Information Systems for Environmental Sustainability

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

Lessons from Peter “Climate Denial Crock of the Week” Sinclair’s Talk at the Ross School of Business

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Peter Sinclair visited the Ross School this evening and shared his views on climate problems and climate solutions. He’s known for his clear communication and didn’t disappoint.

While Peter was talking, I thought of a  new “crock” topic for his vlog. It goes something like this: “The computer age is a negative for the environment (in its latest incarnation, cloud computing) because all these computers use so much energy, which is a bad thing.”

I would label this a crock because there are so few scientific studies that provide head to head comparisons of  “old ways of doing things” versus “new computer-enabled ways of doing things.”

For example, one study of the music industry cites “too many ambiguities in underlying assumptions” to reach any definitive conclusion about dematerialization (Hogg, N., and Jackson, T., “Digital Media and Dematerialization: An Exploration of the Potential for Reduced Material Intensity in Music Delivery”, Journal of Industrial Ecology, 13(1), 2008, pp. 127-146.)

Another study suggests that in the aggregate the digital economy will lead to “small decreases in energy intensity and reduce subsequent environmental impacts relative to many baseline projections.” (Laitner, J.A., “Information Technology and U.S. Energy Consumption: Energy Hog, Productivity Tool, or Both?”, Journal of Industrial Ecology, 6(2), 2003, pp. 13-24.)

Finally, an examination of information systems across various business functions finds some positive and some negative impacts (Haigh, N., and Griffiths, A., “The Environmental Sustainability of Information Systems: Considering the Impact of Operational Strategies and Practices”, International Journal of Technology Management, 43(1-3), 2008, pp. 48-63.)

So as I see it, there are two issues underlying the “crock” above.

First, do IT-enabled processes have positive or negative impacts relative to old ways of doing things?

(video conferencing seems like a major energy reducer, and I’m sure there are many others).

Second, what is the impact of renewables on major IT resources such as large data centers?

(what metrics to use to determine “greenness” of a data center?).


Author: nigelpm

Associate Professor of Information Systems, Stephen M. Ross School of Business, University of Michigan - Helping organizations to navigate digital transformation.

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