Information Systems for Environmental Sustainability

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


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Sustainability Information Awareness Drives Culture?

We hosted a conference here at the Ross School last week that allowed me to showcase a case study I’ve developed on carbon management systems. I started the mini-case discussion with a few questions:

How many of your organizations publish an annual sustainability report?

About half the hands go up.

What’s inside of these reports. Have you read them?

Only two hands go up, both from SAP: Bob LoBue VP Global University Alliances and Paul Hofmann,VP, Group of the Chief Scientist. Bob and Paul were very aware of key sustainability metrics used by SAP, e.g., GHG/employee and energy use.

Why might this be the case? Well, when you visualize metrics   like this in your online sustainability report, it’s easy to see how awareness of sustainability information and metrics (provided by innovative information systems) might be a driver of a sustainability culture:


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How to Design Effective Systems to Induce Energy Conservation Behaviors?

Jane McGonigal might suggest online games that embody kernel theories about what works and what doesn’t (PERMA):

  • Positive Emotions
  • Relationships
  • Meaning, and
  • Accomplishment.

Along these lines, Byron Reeves, James J. Cummings, and Dante Anderson have developed an energy game called “Power House” motivated by several problems:

To this end, billions of dollars have been spent on smart grid and smart meter technologies, based on the idea that people will use new energy information to make wiser energy decisions.  However, despite the availability of rich mines of data, there is still a problem: the process by which consumers interact with this data is not engaging. The information is dull, the interfaces are complex, and the feedback is temporally distanced from behavior (Figure 1.).  As a result, incentives for the users are unclear.

Popular game environments offer insight for energy applications. Games engage people with elements like self-representation, timely feedback, community connections, ranks and levels, teams, virtual economies, and compelling narratives [3].  A multiplayer game that connects such elements to the information gathered by home smart meters could prove more engaging than current UIs. [My bold, Full CHI 2011 paper here]

Power House tests these kernel theories about what works and what doesn’t by embodying them in the design and game play:

Will this form of gaming prove effective? What will the next phase of research involving research trials with actual users in the U.S. and Europe reveal? Could these ideas be adapted to bolster energy and carbon reduction campaigns within organizations?


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FT.com: “IT Takes Lead in Cutting Carbon”

Financial Times has an article that  summarizes how IT can make companies more green.

IT for reducing travel

Videoconferencing is one early example of using “IT for green”. Visual collaboration – whether conducted via dedicated, state-of-the-art telepresence suites or simple desktop PCs or laptops equipped with webcams – has become commonplace, reducing travel budgets and miles travelled.

In an otherwise sluggish year for the IT sector, the worldwide market for videoconferencing technologies achieved 16.7 per cent growth in 2009 and is expected to grow from $1.9bn last year to more than $8.7bn in 2010, according to IDC, the analysis company.

“The videoconferencing market is in the midst of a transition – from meeting over video as an option of last resort, to an alternative that’s preferred over travelling,” says Jonathan Edwards, an IDC analyst.

IT for reducing transport miles

At Kimberly-Clark, Peter Surtees, European supply chain director, has been working with the company’s IT department on a roll-out of transport management software to reduce the miles travelled by its haulage contractors delivering tissues, paper towels, nappies and other products from its manufacturing plants to retailers.

The system, from i2 Technologies, a US supply chain management software specialist acquired by JDA Software last November, has enabled the company to optimise allocation of delivery contracts to a wider range of smaller and niche operators.

“The more carriers we have, the more likely we’ll find a contractor with trucks scheduled to return empty from deliveries. If we can fill those returning trucks, there’s less ‘empty running’, and so fewer carbon emissions,” says Mr Surtees.

The company estimates that it is saving £1m annually in transport costs and securing more competitive deals from its expanded list of haulage contractors. It is reducing distances travelled on its behalf by 380,000 miles a year, with an annual saving of 540,000kg of CO2.

IT for measuring, monitoring, mitigating carbon emissions

Big IT vendors are accelerating this process by adding environmental modules to their enterprise resource planning (ERP) software. SAP, for example, acquired carbon monitoring tools specialist Clear Standards in May last year; Oracle has teamed up with IBM to offer its own carbon monitoring product; and Microsoft last year launched its Environmental Sustainability Dashboard for users of its Microsoft Dynamics ERP suite.

“With the dashboard, we wanted to make it easy for companies to extract environmental intelligence from information that, in many cases, they already collect,” says Jennifer Pollard, senior product manager for Microsoft Dynamics.

Data from electricity bills, including units, quantity and price, might be fed into the dashboard directly from financial accounting applications. The dashboard is implemented on clients’ behalf by Microsoft’s global partner network.

Role of IT Executives

“Close integration and the help of IT staff will be needed to gather it all, in order to get the most accurate picture possible of a company’s overall footprint,” he says.

Edmond Cunningham, an IT and sustainability expert at PA Consulting Group, agrees: “IT leaders are in a unique position to reinvent themselves as green advocates or visionaries, and not just within their own departments.

“The knowledge around how to make green decisions is still not readily available in most companies and IT can play a role in providing the information and data required.” [more]

The article is well done, though I have a quibble with the assertion that “IT takes lead.” While it may be true in some companies, we just don’t have enough data to assert that this is the case on average. Also, there will likely be many eco-IT failures (if the past is any indicator), suggesting caution and the need to be aware of common failure modes such as “managerial IT unconsciousness.”