From the mag: Ericsson's Heather Johnson on transforming society through tech while supporting sustainability

Can technology be a net positive for society? Can sustainability and business co-exist? Yes, says Heather Johnson, Ericsson vice president for sustainability and corporate responsibility.
Heather Johnson, Sustainability, Society, Tech, Tech for good, Environment, Ericsson, Business, Equality, Innovation

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Ericsson's Heather Johnson. Photo credit: Per Myrehed AB

A version of this story appears in the April 2019 print issue of CommsMEA.

We all know the importance of sustainability. Likewise, we’ve all heard companies talk about how important sustainability is to them; seriously, it just might be the most popular topic for them to talk about beyond whatever it is they might be doing with new technologies.

But few companies – especially in the telecommunications and technology sectors – are doing quite as much when it comes to sustainability as Ericsson is.

A key part of those efforts is the work of Heather Johnson. Vice president for sustainability and corporate responsibility for Ericsson around the world, she has a special focus on advocating the role that Information and Communication Technology (ICT) can play in addressing global sustainable development challenges in areas such as access to education, climate change, and humanitarian responses and preparedness. She manages relationships with key sustainability stakeholders, including investors, the United Nations and other international organisations, non-governmental organisations (NGOs), and partnerships including the World Economic Forum (WEF).

And it doesn’t end there. A former pharmaceutical industry veteran, in 2011 Johnson was responsible for the launch of the Technology for Good platform, which focuses on the use of Ericsson’s core technology in public-private partnerships to solve some of the world’s most compelling challenges and help to achieve the UN’s Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). If that’s not enough, her portfolio also includes Ericsson’s flagship Technology for Good programmes, Ericsson Response and Connect to Learn.

Translation: you’ll have a hard time finding anyone with more experience with tech and sustainability than Johnson.

But she says sustainability is really something any organisation can dedicate itself to – and Ericsson is proof of that.

“In general, we think our technology is a net positive for society,” she explains.

“And we work to make sure it is.”

Examples for using tech as a net positive that Ericsson has been involved with include helping set up temporary mobile networks during crisis and disasters, such as the late 2013-2016 West Africa Ebola outbreak, when Hurricane Maria devastated Puerto Rico last year, and continuing to deliver mission-critical applications to UN peacekeepers.

“The interesting thing is the impetus came [for some of these] from employees,” Johnson notes, adding employees can push their organisations to affect positive change and take action – and that it would behove organisations to listen.

A reason for that, Johnson says, is that when we’re talking about sustainability, sometimes the simplest or smallest changes can be among the most effective. For example, she points out, we don’t need to print CDs or DVDs – we can simply stream music or video content.

“That’s [the kind of simple solution that] can make exponential change.”

Another key for positive change and sustainability: partnerships.

Yes, the line has been repeated time and time again. But Johnson says it needs to be repeated over, and over, and over – until something is really done. “No one can do it alone.”

Another oft-heard line: sustainability is bigger than business. After all, we all know we only have one planet. But the two can also run hand-in-hand. Johnson is adamant about that

“These really are global goals,” she explains.

“They’re the same in Dubai, in Kigali, in Stockholm, in Seattle. We need to catalyse action.”

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