Information Systems for Environmental Sustainability

IT, Resource Productivity, Environmental Preservation, and the Fourth Industrial Revolution


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Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution – Cleaner Energy, Resource Productivity, and Natural Environment Preservation and Regeneration?

In his book on the Fourth Industrial Revolution, Klaus Schwab, Founder and  Executive Chairman of the World Economic Forum states that:

We are witnessing profound shifts across all industries, marked by the emergence of new business models, the disruption of incumbents and the reshaping of production, consumption, transportation and delivery systems. On the societal front, a paradigm shift is underway in how we work and communicate, as well as how we express, inform and entertain ourselves. Equally, governments and institutions are being reshaped, as are systems of education, healthcare and transportation, among many others. New ways of using technology to change behaviour and our systems of production and consumption also offer the potential for supporting the regeneration and preservation of natural environments, rather than creating hidden costs in the form of externalities. [my emphasis in bold].

I agree, in particular, about the need to change behavior and systems of production and consumption to support the regeneration and preservation of natural environments.

In the video below introducing the new Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution in San Francisco’s Presidio, this theme appears to be echoed by Microsoft CEO Satya Nadalla, if global climate change is considered a “hard pressed challenge” (at 1:35):

My hope is that we have a robust discussion for how [the Fourth Industrial Revolution] can truly help our world solve some of the hard pressed challenges that we have today.

 

The WEF press release states that

The Center will focus on technologies, concepts, scientific developments and new business models such as artificial intelligence and robotics, precision medicine, blockchain, drones and their civilian use, autonomous vehicles, 3D printing, and the role of the individual in the era of big data, the internet of things and artificial intelligence. It will also advance Forum projects such as industrial internet of things safety, digital trade, advancing the shared economy and project-based workforce, and harnessing Fourth Industrial Revolution technologies and innovation to improve global ocean health, management and governance.

Though only global ocean health is mentioned, my perspective is that the Center ought to have a focus area on Cleaner Energy, Resource Productivity, and Natural Environment Preservation and Regeneration.

Cleaner Energy

Several approaches to cleaner energy are possible, including renewable sources such as wind and solar, as well as making non-renewable sources cleaner. Possibilities are emerging for digital technologies in the Fourth Industrial Revolution to drive cleaner energy sources.

Resource Productivity

Big data, analytics, and sensors can enable new transparency into resource productivity and insights into how resource productivity can be enhanced. In this way, it may be possible for individuals and organizations to decouple growth from carbon emissions.

 

Natural Environment Preservation and Regeneration

Water management is a concern for corporate executives, given the growing scarcity of potable water. However, a significant percentage of companies neither measure nor report on their water use. Similarly, while emissions are widely reported within the largest global corporations, it is unclear the extent to which these figures are used to drive emissions reductions and hence support global warming mitigation efforts.

 

The above themes provide a glimpse into what is currently possible.

To change the conversation and effect change at a strategic level will require industrial and academic partnerships and collaboration.

The new Center for the Fourth Industrial Revolution appears well positioned to drive this conversation and change – but will it?


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Emergent: Community microgrid using existing energy infrastructure and the blockchain

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Brooklyn Microgrid is using the blockchain for smart contracts and currencies in support of “resilient, sustainable and more efficient energy production of the future.” In simple terms, as FastCompany explains:

On one side of President Street, five homes with solar panels generate electricity. On the other side, five homes buy power when the opposite homes don’t need it. In the middle is a blockchain network, managing and recording transactions with little human interaction.”


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COP21 Global Climate Deal – What’s in it & what’s the IT angle?

Here’s a summary from the BBC:

What are the key elements?

  • To keep global temperatures “well below” 2.0C (3.6F) and “endeavour to limit” them even more, to 1.5C

  • To limit the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by human activity to the same levels that trees, soil and oceans can absorb naturally, beginning at some point between 2050 and 2100

  • To review each country’s contribution to cutting emissions every five years so they scale up to the challenge

  • For rich countries to help poorer nations by providing “climate finance” to adapt to climate change and switch to renewable energy.

 

And here’s a recently refined initiative develop by and applying to technology industry organizations (from WBCSD):

LCTPi is a unique initiative in terms of size, scale and potential impact. The global program is an unprecedented demonstration of the determination of business to collaborate across sectors and bring solutions to help governments in addressing climate change.

  • 9 LCTPi groups are in operation: renewable energy; carbon capture and storage; low carbon transport fuels; low carbon freight; cement; chemicals; energy efficiency in buildings; forests and climate smart agriculture.

  • 85 companies have made 93 endorsements of LCTPi (see annex 1) and are ready to move to implementation.

  • Over 1000 high level business representatives and policy makers have participated in international dialogues conducted across five continents and in all key emerging markets.


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Enterprise Information Systems Capability & GHG Pollution Emissions Reductions: New Analysis and New Results

At the upcoming International Conference on Information Systems, Daniel Rush will be presenting new research empirically examining the association between enterprise information systems capabilities and greenhouse gas emissions in large organizations. The research, co-authored with myself, Ron Ramirez, and Kevin Kobelsky, suggests that IS capabilities may be a critical enabler of achieving corporate sustainability goals. The program session is Tuesday from 3:00 – 3:30 pm. in the Convention Center. Drop by to hear more from Dan!

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CDP Data Collection: Do We Need to Audit Corporate IS Used to Report Carbon Emissions?

[Full disclosure: I’ve worked with CDP over the years and have used its data for research purposes.]

Reviewing CDP’s latest information request, I’m struck by the lack of questions about the digital systems companies use to capture, store, analyze, and report the data requested by CDP.

Why is this important?

Reason #1: Data quality

The quality of these systems affects the quality of the information reported. For example, a dedicated cloud-based system with real-time access to the latest emission factors has clear advantages over an in-house developed spreadsheet. Yet CDP provides zero insight into the quality of foundational information systems used by respondents.

Reason #2: Complexity

Investing in and implementing the right information system to fit organizational objectives is non-trivial, evidenced by the high failure rate of IS projects.

Reason #3: Governance

Information systems are typically governed by information systems personnel, or jointly by IS and a particular business function. My own research reveals that for energy and carbon IS, facilities and sustainability experts are leading the charge. Is this optimal? Who should manage these systems? What sorts of governance structures might mitigate risk and ensure robust systems over time?

Reason #4: Regulatory Compliance

In many areas of the world, binding regulations are in place regarding corporate reporting of carbon emissions. It would make sense for investors (and other interested stakeholders) to have some transparency into the information systems (technologies, processes, and people) that produce these numbers. Moreover, one can foresee an audit function analogous to that for accounting information systems used for financial reporting (source):

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Bottom line: Either CDP and other third-party data platforms need to request data about information systems used for carbon emissions management, or, we need a robust carbon accounting IS audit function to assure the validity of processes, technologies, and human work practices used to report carbon emissions. Otherwise, doubts about data veracity will likely persist and hamper the positive efforts of reporting firms and data collection agencies.