How tech can make us greener

Quocirca's Straight Talking: IT part of the solution, not just the problem...

Quocirca's Straight Talking: IT part of the solution, not just the problem...

Though IT is often blamed for not being 'green' enough, there are plenty of ways technology can improve an organisation's sustainability - both from an environmental and a commercial perspective, says Quocirca's Rob Bamforth.

There has been plenty of discussion about the negative impact of IT on the environment - power use and waste - but what about the plus points?

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 and 24x7 operation means many are rarely switched to standby, let alone turned off. The environment around them then has to be cooled to be acceptable for both the nearby machines and humans. Then there's the noise.

Three- to five-year upgrade cycles and the increasing difficulty of replacing system components mean reuse is less likely, and replacement means waste. Despite controls on hazardous waste (as dicatated in the RoHS Directive) and controls on the disposal of electronic waste goods (as legislated in the WEEE Directive), this is a growing problem. It's fuelled by Moore's Law of transistor density and Metcalf's Law of networks, both of which drive the vicious circle of smaller, faster and more, more, more machines.

Still there are ways technology can be used to neutralise the growing carbon footprint. A quick straw poll of technology vendors suggests well over half are considering how to promote a greener message in their marketing. Although for some it is 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. This can mean simply putting recycling bins around the office, reducing printed paper consumption, switching to compact fluorescent bulbs or switching off computer monitors at night.

These sorts of incremental improvements are important. In consumer usage even recycling 20 per cent of glass bottles will reduce the levels of new glass needed to meet market demand, though longer term it's better to reduce the need for glass bottles altogether.

Another tactic is for IT developers and vendors to start improving the 'green appeal' of their products, both at the component level and at the whole system or solution level. New components and architectures could be designed to be more energy and resource efficient. 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.

Longer term there is a significant environmental gain to be had from using technology to replace or displace other activities - to use the consumer example, engineering the process to not require bottles at all.

How big this effect might be will vary and we need some way to measure any real green value. As most technology products are based on silicon, we could regard this as a 'silicon offset', as opposed to a 'carbon offset'.

Thus far technologies such as collaborative software, videoconferencing, power management tools are seen as the means to create a behavioural change for workers. By allowing workers to reduce travel, they save not only the environment but also time and ultimately money.

Recent Quocirca research indicates environmental benefits are the ones most noted by those considering collaborative solutions such as web or videoconferencing. 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 change business processes by, for example, 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. These will have a positive effect on carbon footprints and on financial considerations - as they are often more efficient and allow individuals to be more productive.

Silicon offset should always be viewed as sustainable from a commercial as well as an environmental perspective. The challenge for vendors and buyers is how to measure and quantify this green advantage.