Computing IT's give-and-take role in sustainability — part two

With about one billion computers currently in use, information technology rightfully owns some of the blame for the world's sustainability ills. The lifetime toll for a computer includes substantial resources for manufacture and delivery, then more energy consumed in home offices and companies. And, improper disposal of a computer can cause significant environmental damage.

Yet for all this, IT will also take a starring role in sustainability solutions that meet the needs of the present without depriving future generations. IT's beneficial role is the subject of the second in this two-part series. "You can use information technology (IT) not just in IT organizations but in all organizations to reduce the [carbon] footprint," says Robert St. Louis, a professor of information systems. Rather than global altruism, however, employing IT in the service of sustainability will come where it makes financial sense to do so.

More GHz, less gas

Just as we learned to turn lights off when we weren't using them, so too should we turn off idle computers. But, says St. Louis, there are much bigger sustainability improvements to find in daily life. Although there are many small savings to be realized in offices, St. Louis highlights the issues inherent in simply getting to work.

"All the collaborative tools that exist now certainly make a big reduction in terms of the amount of travel that people have to do When you think of how much of the pollution is associated with transportation, I think the gains with respect to the computer industry itself are really small potatoes compared to the gains that are made with respect to transportation," says St. Louis.

The average American drives 231 miles per week, generating tons of carbon dioxide emissions each year; the Department of Energy reports that about 28 percent of the energy used in the United States goes to transporting people and goods from one place to another. If one could avoid driving to the office even occasionally, the savings would add up.

Advances in IT make telecommuting more feasible says St. Louis. Research from telework experts Kate Lister and Tom Harnish finds that 40 percent of the U.S. workforce holds jobs that are suitable for telework. Each year in the United States, telework could save 154 trillion miles of driving, reduce greenhouse gases by up to 67 million metric tons, and save as much as 7.5 trillion gallons of gasoline.

"When all is said and done, the impact of [telecommuting and transportation savings] is so much more enormously huge than turning off your monitor at night. You should do both but the leverage we can get from [transportation gains] is enormous," says Kevin Dooley, a professor of supply chain management. As the technologies improve, St. Louis points to the possibility that people will turn to videoconferencing rather than face-to-face meetings that require everyone to gather in one room — often after flying there.

Cisco claims to have cut its travel costs 30 percent through widespread use of its own TelePresence videoconferencing product. "Even taking one airplane ride per year increases your environmental impact significantly, perhaps as much as 25 or 30 percent," says Philip White, a professor of industrial design in the ASU College of Design.

In the same vein, Eric Williams, a professor of civil and environmental engineering and sustainability in ASU's Ira A. Fulton School of Engineering, says that IT now enables sustainability solutions that wouldn't have been possible just a few years ago. He suggests that municipalities would do well to mull over how IT can address problems like traffic that have heretofore been seen in a very different light.

City planners are likely to see expanding city populations and commence building multi-million-dollar 12-lane highways to accommodate a boom in traffic. However, Williams says the problem could be ameliorated, for example, by developing a social networking site to link carpoolers and reduce traffic.

Changing impact

Of course, IT will not soon eliminate planes, trains and automobiles and their huge share of the sustainability equation. IT can mitigate some of the ill effects that come from transportation, however. For example, White says that improvements in IT — from faster computers to more powerful and collaborative software — enable vastly better and more sustainable product design.

Simulations can measure performance (such as aerodynamics and fuel efficiency), but this technology also enables designers to create products that are more easily recycled and reused when they reach the end of their lifecycle. Separate from the actual nuts-and-bolts technology that powers automobiles, today's cars are now reliant on special microprocessors that, for example, manage a car's hybrid fuel system.

And, says White, automotive IT has a new function: teaching. "That's the 'Prius dashboard effect' — the product uses IT technology to help educate the user to change their behavior," says White. The Toyota Prius's Consumption screen trains people to drive in a manner that is more fuel efficient (by minimizing rapid stops and starts for example), something that may yet spread to so-called "regular" cars.

