Information Systems for Environmental Sustainability

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

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HICSS Conference Keynote Speaker: Green IT Innovator Shwetak Patel


The keynote speaker of the annual HICSS conference, happening now, is Shwetak Patel, director of the Ubicomp lab at UW and Green IT innovator. Shwetak is reviewing many of the problems I’ve talked about in this blog, in particular, poor information on energy and water use in the home. One angle on this is “Single sensors,” which use machine learning to back out which appliances are drawing which currents.

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The choice of Shwetak to address the entire conference in this keynote session underscores the importance of the role of IT in enabling and transforming environmental sustainability, energy reductions, and so forth. The conversation that a few of us began years ago finally appears to be gaining mainstream acceptance. Well done to the conference organizers for making this insightful choice.


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Leverage Information Technology Trajectories to Enhance Sustainable Business

In a working paper that will be presented in a few months at the HICSS conference, I describe how leveraging technology trajectories is one of four principles of Digital Fitness. Digital fitness is how I refer to the digital capabilities and mindsets required of all organizational leaders in order to succeed in today’s chaotic digitally enabled business world.

Leveraging technology trajectories is encapsulated by the moving gears in the illustration below. IT continues to get faster, smaller, and cheaper. This leads to increasing and innovative uses to substitute away from older methods or complement existing ones. This ultimately leads to the data avalanche facing most large companies and the use of analytics and other creative software approaches to convert it into value.

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     Source: Melville, N.P. “Digital Fitness: Four Principles for Successful Development of Digital Initiatives,” paper accepted to HICSS-48, January 5-8, 2015.


A good example of leveraging technology trajectories in the environmental sustainability space is provided in a post on SustainableBrands by Paul Bosworth, which summarizes the critical role that data plays in driving sustainability at USPS:

Data, Data, Data

Sustainable business these days requires data, and lots of it. Companies are using sustainability data for a multiplicity of reasons: to inform corporate strategy, comply with regulations, evaluate investments, improve transparency, develop products and processes, manage risk, benchmark themselves against competitors, change organisational culture, and engage with supply chains.

Increasingly, companies that take a well-organised and data-driven approach are more likely to see investments in their sustainability programme pay off. This means using analysis to better inform decision making, leading to methodically prioritised initiatives that get off the ground far more quickly.

Once the data management programme begins to mature and data inputs are integrated that reach across a company’s financial planning databases and other operational information resources, opportunities for cost savings and revenue generation can be routinely identified and acted upon.

Driving Value From Data

My favourite example of an organisation using data to drive sustainable development is the United States Postal Service (USPS). Across 32,000 facilities, their Office of Sustainability designed an employee-led programme to address goals in waste reduction, energy conservation, fleet fuel reduction, consumables spending, recycling, and water use.

To aggregate and display relevant data, USPS developed a Green Initiatives Tracking Tool (GITT). This features dashboards that allow cost efficiencies and performance enhancements to be monitored across the organisation. The GITT system achieves this by providing status updates for core projects, as well as financial information, through direct connection with the accounting system for each facility.

GITT is also designed to be interactive. It includes a start-up list of 41 suggested projects for facilities as well as guidelines and training modules for their completion. Managers can also understand clearly what projects are in place and where via sustainability performance metrics that are triggered upon project implementation. Ready access to GITT information and comparative tables enable comparison between facilities and geographies. Most importantly, USPS can now track progress in real time at a national level and support those facilities that need additional help.

By using data aggregation and analytics, USPS was able to gain visibility into its progress on sustainability and isolate over $52m in savings in 2012 largely due to employee-led initiatives.


Unfortunately, as I argue in the article, too many digital initiatives fail to meet expectations. It’s my hypothesis that the lack of digital fitness is one source of these high rates of failure. If this is true, it would be interesting to refine the concept of digital fitness by studying leaders at companies that seem to excel at the intersection of IT and corporate environmental sustainability, including SAP, IBM, Danone, Intel, Nest, OPower, and Ebay. What might we learn?

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Pike Research: Telco to Spend 61% of CAPEX ($194B) on ‘Sustainable Infrastructure’ by 2016

A recent Pike Research study finds that:

  • 61 percent of Telco capital expenditures will be on sustainable infrastructure by 2016
  • This represents a $194 billion market.
  • 65% of this investment will be in mobile networks
  • Drivers include: GHG reduction commitments, falling cost of opening base stations run on clean energy,  efforts to minimize rising energy prices.
  • Energy efficiency enablers include:  improvements to RF amplifiers, switches, network architectures and topologies and fresh air cooling.
  • GHG impacts: reductions of 5.6 percent to 251 million tons of carbon dioxide equivalent by 2016

I want my “clean” 4G…

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Sustainability + Big Data = Transformation

From my perspective,” Starks said, “the Internet of Things is a technology looking for purpose, and to me sustainability is a purpose.” Toward that end, he said, AMEE hopes to be a “catalyzer for change…” (Gavin Starks of AMEE).

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Smaller Devices, Bigger Data: How Smart (Everything) Enhances Sustainability

Making buildings, cars, electric grids, and homes “smart” involves sensor grids pushing real-time continuous data to analytics software programs that turn that messy data into useful information. The process is now underway and leads to exponential growth in the amount of data that can be leveraged for better management of energy, water, hazardous substances, CO2, and so forth. So, smaller devices lead to bigger data. As Joel Makower at Greenbiz puts it:

Or consider the data streaming from an office building equipped with sensors and smart devices. IBM placed more than 250,000 sensors within a 3.3 million-square-foot manufacturing site in Minnesota. It sampled only a subset of them every 15 minutes, collecting 2.15 million points of data per month. A Microsoft pilot at its Redmond, Wash., campus looked at public and private data for a subset of its buildings and gathered 500 million data points a day. All this data can allow you to make buildings more efficient and more comfortable — if you know how to harness it.

Much of the data doesn’t sit still. For example, as smart, electric-powered cars hit the roads, they’ll be streaming data to and from the electric grid, IT-embedded “smart roadways,” charging stations, the driver, other vehicles, and navigational equipment — all at the same time. Collecting and crunching all this data in microseconds could go a long way toward allowing vehicles to travel hyper-efficiently and safely, saving time and fuel.

These are glimpses into the tsunami of information that’s bearing down on companies, governments, and others — the leading edge of a wave of products and services harnessing big data to reduce waste and improve efficiency, and make big profits along the way.