Information Systems for Environmental Sustainability

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


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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?


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COP21 Global Climate Deal – What’s in it & what’s the IT angle?

Here’s a summary from the BBC:

What are the key elements?

  • To keep global temperatures “well below” 2.0C (3.6F) and “endeavour to limit” them even more, to 1.5C

  • To limit the amount of greenhouse gases emitted by human activity to the same levels that trees, soil and oceans can absorb naturally, beginning at some point between 2050 and 2100

  • To review each country’s contribution to cutting emissions every five years so they scale up to the challenge

  • For rich countries to help poorer nations by providing “climate finance” to adapt to climate change and switch to renewable energy.

 

And here’s a recently refined initiative develop by and applying to technology industry organizations (from WBCSD):

LCTPi is a unique initiative in terms of size, scale and potential impact. The global program is an unprecedented demonstration of the determination of business to collaborate across sectors and bring solutions to help governments in addressing climate change.

  • 9 LCTPi groups are in operation: renewable energy; carbon capture and storage; low carbon transport fuels; low carbon freight; cement; chemicals; energy efficiency in buildings; forests and climate smart agriculture.

  • 85 companies have made 93 endorsements of LCTPi (see annex 1) and are ready to move to implementation.

  • Over 1000 high level business representatives and policy makers have participated in international dialogues conducted across five continents and in all key emerging markets.


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CDP Data Collection: Do We Need to Audit Corporate IS Used to Report Carbon Emissions?

[Full disclosure: I’ve worked with CDP over the years and have used its data for research purposes.]

Reviewing CDP’s latest information request, I’m struck by the lack of questions about the digital systems companies use to capture, store, analyze, and report the data requested by CDP.

Why is this important?

Reason #1: Data quality

The quality of these systems affects the quality of the information reported. For example, a dedicated cloud-based system with real-time access to the latest emission factors has clear advantages over an in-house developed spreadsheet. Yet CDP provides zero insight into the quality of foundational information systems used by respondents.

Reason #2: Complexity

Investing in and implementing the right information system to fit organizational objectives is non-trivial, evidenced by the high failure rate of IS projects.

Reason #3: Governance

Information systems are typically governed by information systems personnel, or jointly by IS and a particular business function. My own research reveals that for energy and carbon IS, facilities and sustainability experts are leading the charge. Is this optimal? Who should manage these systems? What sorts of governance structures might mitigate risk and ensure robust systems over time?

Reason #4: Regulatory Compliance

In many areas of the world, binding regulations are in place regarding corporate reporting of carbon emissions. It would make sense for investors (and other interested stakeholders) to have some transparency into the information systems (technologies, processes, and people) that produce these numbers. Moreover, one can foresee an audit function analogous to that for accounting information systems used for financial reporting (source):

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Bottom line: Either CDP and other third-party data platforms need to request data about information systems used for carbon emissions management, or, we need a robust carbon accounting IS audit function to assure the validity of processes, technologies, and human work practices used to report carbon emissions. Otherwise, doubts about data veracity will likely persist and hamper the positive efforts of reporting firms and data collection agencies.


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Internet of Things and C3 Energy – Implications for Energy Management

The Internet of Things, or IoT for short, refers to a network of physical devices connected via sensors with data and intelligence capabilities. In a way, it’s merely an extension of the Internet of computers to an Internet of physical things like trains, people, and wind turbines. For example, the network may look like a wind farm in which one turbine senses a change in wind direction, alters its blade pitch to optimize efficiency, and tells the other turbines to do so.

The basic ideas have been around for some time, but recent advances in storage, communication, and processing have enabled the vision to become a reality.

One implementation of the IoT is by GE, which refers to its IoT as the “Industrial Internet”. GE is developing a platform that allows developers from any company to quickly develop apps to power their own equipment and leverage GEs infrastructure of storage, processing, etc.

In the energy domain, C3 has just announced its own Internet of Things platform called Cyberphysix. According to the email I received this morning, this is a “platform for deploying industrial-scale cyber physical applications for the energy industry” that “offers [an] integrated suite of services for developers to rapidly develop and deploy IoT applications in an open, scalable, secure environment.” C3 says that Cyberphysix is used now at “numerous” large global companies. An example is Enel:

“Enel, the largest power company in Italy and the second largest in the world, is deploying C3 Energy Smart Grid Analytics solutions as its software platform for enabling Enel smart grid and smart city services. The rollout of C3 Energy Smart Grid solutions across 44 million meters in Italy and Spain will be the largest software‐as‐a‐service (SaaS) smart grid applications deployment in the world with the potential to deliver €15 per meter in annual economic benefit.

So what does this mean for the future of energy management? It’s hard to say at this early stage, but a few things are clear:

  1. As predicted years ago, energy is being transformed by digital technologies, leading to new business models and potentially enabling a new wave of energy efficiency, deployment of renewables, and reduced GHG emissions.
  2. The future energy management leader knows as much about PAAS, IoT, cloud, and BI as she does about kWh, line voltage, and FERC regulations.
  3. There will be platform competition and a potential winner take all market (see iTunes).

It will be interesting to see how these platforms evolve as their success will depend to some extent on how many members join and succeed.


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Ceres Report – Why do Tech Companies Lead in GHG Emissions and Energy Efficiency?

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Ceres and Sustainalytics recently published “Gaining Ground: Corporate Progress on the Ceres Roadmap for Sustainability.”

613 publicly traded companies were assessed on 58 indicators (governance, stakeholder engagement, disclosure, etc.).

Based on these indicators, the companies were grouped into 4 tiers based on their relative performance (tier 1 is best).

Regarding GHG emissions and energy efficiency:

More than half of the companies falling into Tier 1 for this expectation are Technology companies, including Hewlett Packard, which has not only set timebound targets for reducing GHG emissions and increasing renewable energy sourcing, but also sources more than 10 percent of its primary energy needs from renewable sources. (page 7). 

Why is this the case? The report does not elaborate on underlying causes. 

But it’s part of a larger pattern that I’ve observed (albeit anecdotally) in similar reports in recent years.

My own hypothesis is that tech companies excel in energy and GHG emissions management and reductions given their expertise in managing data and information (necessary to setting and meeting reduction objectives), combined with external pressures based on popular perceptions of energy hungry data warehouses. In essence, tech companies appear to have both the motivation and the ability to lead in energy and GHG emissions reduction efforts.

Could it be that tech companies are natural sustainability leaders? If this is the case, perhaps their strategies and tactics can be studied so that best practices can be diffused to other industries. I’ve spent much of my three-month sabbatical forming partnerships and developing projects related to these ideas. 


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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.”