got to work on a project that included recycling of industrial and electronic equipment,and I thought, "Wow, that's really interesting." And I found out there's something more purposeful in that kind of a project compared to the ones I did before, so something that was not really the result of the project was really important even 20 years after. It was really a big purpose and working not only for one project but for the bigger purpose.

MH: Is there a lot more tied between engineering and protecting the environment than one might think at first blush?

PT: Definitely, there is. Environment is related to everything that we do, so looking at all the engineering processes and products that we are designing, manufacturing, and using, there's always an aspect of environment in all of that. So, it's actually really connected.

MH: And tell me about that because we now have a term that I don't think we used 20 years ago or so when you first got into this world called the circular economy, and we're just starting to understand how everything is connected to everything else.

PT: Everything is connected, and that's one of my favorite topics to think about. Things are not working in isolation. Everything is about systemic changes that need to happen. And it's also, when we look at environmental impacts, it's not only about materials or energy but everything is also related to biodiversity, the air, and climate change. So, this is important to understand how we are talking about these connected impacts if you wish.

MH: So give me some examples of how that works and how one thing feeds into another, and ultimately, your role at Nokia.

PT: Right. One example could be we are looking at when we make a brand-new technology. Let's say, in the future, 6G products, and we look at how can we make those products from the recycled materials. Materials that were used somewhere else before the brand new 6G product. So, using this recycled, let's say aluminum, means big savings on energy usage; it's much more energy efficient to use recycled content than start using virgin materials. There's a positive impact on biodiversity or protecting the biodiversity; we don't need to open new mines. And then, from geodiversity to material availability, we are using something we already have in our society. So really, a good example of one practical action is making design changes that will have a positive impact on different environmental aspects.

MH: It's the fact that we really have only one planet, an increasing population, an increasing need for the production of goods and services. But at the end of the day, it's not just about making a widget; it's about making the world a better place so that we can enjoy living in it.

PT: That's exactly how it is. And is it always that we need to have more products, or can we actually have access to services? And this is what digitalization can bring. We get access to products and services that we need at that time, but maybe we can do that in the way that we are using our resources in a more efficient way. Sharing a car, for example, is a very simple example of being able to get from place A to place B just using transportation. You don't really need to have a car, but you need to get from one place to another.

MH: How can next-generation networks and that digitalization, as you talk about, protect and restore biodiversity?

PT: When we really look at the state of the nature and biodiversity topics, it’s about the first thing we need to know is understand the changes that are happening there. And in practice, this means observing, really understanding what happens in a longer timescale. This is where digitalization and different sensors, and artificial intelligence come into the picture. We need to be able to track changes that we see around us in nature, and this would be very difficult if we need to do that manually. I mean sitting somewhere in the forest and just following what's happening. Instead, we make technology do the same thing for us.

MH: I guess the idea is you could send somebody out into the forest to count the number of trees, but if you could digitalize that process, you could catch the fine-tune changes much more quickly than sending someone out on a daily, weekly, or monthly basis.

PT: And not only on a monthly basis, but on a yearly basis, and this is because the changes sometimes can be rather slow, and we need to do that in a big scale. And the scale is something that, with any digitalization, that's the big potential; we can scale up things so fast and so efficiently.

MH: We have data that takes us back to the First Industrial Revolution, but it's so sketchy by comparison. If we just had those internet of thing widgets back more than 100 years ago, we would've had a much better sense of the impact we were having on the planet so much sooner.

PT: That's also a very good point. Data, data, data, that's what we always say. Data helps us to improve. And it's without data, you can't manage all these business realities that are there. You need to understand the data, you need to be able to track what you do, and then to be able to react faster. And I've been, sometimes, talking about if you like to lose weight, it could be weight for yourself or for any materials you're using, for example, you're not going on the scale once a year or once in 10 years, you need to go there every day. And this is the same thing. We need to be able to access the data all the time, and that's how we can react quickly.

MH: Yeah, I don't know if you've been peeking into my cell phone or something, but I've got one of those smart scales, and I'm trying to lose some weight, and I'm being able to digitalize that experience and graph how I'm doing and then layer that graph on top of other things like, well, what foods am I eating? How often am I going for a walk? Am I getting up off the chair often enough? And so what you're suggesting is that this is the same thing, but on a planetary scale.

PT: On a planetary or industrial scale. So exactly, maybe next time you try to buy some ice cream, your credit card won’t work because your data's saying ,"Okay, your weight is going up, so you can't buy ice cream." So, it's really the similar things that will happen automatically. We are able to track industrial processes. Like if you have a big process for manufacturing something and all of a sudden something starts to go wrong, do you want to wait for two weeks to produce something that is not good, and then you just end up getting a lot of waste? Why wouldn't you rather react immediately when you have this information in your hands? And it's really about all of this: having data, being able to analyze that quickly, and being able to react, which means that we can use our resources more efficiently.

MH: So if there's no green without digital, how is Nokia reducing its environmental impact through its own operations?

PT: We talk about this handprint and footprint. First of all, digitalization can help other industries and societies and individuals to be more resource efficient, more green. But then, of course, we need to look at the footprint. How do we minimize all this using communication equipment, telecommunications, and ICT? And we always have this thinking that we need to look at the whole value chain. You can't really just set boundaries around your own factory or your own office, but look at the whole value chain. What kind of components do we buy from our suppliers, how do we design our products, what kind of metals we use? I was talking about the recycled content. And how do we operate in our own offices, laboratories, and manufacturing sites? And then how our customers are using our products. How can we even take back obsolete products from our customers when they are modernizing their networks?

MH: Even when you think about how the factories work, something like green electricity and managing waste in the best possible ways. Do you have any quantitative results from the qualitative work you're doing right now?

