Information Systems for Environmental Sustainability

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


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Manfred Heil of WeSustain: Our [Sustainability] Application is a Social Application

Manfred Heil of WeSustain speaks at the Ecosummit Berlin in March 2012:

What we did is to basically create a … sustainability facebook for corporations.

I haven’t seen the application so I can’t say what exactly this means, but the idea to drive environmental sustainability among corporate stakeholders using social apps makes sense.


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What’s New in New Accenture Sustainability Report? ‘Social Media and Digital Technology to Engage with Customers’

Consulting firms have been slow to include the role of information systems in their surveys of the environmental sustainability practices and performance of global corporations.

So I was pleasantly surprised to see the section on “social media and digital technologies” in the recently released Accenture study “Long‐Term Growth, Short‐Term Differentiation and Profits from Sustainable Products and Services – A global survey of business executives“.

Here’s the bit about Sustainability 2.0:

As companies strive to understand their  customers better and gain a competitive advantage in the realm of developing  and delivering sustainable products and solutions, the use of social media and technology will be important.  According to figure 15, well over half of respondents say that their companies are using these technologies to engage with consumers about their portfolio of sustainable products and services.

In a separate question, data reveals that 72 percent of respondents say social media will have a positive impact on sustainability by giving consumers more influence, with 86 percent of companies in emerging  markets agreeing with this statement.

Social media is also likely to have an effect on energy optimization in supply chains, employee engagement, and innovativeness, as I’ve discussed here.

Back to Accenture, is this a blip or a trend, or a blip on a trend? Time will tell.


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Social Media and Sustainability – Next Practices

From the introduction:

The inaugural Social Media Sustainability Index trawled through 287 major companies in North America and Europe and found 120 that were using social media for sustainability comms. Yet, when we dug deeper, just 60 of those were devoting any dedicated resources to that mission.

Fast-forward to the end of 2011 and a new landscape of social media sustainability has emerged. Today, at least 250 major corporates are engaged in some form of social media sustainability comms and more than 100 have a blog, YouTube, Facebook or Twitter channel dedicated to talking about sustainability.


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Lucid Design Group: Social Networking + Sustainability = Sustainability 2.0

Energy data can be made fun and used in creative ways to change behavior toward conservation. Above is just one example of this from Lucid Design Group. From CEO Michael Murray:

Human behavior is often overlooked in the areas of architecture and environmental performance. There are technical and design-related solutions to minimize resource consumption, but there are behavioral issues as well. Even the “smartest” green building can have “dumb” occupants who waste electricity. Our technology is aimed at encouraging greater interaction between occupants and the built environment, and promoting a greater understanding of the invisible flows of energy that power our spaces. The more visible we can make energy use, the more attention it will get.

The “building of the future” that we envision is not necessarily a new form with new materials, but rather a highly interactive structure in which energy use is everyone’s problem and requires building occupants’ consideration to manage it effectively.

I agree with the spirit of these comments. At the same time, I wonder whether energy savings can be sustained over time, as demonstrated in prior research showing that savings behavior may not continue.


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Sustainability 2.0: Latest Insights

How is social media being used at 50 leading global companies to promote sustainability in early 2011?

According to analysis by Sustainable Life Media and Zumer of 2,800 YouTube videos, over 900 tweets, thousands of blogs, thousands of Facebook wall posts and 45 executive and industry expert interviews [more]:

  • 76% of sustainability professionals interviewed believe that their investment in sustainability-themed social media will help gain market share, increase the size of the overall market, or, ideally, both.
  • Companies that achieve high degrees of social media and sustainability integration are charting courses toward healthier, sustainable and more interactive segments in rapidly expanding markets.
  • Companies such as Coca-Cola, PepsiCo, Dell and Toyota (all profiled in case studies) have unearthed the enormous potential of combining social media and sustainability to gain market share and acquire customers in new and growing markets.
  • The confluence of social media and sustainability is supercharging business performance in three core sustainability functions—reporting and compliance; stakeholder engagement; and operational efficiency.
  • Reports are getting shorter and more interactive: on average, 60% of companies studied are including videos in their sustainability reporting and 2/3 of companies generate content for their corporate YouTube channel.   The average sustainability report has reduced in length by more than 25% during the past four years.
  • Finally, social media is impacting the way leading corporations are planning and executing their business practices.  As an example, companies have been able to increase internal recognition of their sustainability goals, on average,  by 10-15% through the use of Facebook, Twitter and YouTube. This is resulting in greater compliance with energy, waste and water efficiency strategies.


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IT for Environmental Sustainability: Focus on Actions & Beliefs…

Greenpeace is addressing “green IT”:

  • Cool IT Challenge: urges IT companies to innovate, mitigate their own carbon footprint, and advocate for significant policy changes.
  • Climate Leader board: ranking of IT companies by efforts to offer economy-wide technological climate solutions that contribute to global greenhouse gas reductions; initiatives to reduce their own global warming emissions; and active engagement in political advocacy and support for science-based climate and energy policies
  • Social media advocacy: as an example, the “unfriend coal” campaign has 500,000 people signed up for the facebook coal campaign to urge it to use more renewable energy to power its data centers.

A recent blog post by Jodie Van Horn discusses “How Green Tech Can Help the World Go Oil-Free,” which is an overview of how innovative IT can cut energy use and carbon emissions in key areas of: smart grid, individual mobility, telecommuting, and industrial transport.

Given that these areas of innovation are in very early phases of implementation (pilots, experiments, etc.), what can help accelerate such IT-enabled change? In addition to the usual suspects of incentives, regulation, etc., the beliefs and assumptions held by people also play a role. How can IT help here?

  • Bring esoteric numbers (e.g., .871 gC02/KWh) to life using mashups and effective visuals

  • Eco-visualization: using artistic techniques and technology platforms to raise awareness of energy use

  • Using online social networking to apply “digital pressure” on friends to understand critical environmental issues.

So, innovative information systems can impact individual beliefs and assumptions by presenting environmental information in new and compelling ways and letting people make up their own minds and by spreading the “digital” word rapidly through online social networks, as described in the BAO framework.