“I promise I don’t normally dress like that!” says Inès Leonarduzzi with a laugh as she steps into the co-working space where her company, Digital for the Planet, is housed. Although bursting with energy, the CEO – dressed in a chic, relaxed tracksuit – went to bed at 4 am the day we met. “We went from a team of three people to a team of 10 in a very short time,” she says. “Since I do management work during the day, that only leaves evenings for me to create.”

In August 2017, after 10 years of growing as a digital entrepreneur, Inès Leonarduzzi launched her own company dedicated to “digital ecology” – a neologism she’s coined. “Digital for the Planet came out of noticing that technological and digital pollution wasn’t being shared with the general public,” the founder says. “International experts have been bringing up these subjects for 30 years, but only very recently have they been taken up by public institutions.”

Credits: Inès Leonarduzzi

Digital kills

And yet it’s urgent. Computing equipment that can communicate electronically, process and store information comprises 4 to 5 percent of carbon dioxide emissions. By comparison, aviation comprises 2 percent, or less than half that. More specifically, among greenhouse gas emissions generated by digital, 28% are caused by network infrastructure, 25% by data centers and 47% by consumer equipment (computers, smartphones, tablets, connected objects, GPS, etc.), according to the French Agency for the Environment and Energy Management (ADEME).

Even more specifically, a single search on an Internet search engine emits 10 g of CO2, a number that doubles when you send an email with a 1MB attachment. A person sending 20 emails a day for a year will put out the CO2 equivalent of a 1,000-km drive in a car, according to ADEME. That’s where Digital for the Planet comes in. Its goal is to “make the general public aware of this, while creating a more environmentally friendly human-machine relationship,” Leonarduzzi explains.

When she launched this audacious project, the CEO had only “very meager” funds. To finance the company, she gave up her apartment, and she doesn’t regret it. “For two years, I moved around a lot, and my friends put me up,” she says. An atypical choice, like her career. Originally from Normandy, Leonarduzzi completed a literary bac before studying for a degree in Chinese language and civilization. Once she graduated, she left for a year to study art management in New York, then went to Hong Kong, where she started a company “with friends” that specialized in digital art.

Credits: Inès Leonarduzzi

It was after these experiences abroad that the young woman discovered life in Paris. She moved there to study management in school and started working for a company as a consultant in digital strategy. “For a girl from Normandy, that was a lot!” Leonarduzzi says, laughing. “I came from the real country. I grew up in Sylvains-lès-Moulins, where I lived with goats bleating in the background and the forest behind the house.”

Reflecting daily on the stakes of digital and the “questioning citizen,” Leonarduzzi became interested in the problem of digital pollution. “I told myself: ‘What good is progress if we don’t actually progress?’ Technology is an amazing tool, but it has its negative side, and if we don’t ask the right questions, we’ll never get the right answers.” Starting from this philosophy, Leonarduzzi set out to find solutions.

An AI citizen

The fog of the unknown she was jumping into “was the most terrifying part of developing my company,” she admits. Although the CEO had the “why” but not the “how” when she launched it, the Plana project started the same day as Digital for the Planet. It was an intelligent vocal assistant, often referred to as “environmental Siri” – a term its creator doesn’t like. “Why limit us to being a weak American copycat when it’s a unique technology?” she asks.

Plana should be on the market between June and September. “At least the first version,” Leonarduzzi specifies. There will be a second, a third, then a fourth. “The goal is for Digital for the Planet to always be in a work-in-progress state,” she says. “I don’t believe we can find a solution.”

Plana’s work will be to help people understand how their actions cause digital pollution. It’ll do that by going behind the curtain of the industry, explaining how technology is powered, how many megawatts it consumes, what the Joule effect is, and what carbon impact and CO2 equivalents are. “I’m not sure a lot of people know all that, and that’s not normal,” Leonarduzzi says. “We’ve already reached a point of no return in terms of climate change. Plana will be there to help us limit the damage.”

More concretely, the vocal assistant will work in conjunction with a collaborative platform managed by the people. “Everyone will be able to choose what kind of data they wish to receive from Plana and how they would like it to be expressed,” Leonarduzzi explains. The platform will then translate each request in computing language before being voted on by the community. “That will allow us to make Plana a real citizen technology,” she says.

