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Can technology and innovation drive sport sustainability?

March 21 2024

As sport continues its mission to make the industry more sustainable, clubs, organisations and businesses are increasingly using technology to tackle some of the sector’s biggest sustainability challenges, from events to venues to fan behaviour.

Can technology and innovation drive sport sustainability?

Science, innovation and technology have always played a role in sport, from the development of high-performance kit to monitoring athlete health.

But now technology is being used to address some of the industry’s biggest sustainability problems, from elite sports to grassroots initiatives.

This includes developing new materials to improve kit and equipment, using solar technology to improve energy efficiency in stadia and venues, and using digital platforms and apps to track carbon emissions, optimise waste, and encourage sustainable behaviour.

Stakeholders in the industry are increasingly aware of the importance of tech and innovation for sustainability challenges, and more and more businesses – from major corporations to tech start-ups – are developing tech solutions that could accelerate the industry’s transition to more sustainable ways of working.

Last year, major industry gathering Global Sports Week collaborated with VivaTech, Europe’s biggest start-up and tech event, to hold a conference dedicated to exploring the overlap between climate tech and sport.

Cedric Girard, Managing Director of Global Sports Week, told Global Sustainable Sport last June that “technology brings brand new possibilities for people to connect and organise – this does not just extent to new ways of managing waste, energy, and transport but also areas where technology may not seem to be the most obvious solution”.

So what are some of the main areas where technology can help drive sustainability in sport – and what does the industry need to do to make sure tech is being put to best use?

Reducing energy, water and waste

One major way that technology can be used to drive sustainable sport is by powering more environmentally friendly venues.

Solar technology, for example, is increasingly used in stadia across the world to generate a venue’s electricity needs and reduce reliance on fossil fuels.

Hundreds of venues are making use of solar technology that is increasingly energy efficient and affordable.

Earlier this year, the newly named Utilita Bowl in the UK city of Southampton announced plans to become cricket’s ‘greenest’ ground by installing more than 1,000 solar panels, which will generate around 25% of the stadium’s electricity and reduce annual carbon emissions by up to 80 tonnes.

There are countless examples of increasing use of the technology: Dutch football team Ajax’s Johan Cruijff Arena is powered by more than 4,200 rooftop solar panels. In the US, 32% of NFL stadia are powered using solar energy, while 30% of MLB and NBA venues also make use of the technology.

Meanwhile, the Olympic Aquatic Centre in Seine-Saint-Denis, which will be used for this year’s Games in Paris, has over 4,680m2 of photovoltaic panels installed on its roof, making it one of the largest urban solar farms in France.

But solar isn’t the only technology improving the sustainability of venues. Data-driven tools and systems can also reduce waste, optimise water use, and improve recycling.

Increasingly, start-ups and small businesses are developing technological solutions to more specific challenges.

One example is E-Nano, a start-up founded in 2020 by four engineers that uses robotics and AI to enhance sports playing surfaces and cut energy and water use in the process.

“I’d say technology and data play an important role when it comes to resource optimisation in the context of sport facility maintenance,” Erwann Lompech-Leneveu, Founder and Chief Executive of E-Nano, tells Global Sustainable Sport.

Many other start-ups are addressing specific needs, such as DrainTalent, a circular soil management system, and SecondSun, a sun reflector system that enhances grass growth.

As sport develops an increased awareness of its carbon footprint and its highest sources of emissions and waste, smart use of technology can help clubs and venues drive these levels down.

Improving kit & materials

As well as venues, sports kit, materials, and equipment are also a major source of emissions – and an area where there’s plenty of room for innovation.

From sailing to motor racing to skiing, developments in low-carbon materials are reducing energy use, as well as driving a more circular economy in kit and equipment.

In marine sports, the Sustainable Marine Alliance and The Ocean Race have collaborated on research into sustainable boat building, which considers alternative, more circular materials for use on boat builds.

Meanwhile, Formula E’s Gen3 car features tyres made with 25% recycled materials and a chassis made from carbon fibre re-used from the Gen2 vehicle.

