Sustainability is about more than just green IT

This morning I took part in a panel at an event within an initiative entitled the SMART Series which Fujitsu Ireland jointly sponsored with the Dublin Chamber of Commerce.  The focus of the initiative is the SMART economy strategy that the Irish government has published as part of its response to the current economic challenges, the event being titled “Ireland & The Green Economy”.  The opportunity had partly arisen as a result of a week I spent in Tokyo with Fujitsu Laboratories in September where their two key research themes of “Human Centric Computing” and “Intelligent Society” had within them a number highly relevant to the aim of enabling a sustainable “smart economy”.

I wanted my contribution to convey to the audience that I feel passionately that Fujitsu Group can make to help build genuinely real societal benefits around sustainability and building a “smart green economy”.  As part of building Fujitsu’s credentials as the leading Japanese technology company I also talked about the impressive progress that Japan has made as a country in the sustainability arena, which is very impressive.  In an IDC report published last year Japan were the only country rated “tier 1” on the IDC ICT sustainability index being “able to use ICT to reduce emissions more effectively than any other country” (the United States, United Kingdom and Germany were listed as tier 2).  I believe the IDC report is annual and due out in November so I’ll be returning to this topic I’m sure.  An interesting statistic shared with me by one of the CEOs attending the event in Dublin was that between 1998 and 2003 Japan accounted for 40% of all the green related patents registered and was the most active in 12 out of 13 fields tracked in a study by CERNA and OECD.

The keynote speaker was John Shine, Deputy CEO for the Irish Electricity Supply Board (ESB) and I thought he did a really excellent job in clearly making the case for the part information technology can and has to play in enabling the innovative energy management strategies essential to building and operating a “smart green economy”.  What resonated for me was how the energy management solutions his company are deploying in Ireland assume enablement by information technology for the required capability rather than for technology’s own sake.  This is critical I think to how we need to embed the concepts of sustainability into our corporate information technology provision.  The focus must increasingly be on ensuring the business outcome and the “green credentials” of the solution must be implicit, expected and delivered.  Of course we all need to focus on driving the “Green IT” agenda by optimising the carbon footprint of our data centres, using hardware that consumes zero watts in sleep mode, providing communication solutions that minimise travel, etc.  It is part of our role to enable our companies to achieve the carbon management targets relevant to our sector/sphere of delivery but these are often only a means to an end, not necessarily the end itself.

The really interesting area is how we can use ICT to build smarter cities (to borrow an IBM term) in which technology enables the society to behave in a more intelligent, sustainable way. The concept of the “Internet of Things” comes alive here for me with sensors embedded in a massive range of devices with the ability to communicate data back to processing centres and then receive instructions on how to react automatically to be more efficient and optimise emissions.  The McKinsey Quarterly had an interesting article earlier in the year where they explored this topic and discussed a range of implementations including “sensors on patients that help physicians modify treatments rapidly: sensors in vehicles that help insurers set prices and driver avoid accidents: sensors in factories and data centres that automatically adjust operations.”

At the event we had some good discussions around “smart grid” in the energy sector and how the concept of smart metering had huge potential to enable our sustainability agenda. It was good to relate the activities of Fujitsu in this area in specific to the audience and I’m hopeful that some opportunities to deploy our solutions in Ireland may have been triggered by the debate.  That’s the joy of these events – you are not there to overtly promote you company, except that really you are there to promote your company!

What I hope I conveyed to the audience was that ICT can play a bigger role than is typically intended by labels like “Green IT”. I’m not knocking in any way the contribution that can be made in that area; however, the combination of sensors, communication solutions, rapidly evolving analytic techniques and the flexibility/elasticity of the cloud computing promise can all combine to make a broad contribution to a “smart economy” being a “smart world”.  It is critical that those of us in the ICT sector do not lose sight of the sheer power of the contribution we can collectively deliver.