Beyond green IT

Sustainability is more than simply investing in virtualisation and videoconferencing, as Sarah Putt discovers

If ICT is the enabler of more sustainable business practices, should it matter if sustainability and profitability don’t go hand in hand?

That is the question posed by Samuel Mann, associate Professor at Otago Polytechnic. He teaches computing, holds the institution’s Education for Sustainability Portfolio and writes a blog called Computing for Sustainability that has the tagline, ‘saving the earth one byte at a time’.

“I always hedge around when people use the argument that sustainability is simply good practice – it will cost less, it will be more efficient – because my fear is that if we build that relationship too strongly, what will we do when it turns out not to be?” he asks.

“While I agree it’s good to look for the business opportunity, you can’t always rely on it being there,” he says. “What’s the business case for ending slavery? The cotton fields at the start of the 18th century, they were doing fine. If you just looked solely at the single issue business case there wasn’t one.”

Mann says IT departments have focused on getting their own house in order when it comes to sustainability, but now it is time to look wider. “In terms of IT services’ own impact and footprint there is a whole pile of sensible things to do. At the moment we are at the end of it – consolidation, virtualisation, there aren’t many people that haven’t done that. In that case the sustainability imperatives line up with the business imperative. That’s kind of done, so what are we going to do next?”

In other words, how do we move beyond the simple concept of ‘green IT’? Mann says there are three pillars to sustainability – economic, environmental and social – and, according to Mann, each is as important as the other.

When describing the challenges faced by the “sustainable practitioner” in his teaching, Mann uses the analogy of a chainsaw operator who wants to be environmentally aware by sharpening blades instead or replacing them and recycling oil, but finds it difficult when the business and social case doesn’t stack up. “What does that person do... when they get attacked at smoko with colourful language and told to ‘stop mucking around doing that, you are taking food from that guy’s children because we’re getting paid as a team and you are slowing him down. Just fix a new chain on and chuck the old oil in the river like we always do’?”

Mann says, if that’s a difficult dilemma, then what does the operator do when he’s then asked to chop down the last Kauri tree?

“What is the equivalent for computing, what is the thing that if you’re told to do you would think ‘hmmm, I am really not happy with that’ – because that is where it gets challenging, everybody knows we should be turning monitors off and using less paper – that is easy,”says Mann. “You’re not going to be told to cut the last Kauri tree down but what if it was the thousandth Kauri tree — what’s the equivalent for you and would you recognise it?”

Mann says that IT personal in charge of procurement – the graduates from courses such as the one he teaches – need to look closely at the environmental and social programmes of the vendors they purchase products and systems from. He says that the carbon footprint of the average laptop or desktop computer has been calculated at more than 1kg of coal burning every day. “If our computers had that amount of smoke coming out of them we would manage them quite differently.”

An exercise he conducted in his class was to offer a chocolate fish to the student who could find a clean source of energy in the list of 35 elements (for example cobalt, steel, glass, copper and so on) from around the globe that go into making a laptop computer as listed on the website

“We couldn’t find one that was described as a clean source except by the manufacturers,” he says. “That is kind of scary.”

But what can the IT department do about the fact that resources for basic computing supplies are drawn from countries divided by civil war and places where labour practices are reminiscent of the cotton fields of the 18th century?

Mann says it might be that businesses switch to a four-year replacement cycle rather than a three-year one, or that they consider recycling computers. In other words, extending the life cycle so that the cost to replace them (and the subsequent depletion of the world’s resources) is lessened.

But that is the negative side of the sustainability in the computing equation, what about the idea that ICT can be used to create sustainable communities? Mann has first-hand knowledge of this – he is leading the movement to save the neurosurgery unit at Dunedin hospital. In July this year he began a Facebook page and in just two months he has had 21,000 followers sign on.

“There wasn’t a community of people in the south that were grouped together thinking that neurosurgery should be kept in Dunedin,” he says. “The collaborative power of computing is so enormous that we would never want to not use it, particularly if we can use it for community organisation and community benefit.”

Who is walking the talk when it comes to IT sustainability? Computerworld asked Samuel Mann to provide a couple of examples of companies or organisations that embody the vision of, not only economic, but environmental and social sustainability in ICT.

Environmental: using IT to measure the carbon footprint on the farm

When customers in UK supermarkets began querying the environmental practices of the farms they were buying their beef, sheep and venison from, Alliance Group decided it was time its shareholders embraced sustainable practices.

