Information Systems for Environmental Sustainability

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

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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.”


Cloud Computing Cuts Carbon?

CDP released a report last month estimating the energy and carbon emission impacts of a cloud computing architecture (public and private) versus dedicated IT. According to the model, a shift to cloud computing results in an estimated carbon reduction of 50% by 2020.

Where do these carbon (and energy) savings come from? They are a function of two parameters in the model that are assumed to vary across the three architectures: power usage effectiveness (PUE: ratio of total power used by data center to power used by IT) and server utilization rates. Note that for PUE, the lower the number the better, while the opposite is true for server utilization.

While it’s a good first start, it would be helpful to put some confidence bars around the assumptions and check the sensitivity of the final results to various scenarios (best case, worst case, etc.) Also, it’s not clear what the adoption scenarios look like and how, precisely, the PUE’s were forecast. Finally, it’s interesting to contrast these optimistic CDP estimates with what Greenpeace has said about cloud computing.

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Environmental Sustainability Research at AMCIS

An academic community doesn’t need a unifying paradigm in order to exist, but it does need a shared identity (Kuhn 1962). Reflecting on the past few days at the Americas Conference on Information Systems (AMCIS), we do indeed have a shared identity: the study of unique problems arising at the nexus of people, information systems, and organizations.

In the environmental sustainability space, this means, for example, examining information processing requirements and capabilities arising in the context of advanced information systems supporting the smart grid (Corbett 2011), and the role of energy informatics and social competition on energy conservation behavior (Yim 2011).

Corbett, Jacqueline, “Demand Management in the Smart Grid: An Information Processing Perspective” (2011). AMCIS 2011 Proceedings – All Submissions. Paper 110.
Kuhn, T. The Structure of Scientific Revolutions The University of Chicago Press, 1962.
Yim, Dobin, “Tale of Two Green Communities: Energy Informatics and Social Competition on Energy Conservation Behavior” (2011).AMCIS 2011 Proceedings – All Submissions. Paper 475.

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CMS Implementation at Intuit

Mike Watson, senior sustainability manager at Intuit, discusses a recent CMS implementation with Paul Baier at ClimateBiz. Mike makes five suggestions for a smooth implementation:

  • Decide on your hierarchy and organizational structure before you begin.

NM: How will data roll up? What sorts of reports will be required? What’s difficult here is that the answers to these questions are often unknown to begin with, so careful visioning and concepting needs to take place to determine use scenarios that are realistic and capture an array of situations.

  • Know what are you solving for: reporting emissions, progress against goals, or initiative tracking.

NM: See above. Many companies, when asked this question, will say “all of the above.” But what’s most important, what is the sequence of priority, etc., is ascertainable.

  • Understand who is going to use the tool and what are they going to use it for.

NM: Who will use the CMS, which part, and in what ways? Analogous to workflow software for expense reporting, user categories are needed, with set rules about who gets to do what, how they will be made aware of it,  how they will know when something has been completed, etc.

  • Engage with stakeholders up front.

NM: Design thinking 101 (people support what they helped to bring into being). How will the data port from the old platform to the CMS? Who is the “data guru” and how to gather what they know to inform accurate data migration?

  • Identify the sources of data and who is going to own the entering of the data.

NM: Where does the data originate? What is the current process for data collection? Will the CMS follow the old process (probably not). What is the design for the new process?

Leave a comment “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.”

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Ideas Competitions: Could this work for sustainability practices?

Jan Marco Leimeister and colleagues have a paper in JMIS (2009) entitled “Leveraging Crowdsourcing:  Activation-Supporting Components for IT-Based Ideas Competition” in which they describe how “activation enabling” functionality and features enhance ideas competition effectiveness.

The paper got me thinking about how ideas competitions might be applied to generate new sustainability practices in organizations. Perhaps this would also enhance employee engagement? This paper is a good example of how IS research, in this case employing the design science methodology, might add to the environmental sustainability scholarly discourse. Kudos to Jan and colleagues for conducting this insightful analysis.

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Deloitte & dcarbon8: Supply Chain Orientation

Deloitte recently acquired “carbon and sustainability consulting firm” dcarbon8:

John Connolly, CEO and senior partner at Deloitte, said dcarbon8’s position in the market warranted the decision, adding, “dcarbon8 is a leading innovator in carbon and sustainability consulting and already advises a number of blue chip clients,” reports M&A Deals.