PT: We do. When it comes to electricity usage, we are trying to use renewable electricity everywhere we can. We have set ourselves a target to use 100% green electricity across Nokia facilities in more than 100 countries by 2025, so pretty soon. Today, we are somewhere around. Last year, it was a bit more than 60%, and this year, it is a little bit higher, of course. The target is to use 100% green electricity by 2025. And with waste, we also have similar targets looking. How can we, first of all, minimize all the waste? That's, of course, the first priority, but then any waste that is created, we recycled, and reused, just to avoid land filling in different parts of our value chain.

MH: And so I can imagine you are applying a lot of the techniques that we've already discussed within your own operations to your point earlier about the importance of tracking things, how are you tracking to ensure that you're seeing improvement in every part of the process?

PT: We do really like digitalization, of course, that's our business. There, we have our own manufacturing sites where we are piloting all kinds of new technologies. And really, most of that is understanding all the different process steps and being able to track that all the time. A colleague of mine is saying that even when he's at his summer cottage, he can pick up his mobile phone, see how the process is running, how the factory is operating, and this can then be transferred to our supplier factories. We know how to set the parameters, what could go wrong, and then we are able to follow all these things all the time.

MH: This brings us back to that idea of the circular economy that not only do you need to do what you can to improve your own processes and reduce waste and reduce the carbon footprint within Nokia, but it only goes so far unless you're bringing the suppliers into that process as well and they are doing it too. Cooperation, I suppose, is the critical component.

PT: That's very critical. So, there's really no change probably without cooperation, and not only with our suppliers and with our customers, but also between different sectors. And we need to really have this systemic change when all the players in different parts of the world, in different sectors, in different parts of the value chain, work together and understand each other.

MH: Well, help me with that “understand each other” component. For anyone listening to this conversation who recognizes the importance of reducing their own carbon footprint through their ESG programs and working with their own suppliers as well, what about standardization of processes and standardization of all these different elements to ensure that everybody's speaking the same language?

PT: That's so important, and interestingly, every day, I have these challenges. Even with the climate language, where we have pretty good systems already existing, people know about scope 1, 2, and 3 emissions. Nowadays, everybody understands even the different subcategories under these emission scopes. But then, each time we bring in different acronyms, we bring in different definitions, but not always have the same understanding of boundaries. I recently discussed the term emission factor and found out that actually, the other party I was talking to did have a different understanding of that. And I was rather surprised because I was thinking this is something we all understand and know, but you always need to be; actually, it's important to ask the question and say, "What do you really mean by this?" Even though you think the term is well known and everybody is using the same one.

MH: So we understand the value of ESG programs to the environments, the E of ESG, but what about the economic and social benefits to your work?

PT: Economic, that's very important because if we want to scale up our changes and make the changes permanent, there needs to be economic and social benefit as well. Economics, in most cases, environmental programs really make sense business-wise. Simply using things more efficiently, being more productive makes good business sense since you improve your bottom line. And also with social things. Today, people like to work with companies that have good ESG practices. You need to be a good corporate citizen, but it's working in a smarter way that you also improve equality, access to information, and all the things that are important for other people in society.

MH: To what do you attribute that? You've got a 20-year view of how this has evolved over the last two decades or so, is it the younger generation coming into the corporate world who are the ones who are putting their foot down saying, "I believe that this is important and therefore I will only work for companies that agree with my view?"

PT: I hear that a lot, but also from the top management, getting new CEOs, for example, this is quite often the discussion with some stakeholders may start like saying, "Hey, we got a new CEO who really wants to make a change here," so it's quite a lot of new generation coming up, understanding this is important, setting goals for the companies. But it's also the whole, for everybody, people understanding why this makes sense. We are using everything that we see around us built using natural resources if we really think about it. Sometimes, walking in the city, you only see concrete; you see machines, not so much of nature, but even telecommunications; all the materials are really coming from nature. It's the minerals and metals and all that. Everything we have here is based on the natural resources. Understanding that fact, I think people start to change their mindset, thinking, "Okay, we need to be cleverer of how we use these resources that we have."

MH: And what's interesting to me, particularly about what you're doing at Nokia, is that you could have just focused on your factories and your suppliers' factories and that sort of thing, but you're using these networks and leveraging the technology to help create a more sustainable environment and protect biodiversity by working with organizations I would never have expected, like non-government organizations. Tell me about the NGO experience.

PT: Right, and that's the interesting part because we believe that technology really can help to solve these big challenges that we have in the world, like how can we use the resources in a more efficient way? But we are not in the business of, let's say, protecting oceans. And that's why, working with NGOs, we can connect with people who know really what is needed to take those actions to the next level. So working with people who really know their business then helps us develop our services, our connectivity offerings, for the good of the, let's say, in this case, ocean protection.

MH: So you're working with an NGO focused on protecting the sea because this is just part of the larger mandate of your organization and your specific division to help make the world a better place. Because I would've assumed you'd want to protect the forests, you'd want to protect the air, but the sea is often the one that gets left out in many people's thinking.

PT: Right, but the sea is a big part of climate change mitigation activities. It absorbs carbon dioxide, similar to the leaves and the green trees we see around us. The whole world is working in a balance and the more we seek that balance, the more we see unexpected outcomes that may not be very pleasant ones. So it's really the big balance of different parts of nature that is important.

MH: For a listener who recognizes the importance of ESG but is having difficulty either getting the top brass to come on board with this or doesn't know where to begin, what's your takeaway from this conversation today? What should they be walking away from this conversation, remembering most?

PT: Just do it. Start somewhere. Start today. And like they say, you do something for 60 days, it becomes a habit. And it's really the saying, don't just wait and think, but start somewhere, and this is how you learn from starting from somewhere.

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