Alliance Group is a farmer-owned cooperative that represents about one-third of the New Zealand’s sheep and beef industry. For the past two years it has been working with biotechnology company Abacusbio to develop a software package, called hoofprint, that enables suppliers to measure and monitor the carbon footprint of their farms.

“The project was set up as a market-led initiative in response to customer requirements for more information on how their food is produced,” says Abacusbio consultant Anna Campbell. “Alliance are working with key UK supermarkets to market their meat accordingly.”

Hoofprint is a web-based tool that assists farmers in capturing what they are already doing and highlighting which areas they can improve environmentally.

“We were determined to make this software easy for farmers to use as part of their normal farming business activities.

“Other software out there is complex and this means that many farmers need a farm consultant to assist them to correctly enter their data,” Campbell claims.

“We have designed simple interfaces for hoofprint with minimal data entry requirement for farmers. We have been able to do this with automatic downloads of killsheet data from Alliance Group and by having some complex maths behind the interfaces. The challenge of having complexity behind the scenes, rather than on the interfaces, meant a lot more time was spent on developing and creating the software architecture and code, but we are very pleased with the resulting simplicity for the end-user.”

Hoofprint can be adapted to the NZ Emissions Trading Scheme and the mathematical models behind the software have been developed in accordance with New Zealand Greenhouse Gas Inventory, and the concepts fully described for publication in an international science journal (Animal Production Science, In Press).

It is currently being tested with individual farmers and Alliance aims to make hoofprint available free of charge to all its members next year.

“The software allows Alliance Group to tell a story about New Zealand farmers, how they farm and what they are doing to reduce their carbon footprint on-farm. This is invaluable for selling their meat products to ‘high-end’ consumers and as such, getting maximum value for those products for New Zealand farmers,” says Campbell.

Social: growing a community of tech start-ups

The romantic vision of the successful IT start up is that they begin in a garage with a one or two committed individuals working day and night in isolation to bring to life the great idea that will make millions – Google globally, and Orcon locally, are two examples of this.

But it doesn’t have to be that way, according to the co-founders of The Distiller, a non-profit self-described cluster of ‘technopreneurs’ based in Dunedin. It is the brainchild of Jason Leong, Pierre-Emmanuel de La Bussiere, Tim Calder, James Wigglesworth and Francois Bondiguel.

Leong has outlined the vision for The Distiller in a white paper, in which he claims that “the success of a startup is determined in a big way by the community that supports it.”

“Dunedin has the capacity to be the cradle for entrepreneurship in New Zealand,” writes Leong. “While support is provided by the government for entrepreneurial ventures, there exists an opportunity to provide hands-on assistance at the ground level, lowering the barriers to entry for those who do now know where to begin.”

The Distiller aims to increase the number of successful tech startups in Dunedin by encouraging, networking and providing “cross-inspiration”. Practical support includes a free working environment — desks, broadband and power — for seven start-ups in the network.

There are “weekly business therapy meetings” where founders share the issues they’re facing with their respective businesses and “intimate guest speaker Q and As” that involve local and national personalities.

The Distiller is a non-profit organisation which is funded by practical support and donations. The Centre for Innovation at University of Otago provides a suite at no cost to house seven start-ups, the Tindall Foundation provided a $2000 grant to help get them started, the School of Business at Otago University picks up the tab for the electricity bills and WIC has only just begun charging for broadband services.

There are 16 start-ups in the network and they include G-Tours/iVisit a mobile platform for the tourism industry; PocketSmith, a web-based calendar that forecasts users’ future cash positions; and TweetNZ, which is looking to create the country’s first Twitter directory.

“The Distiller is a best fit for providing support, direction and confidence to budding technology entrepreneurs who are probably best described as post-Audacious and pre-UpStart,” writes Leong in his white paper.

Samuel Mann’s quick five

• Address your own footprint: Do the low-hanging fruit (recycling and so on – but remember that recycling is less preferable than reduce and reuse).

• Manage to minimise full cost of ownership. (What are the power profiles of your systems? do they have effective power management? are they optimised? – these issues may require both technical and behaviour change in tandem).

• In procurement: aim for swappable/upgradable components, learn to recognise greenwash, address the whole supply chain: be proactive and raise product stewardship (packaging and take-back) with your suppliers.

• Address your handprint: (doing more good, not just less bad). Actively look for opportunities to use ICT to dematerialise commerce and increase efficiencies for all your stakeholders. Think wider than “environment” and promote systems for transparency , social justice and active participation. Start by asking yourself “does our information system support triple bottom line accounting (measure not only profitability but social and environmental impacts?”.

• Think about robust business models that sell information, not stuff.

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