Although Plana so far lacks the budget for release, Leonarduzzi is full of praise for the experts working on and currently testing the project. Besides the 10-person team comprising Digital for the Planet, a half dozen developers – “sustainably,” as the CEO likes to point out – are working remotely. There are also two researchers specializing respectively in condensed physics and data protection, as well as someone who works in language science and computing semantics. Lastly, two experts in machine learning and deep learning are working on Plana. “I’m extremely thankful for them. All these experts are doing this voluntarily,” Leonarduzzi says. “It’s time they spend outside their jobs because, like me, they believe in Plana.”

And yet, when she began her Digital for the Planet venture, the entrepreneur was all alone. She spent six months going from conference to conference and meeting to meeting, sharing her idea in order to get the support she needed. “At the time, everything was happening in my head,” she remembers. “Then one day in February, I got a call from a journalist from Generation XX. She invited me to join her on one of her podcasts.” After its broadcast in April 2018, Digital for the Planet blew up in the media.

Although Leonarduzzi says she maintains a visceral connection to solitude and prefers to be discrete, she’s learned that she has to give interviews to the media in order to be a spokesperson for Plana. “I needed technology and science experts to create something that didn’t exist,” she says.

New banks

As soon as she had a megaphone, the Digital for the Planet founder explained everything she had in mind regarding Plana, to the point of risking having her ideas stolen. “I was aware of that, but there was also the chance that I’d succeed,” she says, smiling. It was a dicey bet that proved to be worth it. Starting in May 2018, scientists from around the world started contacting Leonarduzzi. “At the time, a developer from Osaka wrote me to ask how he could help. He’d seen me on France 24,” she says. “I was only on it for a minute and 20 seconds, explaining in broken English how I visualized Plana. I had no idea how well it would work.”

When discussing her invention, Leonarduzzi uses feminine pronouns. It’s no coincidence. When she thinks about Plana, the Digital for the Planet CEO visualizes Wonder Woman, the DC Comics superhero she grew up with. “She did a lot to educate me with her elegance, her sense of altruism and her ability to suppress any fear of fighting whatever she believed to be unjust,” she says, admiration in her voice. “Plana’s personality was inspired by Wonder Woman.”

Aside from the qualities of her favorite heroine, Leonarduzzi wanted Plana to maintain a transparent relationship with its human user, who will be able to access sources for the information transmitted. “The machine is here to serve humans, not the inverse. Plana will not be a vigilante, but she will become a citizen ally by giving you all its power,” she says.

Credits: Inès Leonarduzzi/Twitter

Besides the challenges of digital technology, Plana intends to inform its consumers on data. “That’s the gold of tomorrow,” she assures. “The big industries manufacture successful products using our personal data, and we pay the price. These products cost us more and more while taking more and more from us. They’re making us believe they’re creating value, but in fact they’re extracting it from us.”

One of Plana’s missions will be to make people aware that data is the “new universal currency.” According to the entrepreneur, everyone has it in their digital universe without knowing how to count it. “In that way, the websites we so generously give our cookies to are our banks,” Leonarduzzi says. “Literally, it’s as if they’re redistributing our money but without any return on the investment.”

Plana will then intervene to let its users know where they can find their data and will erase it if they wish. “That will force these ‘new banks’ to address the people to get their permission,” the entrepreneur says. “For now, the General Data Protection Regulation is far from sufficient.”

For all these reasons, Leonarduzzi is proud that Plana isn’t paid for by data. For the moment, Digital for the Planet is financed by her teaching and consulting on strategy and development for companies. “That ranges from mapping a digital company’s carbon impact to recommendations and implementation of an impact reduction strategy, as well as redefining their business models,” she explains. “Companies are the biggest source of digital pollution: it’s absolutely necessary to work with them to reduce their carbon footprint.”

In this sense, Digital for the Planet will implement Plana Company after developing Plana Citoyen – a project that invigorates the CEO, who sees companies as a reflection of society. “Today, we look at them in a very pejorative way,” she says. “But at their base, a company allows us to respond to the challenges of the people. I sincerely believe that technology could and should bring us back to healthy and constructive values. I’m going to do what I can to take part in that adventure.”

Translation: Robert Langellier