Sports kit and equipment has often relied on non-recyclable, high-impact materials like plastics and metals, but research into materials such as recycled composites and eco-friendly resins means that more circular equipment is on the horizon.

Football boots, skis, and tennis balls have all benefited from the development of these new technologies in a sporting context.

Digital solutions for fans and grassroots sport

Digital technology can further support a more sustainable sports industry, and an increasing number of apps and platforms are promoting more sustainable behaviour.

Apps to track travel routes, carbon emissions, and fan actions are on the rise. In January, English Championship football club Watford FC announced a collaboration with sustainability platform Lowr on a new app feature to track fan travel. By tracking fan routes, the app will present the club with useful data on its fans’ travel – which falls into its Scope 3 emissions – and also provides incentives for fans to take public transport.

Meanwhile, events, venues, and organisations can now use platforms like You.Smart.Thing., a travel demand management platform, to create curated travel plans for fans.

Digital technology gives clubs and organisations the opportunity to capture key data that can go on to inform their sustainability strategies.

“Data capture is essential to understand the current situation in regard to sport sustainability, to devise meaningful initiatives and measure success,” Alex Townshend, Sustainability Consultant at You.Smart.Thing, tells Global Sustainable Sport.

Data gathering and digital technology can also be used at the grassroots level, and to inform social sustainability initiatives as well as carbon reduction.

For example, sustainable kit swapping platform Kidd3r helps families to donate, sell, or swap pre-used kit, improving the circularity of sports equipment and reducing waste.

“Digital technology can serve as a powerful tool to accelerate the sustainability challenges currently being faced by grassroots organisations,” adds Claire Moffatt, Founder of Kidd3r.

Using an online platform creates a centralised ‘one stop shop’ that makes circular behaviour easier and more accessible.

“The platform is also a dedicated ‘hub’ that serves as a central space for hosting conversations and consolidating information,” says Moffatt.

As with fan travel apps, digital platforms like Kidd3r can also generate useful data that gives an insight into behaviour.

“Data related to kit exchange can be leveraged to gain an enhanced understanding of preferences and behaviours,” explains Moffatt.

Artificial intelligence, or AI, is also a growing area for sport sustainability, as Sport Positive’s Claire Poole recently reported in Forbes. Issues like athlete injury, predictive modelling for weather and fan behaviour, and AI technology for energy efficiency could all be used to improve sustainability efforts.

Challenges and opportunities

It’s clear that technology has a role to play in sport’s sustainability drive – but how can the broader industry make sure that it is supporting the most effective technology?

Sports authorities could play an important role in encouraging or even mandating the use of certain technologies if they are effective for emissions reductions and behaviour change.

“Governing bodies and leagues can take a more proactive role in defining, if not mandating, best practice,” says You.Smart.Thing.’s Townshend.

At the same time, clubs and organisations using smart tech need to make sure that fans are aware of it.

“If visitors don’t know about the technology, or where to find it, they won’t be nudged to take greener transport options,” Townshend adds.

Kidd3r’s Moffatt agrees that encouraging use of platforms and technologies at grassroots level is critical to increase sustainable behaviour.

“Offering incentives to engage with platforms and recognitions of organisations with high participation rates are vital strategies,” she says. “Providing financial support and launching joint marketing initiatives could significantly advance progress toward shared goals.”

For smaller tech companies, funding can be a big issue standing in the way of developing and rolling out new technologies.

“From a start-up perspective, I’d say the main challenges are financial constraints,” says E-Nano’s Lompech-Leneveu. “Developing and implementing cutting-edge technologies such as AI, IoT, and robotics like ours requires significant upfront investment.”

Another major issue for sustainable or climate technology is the threat of greenwashing.

There have been many broader debates about the dangers of relying too heavily on new technologies instead of focusing on emissions reduction and behaviour change.

To make sure that technology and innovation are genuinely driving sustainable change in sport, clubs and organisations adopting tech solutions should make sure that they are having a clear impact and filling a gap in their current sustainability strategies.

Despite these challenges, though, it looks as though technology and innovation could play an important role for the sport industry as it continues to reduce emissions and promote behaviour change in the lead up to 2030.

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