Granted, the abstract idea of saving the world may not motivate drivers to change how they drive, says White, but translating actions to money may. A basic onboard program that converts mileage improvements to dollars could be a simple and effective step towards sustainability.

Tracking impact

Increased gas mileage is a step towards sustainability, but not a total solution. What else can be done? White says it is crucial to look back through the supply chain and evaluate the product lifecycle to understand where sustainability gains can be realized.

Lifecycle accounting has been around since the 1950s, but today's IT tools — from databases to RFID scanners — make it practical, if not easy, to look holistically at all the inputs to creating a product, getting it to market and disposing of it. The results of supply chain tracking efforts are now coming to market. As a result, companies can score marketing points by showing off their transparency and their efforts to realize sustainability.

In addition, tracking broadens the consumer's understanding of what they are buying. Just as food labels made consumers more aware of trans-fats and calories, new labeling that can compute a product's carbon cost can raise consumer consciousness of sustainability. Japan's Ecoleaf labels are one example of more in-depth labeling efforts.

In September 2007, Wal-Mart announced plans to measure the amount of energy used to create products throughout the supply chain, and other large companies are also devising their own environmental impact labels thanks to better tracking and computing capabilities.

Controlled usage

Last year Wal-Mart opened three High-Efficiency Supercenters that are expected to use 20 percent less energy than a typical Supercenter, partly as a result of motion sensor-activated lighting. Williams says the use of IT to make smart decisions (such as turning off unused resources) has great potential, but lights need only a small, self-contained sensor to determine if they should turn on.

Allocating resources for other functions can be more involved. Also, monitoring systems can make consumers more aware of what they re using energy for, potentially affecting people s psychology and behavior relating to energy use. Most homes and businesses are inefficient when it comes to heating and cooling, he says.

Only one or two rooms may need to be climate controlled at night, but the furnace or air conditioner will usually heat or cool the whole home, leading to a massive waste of natural resources. Energy use is reduced where intelligent thermostats and Internet-enabled controls are installed, however so far relatively few buildings use them, he laments.

However we may soon witness an upswing in adoption of these technologies, Williams says. Just a few years ago, compact fluorescent light bulbs were a novelty: Williams says IT may very well make inroads into homes in the same manner. Haluk Demirkan, a professor of information systems, sees a parallel in resource savings when it comes to IT's evolution in managing itself.

Demirkan, whose work focuses on service-centric management and computing, says new models of computing are proving more sustainable. Advanced resource and capacity management, software innovations and server virtualization enable companies to consolidate dozens of servers that they have been running at 10, 20, or 75 percent utilization to a more efficient handful.

By having a better capacity and resource management and by eliminating unused resources, less power is required and less hardware needs to be created in the first place. Similarly, as hosted computing (or Software-as-a-Service) gains acceptance, the global need for big, thick-client personal computers requiring substantial resources for manufacture, shipping, operation and disposal falls.

Coupled with digital software delivery, SaaS also decreases the need to package and ship millions of CDs used to load new programs. Finally, Demirkan sees great sustainability promise in distributed service-centric computing.

Also, adaption of open sustainability — using the open standards and the open source software development approaches (e.g. code, tools, techniques, documents) helps organizations to receive free input from practitioners, researchers, scientists, and users. "With the newest technologies and open sustainability, we are at a point where we can manage computer resources much more effectively and much more cheaply," says Demirkan.

Bottom Line:

  • Significant resources are needed to fuel IT, from the production of hardware to powering it and disposing of it. But IT can also be a big part of the solution when it comes to sustainability.
  • One of the most promising sustainability improvements that comes from IT is the potential decrease in transport costs as a result of increases in telecommuting and videoconferencing.
  • Today's IT resources, such as large databases and RFID scanners, make it easier for companies to track their products through the entirety of their lifecycle, leading to better understanding of possible sustainability savings.
  • Computers can be employed to better manage resources such as heating and cooling in buildings.
  • New models of computing, service-centric computing, and open sustainability which are more reliant on virtualized resources, hold the promise of a global need for fewer computers as well as less removable media (such as CDs) that must be packaged and shipped.