Battle said that becoming part of Deloitte offers some “necessary depth” and resources. “The challenges facing business as the world moves towards a low carbon economy are enormous,” Battle said [NM: what I refer to as a “carbon constrained world”]. A UK firm, dcarbon8 was a ‘grand prix’ award winner at the 2008 Green Business Awards, reports Sourcews. [more]

A unique aspect of this acquisition is dcarbon8’s “supply chain network” – a good focus given that the  bulk of the average company’s emissions derive from Scope 3, i.e., up and down stream in the supply chain:

The dcarbon8 Supply Chain Network is a total carbon solution for business. Any company joining the Network membership receives:

  1. Carbon footprint measurement
  2. Carbon reduction strategy
  3. Online carbon account
  4. Online carbon offsetting and reporting
  5. Planet Positive accreditation
  6. Networking with Planet Positive businesses
  7. Option to transfer carbon vouchers to your clients with your Planet Positive products

What services are provided by the online carbon account and online carbon offsetting and reporting. Are these services competing with the likes of Hara? Unclear…

The dcarbon8 Supply Chain Network is an inclusive community and membership of Planet Positive businesses who want to drive the carbon emissions resulting from their business operations, services and/or products lower.

The Supply Chain Network has been established to connect like-minded companies and create green, Planet Positive supply chains. The result is good for business and good for the planet. [more]

I’m not sure what this all means, but it sounds like eco-collaboration to me, which makes a  lot of sense given the scope and magnitude of the challenge.

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Global “Carbon Net”?

Picarro makes GHG measurement system for capturing real-time emissions in local areas, like cities. Whether such measurements are accurate and help policy makers, are not already gathered in other ways, and support a robust business model are fair questions for debate. 

It’s the framing of such a possible “Carbon Net” in relation to carbon management systems used in organizations that is interesting.

Writes Michael Woel, CEO of Picarro:

There will surely be some element of quotas, cap-and-trade, or emissions offsets. The developed world will likely subsidize developing nations. But one element entirely missing from the discussion is this critical piece of information. Namely, how will the nations of the world effectively measure emissions?

That’s a good question. How to do so accurately and cost-effectively.

At present, scientists can precisely measure the levels of greenhouse gases in the global atmosphere. They can also measure the emissions coming out of a single smokestack.

True on both counts.

However, in between those two extreme ends of the spectrum scientists have little insight into what is actually in the air. What is the in air coming off of San Francisco or New Delhi? Nobody really knows. California or New York State? Again, nobody knows.

I’m not so sure about this claim. There are some examples of estimating such figures, admittedly rough, such as CUD. Hypothetically, if an estimate has a narrow confidence interval, perhaps it’s good enough from a cost-benefit perspective? 

Software programs (generally called carbon inventory or carbon accounting tools) can make a guess at it by estimating inputs, and are useful for managing carbon footprints.

True: and the estimation accuracy varies by emission type, scope, etc.

But such methods are not entirely reliable and are easy to manipulate.

Now this is an interesting claim. Reliability using certain types of systems (e.g., Excel-based) may be an issue, but some of the modern CMS systems are much more reliable. I’d like to see some examples of “easy to manipulate.” Regulation, such as the new EPA rule, may counteract such manipulation, even if it were possible.

Top scientists are increasingly critical of these approaches and worried that, if taken as the final word, the numbers coming out of carbon inventory programs will mislead the world on the actual composition of the atmosphere.

I would really like to hear about who these scientists are and what exact claims they are making. While I could foresee such scientific research, I’m not aware of any. CMS tend to be so new that it’s barely on the scholarly radar.

And with global emissions trading at $500 billion last year, evidence proving these emissions schemes are not working could create a massive market crash rivaling the Sub-Prime catastrophe.

This sounds like fear mongering. Emissions trading schemes will not function well if the underlying numbers are not verifiable and reliable, in a GAAP sense. This is why entrepreneurs like Tom Siebel are interested in this space.

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Learning from the Public Sector

A paper entitled “The Carbon Neutral Public Sector” by Amanda Ball and colleagues published in PAR (2009, 11:5) has this to say about public sector efforts to be carbon neutral:

This paper argues for research into the effectiveness of government strategies for a ‘carbon neutral public sector’. We review initiatives in three OECD countries: New Zealand, Australia and the UK. In all jurisdictions, government agencies have consistently stressed ‘leading by example’ as a rationale for adoption. ‘Direct mandate’ by the Prime Minister (NZ); ‘organic development’ from wider central government sustainability initiatives (UK); and a more ‘laissez faire’ approach by Australian Federal and State Governments, were identified as the general pathways leading to implementation. Our assessment indicates:

a lack of understanding of the implementation process for carbon neutrality;

a need to identify and critically examine the ‘offset threshold’ at which mitigation efforts cease and offsetting is adopted;

an absence of any evaluation of the ‘leading by example’ rationale;

a lack of inter-country comparisons;

a gap in understanding the relationship with economic and social aspects of sustainability;

and a need to evaluate the utility of core government departments as the focus of carbon accounting.

We urge colleagues to consider research in this area with a view to contributing to the interdisciplinary solutions which we believe are required.