Information Systems for Environmental Sustainability

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

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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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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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New Research on Energy and Carbon Management Systems (ECMS)

Information systems for managing energy and carbon emissions data are critical to corporate environmental sustainability efforts.

Yet there is a lack of research on how these systems are adopted, used, implemented, etc.

To shed some light on this topic, I decided to explore how organizations are implementing and applying ECMS. Together with my colleague Ryan Whisnant, we looked at two different systems in two different organizations to identify patterns of use and make recommendations for practice.

Here’s the abstract and a link to the SSRN paper (a revised version of which is forthcoming at the Journal of Industrial Ecology):

This article examines an important class of information system (IS) that serves as the foundation for corporate energy and greenhouse gas accounting: energy and carbon management systems (ECMS). Investors, regulators, customers, and employees increasingly demand that organizations provide information about their organizational energy use and greenhouse gas emissions. However, there is little transparency about how organizations use ECMS to meet such demands. To shed light on ECMS implementation and application, we collected extensive qualitative interview data from two service-sector organizations: one that uses a spreadsheet-based ECMS and another that implemented an ECMS provided by a third-party vendor. Our analysis of collected data revealed numerous challenges in the areas of business processes, managerial capabilities, data capture and integration, and data quality. Though our results derive from only two organizations and require confirmation in large-sample surveys, we provide several general recommendations for organizations regarding ECMS. We also provide suggestions for future studies to build on our tentative results. Link:

While this paper represents an important early step in this research stream, much more needs to be done. In particular, one of the most important next steps would be to examine the business value implications of these systems.

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CERES Report: Too many companies are only taking small, incremental steps

Two years ago, CERES published its “Roadmap for Sustainability” outlining what companies can do in the areas of governance, stakeholder engagement, disclosure, and performance. In a recent follow-up, CERES interviewed 600 companies to gauge their progress on these dimensions, summarized in its just-released (and aptly titled) “Corporate Progress on the CERES Roadmap for Sustainability.” Overall, CERES concluded that:

there are encouraging pockets of sustainability leadership in the U.S. business community, but far too many companies are only taking small, incremental steps.

It’s helpful that CERES went back to see how companies are doing – well done for calling it like it is.

One criticism that may play into the report’s findings about slow progress of U.S. companies is that the report under emphasizes strategies and tactics based on digital innovations. For example, SAP is a leader in transforming environmental sustainability strategies and practices by using innovative information systems that transform the very meaning of “sustainability reporting” and enable social business strategies for stakeholder engagement. But no mention of SAP or these strategies systematically in the report. As I mentioned two years ago:

The report essentially says: measure this, measure that, in these time periods, reported in these ways, according to these standards, benchmarked as such, verified thusly. Essentially, the report urges companies to collect reams of data on new sustainability practices and processes, slice and dice it, and report it in myriad ways. How is this possible without innovative information systems? [which are not discussed in the report].

Perhaps CERES can address this shortfall by adding vignettes on leading-edge digital strategies to achieve sustainability performance. Another possibility is to add a chapter to the report that addresses digital strategies in one place. In any case, please don’t refer to these systems as “tools.”