Often touted as an ecological burden, information technology can make important contributions to a more sustainable world.
Your friend's email:
Ask most business leaders about the relationship between IT and sustainability and they'll likely talk about the increasing electricity load of data centers. As the other papers in this collection attest, it's an important issue and worthy of the growing attention it's receiving.
But there's an equally important upside dimension-focusing not just on the ecological burden of information technologies, but on the contribution IT can make to a more sustainable world. IT products and services, from servers to software to sensors, can monitor and manage resource use in real time, from home energy consumption to industrial wastewater flows to the environmental footprint of retail products. They provide increasingly precise information that informs companies, communities, and consumers about the true sustainability of every aspect of their lives, and guides them, often effortlessly, to better environmental and economic performance.
IT products and services, from servers to software to sensors, can monitor and manage resource use in real time, from home energy consumption to industrial wastewater flows to the environmental footprint of retail products.
Smart Rooms, Homes, Grids, and Factories
Occupancy sensors are important examples of the greening and smartening of our buildings. When appliances and climate control systems are networked and tracked by monitoring software that optimizes system loads and power consumption, comfort can be maintained at a fraction of the cost, electricity, and emissions previously involved.
Connecting smarter equipment and appliances in homes and offices to a smart power grid takes the sensor idea one step further. The utility's smart grid systems track consumption moment by moment relative to optimized demand and capacity on the grid. The utility is then able to control the energy use in individual homes and offices in a number of ways, including by remotely toggling equipment on and off for fractions of a second and thus moderating peak demand without impacting the user experience of the energy consumer. The lights stay on, the stereo plays, and the coffee gets made without any interruption while the load on the entire grid is controlled to keep demand in check. The resulting reduction of energy costs and ecological footprint has the added benefit of being invisible to the end-user.
Just-In-Time Manufacturing and Virtual Retail
Toyota's pioneering work has employed the intersection of technology and corporate culture to create breakthrough improvements that rippled far beyond its industry. Just-In-Time production requires sophisticated computer systems to tightly coordinate inventory, cycle time, and work schedules in order to minimize waste of all kinds. This consistently profitable company uses IT to amplify its commitment to provide adaptable support tools to the people at the core of its enterprise.
Just as Toyota employs technology to facilitate waste reduction in car manufacturing, the rise of online commerce has had similar impacts on environment and supply chains. Joseph Romm's seminal work, The Internet Economy and Global Warming: A Scenario of the Impact of E-commerce on Energy and the Environment (1999) described how dematerialization, direct sales to consumers, and centralized inventories of goods would lead to dramatic reductions in energy consumption and greenhouse gas emissions by 2010. In 2007, technology-processing company TIAX determined e-commerce of material goods reduced emissions by 29 percent compared to traditional "drive to the store" shopping if the goods were shipped via ground, but increased them by 15 percent if they were shipped by air.
This variability is eliminated when the goods themselves are dematerialized; the company found that if half the U.S. video rentals were delivered online or by on-demand video, the annual reductions of CO2 emissions would be on the order of 1.3 million tons.
Clothing manufacturer Nau dematerialized its business model by building upscale retail outlets to serve as "try on" locations for its products. Nau ground ships all selected products to its in-store consumers for free. One benefit: keeping inventory in their warehouses uses 94 percent less energy than keeping it in stores.
The lights stay on, the stereo plays, and the coffee gets made without any interruption while the load on the entire grid is controlled to keep demand in check.
GeoSherpa dematerializes real estate by showing homes customized by potential customers in a virtual 3D environment. People in the market for a new home can fully specify each element of the built space, see the environmental impact of their decisions in a virtual prototype, and submit their desired home to a builder for construction. Each home is then built to order, resulting in greater efficiency of time and materials. Similarly, Coldwell-Banker is offering self-guided tours of existing homes in the online environment Second Life.
On a larger scale, the need for IT systems to monitor energy use, toxic emissions, and carbon emissions has achieved mainstream acceptance in business and industry circles. The emerging field extends that monitoring to include on-demand, real-time data of consumption trends, embodied energy, and product content.
Life Cycle Analysis (LCA)
Tracking the life cycle impact of products is central to furniture manufacturer Herman Miller's business. Designers use the environmental impact of the manufacturing materials to guide strategic decisions that impact profits, consumers, and the planet. The IT systems and materials databases used by Herman Miller makes the time-consuming work of tracking LCA data an easy part of the design process.
The next step for technology's role in sustainability is surfacing this information for all products. From carbon footprint information contained on radio-frequency identification (RFID) chips to cell phones that read product barcodes and display ecological footprint reports on the screen, disclosing a product's origins and environmental burden will be a key part of providing consumers with the information they require.
Measuring What Matters
As carbon tracking becomes the lingua franca of the business and sustainability intersection, sophisticated metrics that track a company's environmental performance become increasingly important. Innovest's Carbon Beta™ is just one example of how Wall Street is beginning to correlate environmental risk and financial risk with computer models that carefully analyze and juxtapose data from both realms. Natural Logic's Business Metabolics™ dashboard systems streamline the task of tracking sustainability performance, and turn the static, "rear-view" mirror process of CSR (corporate social responsibility) reporting into an interactive management tool. By providing a real-time view of sustainability trends and productivity ratios and making it easy to compare performance between facilities and between companies, these new systems help businesses make smarter decisions and deliver lower footprints and higher profits.
The Real-time Economy and Real-time Regulation
Behind all these innovations is the potential for a real-time economy. Making it easier and more profitable to make every material object built to order can help make every product a wanted product-complete with customized features and aesthetics-and minimize the amount of unwanted "stuff" that finds its way to the waste stream.
Companies as diverse as GE, Wal-Mart, Virgin Group, Toyota, JetBlue, Dell, Progressive Insurance, and Amazon are demonstrating the power of the "Real-Time Enterprise": an enterprise that's instantly responsive, rapidly adaptable, and constantly evolving to changing markets. Electrical utilities are experimenting with real-time pricing to more effectively manage energy demand.
The more informed we are about the impact of our choices, the better the decisions we make for ourselves, our businesses, and the people around us. For individuals, sustainable IT means clearly seeing one's own consumption and one's relationship to others. For businesses, sustainable IT means becoming aware of risks and opportunities previously hidden from view. For all of us, well-aimed IT is key to realizing these possibilities.
Even the world of regulation is ripe for the real-time breakthrough, with available and emerging technologies that include:
inexpensive sensors to monitor waste-water flows in real time
remote laser sensing to track smokestack emissions
molecular tagging to tie specific pollutants to their sources
RFID tags to support chain-of-custody management
wireless networks to feed data in real-time to secure servers
internal and external dashboards to enable managers, regulators, and interested stakeholders to track trends and compare performance
open information standards and tagging systems to enable researchers to analyze and add value to raw data streams
Potential payoffs include:
reduced costs for regulated companies and regulatory agencies thanks to reduced paperwork and labor
more accurate data available with less lag time from event to analysis
more readily analyzable data, enabling managers and regulators to watch trends and catch exceedances quickly and often automatically
performance benchmarking that can drive continuous improvement from the ground up, since the very existence of better performance is proof that it is possible