Slowly getting beyond green IT as new sex

Posted on July 23, 2008

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It is with mixed emotion that I read Stephen Bell’s (Computerworld) report of a panel at Radar08 last week.

Followers of this blog will recognise my theme:

Computing and IT underpins every sector of society as a pervasive and influential discipline with global impact. As a result, computing influences the environment and society either positively or negatively. While we have seen positive benefit from incremental changes such as reductions in energy usage and recycling components, more comprehensive and transformative changes are needed to meet contemporary challenges. In short, we need to move beyond a focus on our own footprint and examine ways in which we can facilitate a much larger impact.

The way to achieve this is to think about how we think and act as sustainable practitioners. Therefore, we need to understand the concepts of social, environmental and economic sustainability in order to evaluate, question and discuss our role in the world to enable us to make changes where and when appropriate. In other words: what does it mean to be a sustainable practitioner?

Bell’s report titled “Green is the new sex – in a marketing sense” demonstrates an entry point for some companies, but also how far we have to go to reach the notion of the sustainable practitioner. Doing something because there is a marketing benefit rather than because it is “the right thing to do” is not something I would encourage. It leads to a box ticking approach:

Every vendor is ticking the boxes” for energy-saving, acceptance of recycled equipment and other environmentally sensitive measures, he (John King) says.

The trouble with a marketing driven “box ticking” approach is that the boxes are unpredictable and keep changing. What we need is a holistic approach, a realisation that actions will have impacts, positive and negative, intended and unintended, across scales: temporal; spatial; social and cultural.

Bell then goes on to report on how much money can be saved by decreasing power consumption. He reports Hamish McNee:

Yet many ICT users, individual or corporate, are still resistant to such ideas, even when it is clear they save money.

We’ve noted before the danger of assuming that lean=green. Just because this year’s green IT solution happens to save money, doesn’t mean this will always be true. If we get a mindset that we can be green only because it saves money it’s going to make for difficult arguments when we hit something that requires more cash.

After this shaky start though, Rod Oram hits the jackpot:

ICT is a tool to reduce consumption as well as a target. “You can use your IT stuff to help you measure and manage it”

We’re starting to get traction on the idea that the bigger impact of computing is going to be from our ability to affect other areas:

…collaboration online to reduce travel. Rather than prohibiting the more business-oriented “social networking” services such as FaceBook in the office, companies should be giving “unfettered access” to them, says Oram.

We have made significant progress with recent focus on data consolidation and virtualization. But, while every bit counts, it is small compared to the potential impacts of applying IT. Also, we’ve been fortunate that being green has happened to align with cheap. Next year’s challenges may not provide such easy options – lean doesn’t necessarily equal green, and green isn’t necessarily lean. Are we prepared to support a technician who points out that a supplier doesn’t have good labour relations in the 3rd world? Do we actually read the green blurb that is attached to most RFP responses? Could we make decisions on the basis of it? Do we support an accounting system that really supports a triple bottom line approach?

We need to have positive answers to these questions before we are in a position to market green IT.

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