Information Systems for Environmental Sustainability

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

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AI Should Incorporate Environmental Costs When Evaluating Effectiveness

Research manuscript published by Emma Strubell, Ananya Ganesh, and Andrew McCallumin in June 2019 and available on ( develops an AI environmental cost framework and assesses several algorithms. Popular NLP approaches exhibit wide variation in power, hours, and emissions. Recommendation:

Authors should report training time and sensitivity to hyperparameters. Our experiments suggest that it would be beneficial to directly compare different models to perform a cost-benefit (accuracy) analysis.

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U-M President Schlissel: “I am committed during my presidency to putting U-M on a trajectory towards carbon neutrality”

Citing regional collaboration and replicability, University of Michigan President Mark Schlissel commits to net carbon neutrality during his presidency. From the University Record article:

Speaking at his annual Leadership Breakfast, Schlissel said he would appoint a commission in the coming months to develop a plan that includes specific strategies and a timeline for the university to achieve carbon neutrality in a fiscally responsible manner.

“Throughout our history, we’ve always strived to impact society in profound ways. I’d like to figure out how to do this in partnership with Ann Arbor, and with other regional stakeholders, in a fashion that can be replicated by others all around our state and around the nation.”



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BBC: “Five things we have learned from the IPCC report”

Full BBC article about the IPCC special report can be found here.

There’s no doubt that this dense, science-heavy, 33-page summary is the most significant warning about the impact of climate change in 20 years.

“It is seriously alarming,” Amjad Abdulla, a lead author on one of the chapters from the Maldives, told BBC News.

“The small islands will be the first, but nobody can escape; it is quite clear.”

But while the warnings about the dangers of letting temperatures go beyond 1.5C are dire, the report says, surprisingly perhaps, that the world can keep below the limit.

“We face a really large challenge but it is not impossible to limit warming to 1.5 degrees,” said Dr Natalie Mahowald, an IPCC author


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Report: “Digital Efficiency: Driving Decarbonization and Unlocking Business Value Across Industries”

New report by Intel and GE describes some scenarios for how digital technologies can reduce emissions and cut costs in the fourth industrial age.2017-07-13 12.38.11 pm

One example is wind farm efficiency:

For example, GE’s PowerUp Platform has been extended to become the Digital Wind Farm. With this solution, GE extends analytics and optimization beyond a single wind turbine to the entire wind farm. GE harnessed the power of the emerging Industrial Internet to create the Digital Wind Farm, a dynamic, connected, and adaptable wind energy platform that pairs wind turbines in a wind farm with digital infrastructure to optimize efficiency across the entire wind farm. This platform can account for the wind farm’s topology, surrounding geography, wake effects, and other inputs to control individual wind turbines and optimize the operation as a whole. Through these techniques, the Digital Wind Farm technology boosts a wind farm’s energy production by up to 20 percent and could help generate up to an estimated $50 billion value for the wind industry. The Digital Wind Farm uses interconnected digital technology to address a long-standing need for greater flexibility in renewable power.

Overall, the report’s projections show significant potential, though much work is needed to translate potential into reality.

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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?