Silicon offsetting - the new green saviour?
IT's positive environmental impact
IT, on the face of it, is not very sustainable. New products are introduced in rapid development cycles that encourage wasteful frequent upgrade and replacement.
Not only do the products consume precious metals and other resources, but the manufacturing processes are energy intensive and systems or components are rarely sourced locally, as cheaper alternatives are often found on the other side of the planet.
Once delivered and installed, increasingly powerful computers and networks consume more power than ever before, 24x7 operation means many are rarely switched to standby, let alone off. The environment around them then has to be cooled to be acceptable for both the machines and the humans around them. Then there's the noise.
Three to five yearly upgrade cycles, and higher internal integration of components mean re-use is less likely, and replacement means waste. Despite controls on hazardous waste (RoHS) and controls on the disposal of electronic waste goods (WEEE), this is a growing problem. It's fuelled by Moore's law of transistor density (faster computers) and Metcalf's law of networks (more valuable the more connections), both of which drive the vicious circle of smaller, faster and more, more, more.
That's a growing carbon footprint, but there are ways technology can be used to neutralise its impact. A quick straw poll of technology vendors suggests well over half are considering how a greener message could form part of their marketing plans. Although for some it was nothing more substantial than that, just green marketing, for the most part they want to help their customers and channel be more environmentally friendly - several had already started working with external green groups.
If this is more than just green hype, there are a number of areas any organisation can investigate.
Initially, everyone can look at their own internal processes and make improvements. It can be just about putting recycling bins around the office, reducing printed paper consumption or switching to compact fluorescent bulbs (or even switching off computer monitors at night). Although these all help, at least a little, they tend to be incremental improvements by a shaving of percentages here and there. It's still important, as a parallel in consumer usage means that even re-cycling 20 per cent of glass bottles will reduce the levels of new glass needed to meet market demand, but longer term it's better to reduce the need for glass bottles altogether.
Another way is to tackle the problem head on, perhaps in the consumer instance substituting biodegradable plastics for glass. Technology developers and vendors can look at improvements in their products, both at the component level and at the whole solution. Inefficient components can be replaced and different architectures can be developed to be more energy and resource efficient - virtualisation, thin clients etc. There are also improvements being made on the raw energy and resource consumption - during use and creation - taking the entire product lifecycle into account from drawing board to dump.
However, longer term there is a significant environmental gain to be made from using technology to replace or displace other activities; engineering the process to not require bottles at all. This is by applying technology solutions to encourage the substitution of certain behaviours or actions with others that are more environmentally friendly.
How big this effect might be will vary, and needs some form of calibration to measure any real green value, but as most technology products are based on silicon, we could regard this as a "silicon offset", as opposed to a carbon offset. However, unlike carbon offsetting, this is a replacement to generate more efficient processes rather than an attempt at compensation or conscience placating.
There are plenty of products and solutions that could be viewed this way, but thus far it is mostly the obvious candidates - collaborative software tools, video conferencing, power management - where a case for behavioural change can most easily be made. This is often a simple matter of reducing the amount of travelling, saving not only the environment, but also time, and ultimately money.
Recent Quocirca research has indicated the environmental benefits are the ones most noted by those without, but considering, collaborative solutions such as web or video conferencing. Those who already use these types of solutions cite productivity gains as the main benefit, so favourable to both financial and environmental concerns alike.
Other products can also be applied in ways that allow business processes to change in other ways, such as reducing the number of individuals involved, reducing the levels of heating or cooling required in working environments, or simply reducing the amount or distance that other physical goods need to be moved. Mostly these will have a positive effect on carbon footprint, but as they are also often more efficient or allow individuals to be more productive, have a positive effect on financial considerations as well.
Any legitimate silicon offset should always be viewed as sustainable from a commercial as well as environmental perspective. The challenge for vendors and buyers is how to measure and quantify this green advantage.
Copyright © 2007, Quocirca
wonderland - how to build
Thanks for that Nick - its a great article although I think the truth lies between current practice and your 'wonderland'.
First & foremost I think the difficulties people have with remote working are threefold:
(i) The implication locations should be all-or-nothing. I think people need to be able to 'connect' from wherever their work (or other factors) take them. The primary goal should be to remove the need to go to some random location (such as the traditional office site) in order to do something you go just as well from somewhere else. This may include integrating the 'internet cafe' model with that of serviced office use, for example, such that we can simply use office space at any location (including IT facilities) at some daily/hourly rate.
(ii) The need for far far better infrastructure. I'm sure many of us who are used to using video conferencing over ISDN/broadband will know why we find it so painful - and why face-to-face is still required most of the time rather than just some of the time. We need to push the industry and the government towards supporting truly real-time and high definition delivery ... this means fibre to the kerbside at the very least!
(iii) The need for cultural shift to allow people to separate being at a place of work from delivering value through work. This applies equally to people in an office. [Taking this to natural extremes moves us away from paying for attendance, towards paying for productivity - a huge cultural shift and heavily depends on true knowledge/intellectual capital management].
However - let's not forget, remote collaborative working is only one ingredient here ... we need to think broader and better around adopting technologies for more sustainable IT - which includes the benefits to sustainable business IT can deliver (such as this).
Alice in Business
You seem to have overlooked the reference to a related article:
Fantastic to see the consistency with which this issue is sustaining headlines with. Hopefully this is a reflection of it's criticality as well as a groundswell of public interest.
More importantly, I think we are finally homing in on the real opportunity for change here - that is, an opportunity for cultural shift.
Many aspects are discussed above which are by no means new - increased use and scope of remote collaborative working, reduction of the hardware demand itself through approaches such as thin client and consolidation (nowadays pushed further within the realms of virtualisation). It has not be technical or commercial issues that have held back innovation on these fronts, it has been cultural ones.
The simple truth is, the real opportunity for reducing environment impact is from changing our behaviours, reducing our cultural intertia … 'if it aint broke' - it can probably be improved!
The day we see CxOs more willing to adapt and embrace change more as opportunity rather than risk - is the day the tide will really turn on this issue.