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Water Today Title April 21, 2024
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Cleaning Up With AI

Recently launched in Toronto, Clean AI Initiative is the first global hub accelerating the transition to net-zero through applied commercialization of smart digital technologies

“Cleantech and AI are two rapidly growing fields, and growing in importance as we look to our collective future. At the intersection of Cleantech and AI lies a world of possibilities in “clean AI”. CleanAI can mitigate 5-10% of global emissions by 2030.” -- Nicholas Parker, Founder Clean AI Initiative

Interview with Nicholas Parker (aka “Mr. Cleantech”), Founder of Clean AI Initiative

By Suzanne Forcese

WT: According to a newly released study by Cleantech Group and Clean AI Initiative, the study done by Cleantech Group is the first global study laying out the current state of the clean AI industry --

  • AI has significant potential to enable a clean economy in areas like materials creation and discovery, forecasting, advanced modeling.
  • Of the almost $30 billion of risk capital invested in the last six years, 70% has been in early-stage innovators
  • Differentiated business models and data strategies with targeted applications will be key to value creation and impact.
  • C-suite and operational champions with domain expertise and willingness to test new systems will be critical to scaling to widespread market adoption.
  • Connecting a fragmented ecosystem and increasing public policy support will further accelerate AI’s positive clean economy impact.

WT: Please give us an overview of Clean AI Initiative and your journey.

Parker: Just over two decades ago, I commercialized the “cleantech” concept, bringing to life a worldwide community of innovators, investors, and related stakeholders focused on environmental sustainability.

WT: You have been described as a sustainable innovation visionary and pioneer with over 40 years of global accomplishment and experience, best known as the father of “cleantech”. According to your profile you advise, support and createventures, asset-based platforms and social enterprises that address vital socio-ecological challenges, particularly the climate crisis. How have you incorporated your talents in Clean AI Initiative.

Parker: As “Mr. Cleantech”, I put my venture investing activities on hold to evangelize and organize a global community focused on “clean-by-design” rather than the stale “clean-up” mentality of the previous envirotech era.

While cleantech 1.0 resulted in tough learning, it was an essential step forward to today’s more robust “climate Tech” or cleantech 2.0 ecosystem. Since stepping away from Cleantech Group a decade ago, I have been backing ventures that harness next generation cleantech with secular innovation such as artificial intelligence, blockchain, social enterprise and impact investing at scale.

I have backed emerging companies from California to Kenya. Two investees were named to the TIME100 Most Influential Company list in 2023. Nearly all use smart digital technology to deliver sustainability solutions previously unimaginable, let alone viable. Which brings me to CleanAI.

My own venturing experience has illustrated the enormous potential of AI in enabling the clean economy transition. It is an unexpected force-multiplier in the race to net-zero yet has received little attention. Until now!

WT: Congratulations on the launch of Clean AI Initiative –just this week! What is your mission?

Parker: The Clean AI Initiative is being officially launched this week. We are on a mission to help reduce GHG emissions by ten per cent over the coming ten years by shining a light on how AI is enabling and differentiating cleantech ventures – “cleanAI”, building a network of stakeholders and facilitating the international scaling of solutions.

We have started with "Cleaning Up with AI", a baseline study covering nearly $30 Billion invested in cleanAI ventures since 2018. The US, UK and Canada are the top three jurisdictions.

We are also hosting the world’s first Global CleanAI Summit in Toronto on June 17, 2024.

WT: What is the difference between Clean AI and "generative" AI?

Parker: We see that Clean AI tends to leverage more narrow AI in targeted applications for specific climate outcomes, whereas generative AI tends to be broader in its applications.

Despite the wider public perception and fixation on generative AI, it is important to recognize the many advantages in business applications and impact that clean AI can bring.

WT: Where do you see the potential for AI in Clean Tech?

Parker: CleanAI can support an accelerated transition to a net zero economy, for example, by:

  • Designing cleaner and more efficient products and components through materials creation and discovery, forecasting, and advanced modeling.
  • Operationalizing sustainable business models and systems by combining real time, historic and synthetic data.
  • Optimizing circular infrastructure for recycling and upcycling.
  • Helping to understand and mimic nature, manage complexity, and facilitate radical resource efficiency, while enabling ESG transparency.
  • The potential for AI spans across cleantech industry groups such as agriculture & food, energy & power, materials & chemicals, transportation & logistics, and resources & environment
  • AI can support us in achieving emissions reductions of up to 10% globally; this is a significant opportunity to bend the decarbonization curve.

WT: Let’s zero in on the potential for water. Where and how do you see AI possibilities in the entire gamut of the water sector -- from drinking water, to wastewater, to grey water, to water-reuse etc.

Parker: AI can be used across the water sector including leak detection, infrastructure monitoring, and wastewater treatment optimization.

Key advantages are preventing water loss, improving efficiency, and reducing energy use. AI is already streamlining wastewater treatment infrastructure for utilities, while also identifying leaks or predicting damage across water infrastructure with applications in smart homes, commercial buildings, and industrial and municipal infrastructures.

WT: Are there any start-ups that are currently partnered with AI Initiative in the water sector?

Parker: Smarterra based in Bengaluru, India is using AI to power operations for water management. Their technology is able to find leaks or broken meters and is continually increasing the accuracy of leak localization, reducing wastage and non-revenue water by up to 75%.

Another great example is Pani, based in Vancouver, Canada which is leveraging AI to make water treatment infrastructure more efficient and sustainable.

WT: Currently, what are the challenges implementing the possibilities that you envision with CleanAI?

Parker: To achieve the climate outcomes that are possible from cleanAI, we must address the environmental impact of AI more broadly and the high energy and water consumption of data centers in particular.

Greening data centers and the grids that serve them is essential, including solutions such as sustainable procurement of hardware, chips with lower power consumption, advanced cooling technologies and water recycling systems, and more.

In addition, we need to develop industry standards around ethical AI and data sharing in order to address data limitations and sensitivity, more academic collaboration, and education programs to address skills shortages, and corporate champions willing to test new systems to scale deployment.

WT: What is your vision moving forward?

Parker: We are excited about how cleanAI can enable leapfrog potential in and across the global south. We are motivated to get solutions deployed in the markets where they are most needed and aim to build cross-border bridges and collaboration to scale clean AI.

We aim to catalyze the deployment and scale up of cleanAI to achieve 10% global emissions reductions over 10 years. Clean AI Initiative is doing this through offering strategic research and intelligence in partnership with the Cleantech Group, convening the cleanAI ecosystem including at our inaugural Clean AI Summit this June, followed by innovation catalyst programming and a co-investment fund.


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