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Spotlight on IT: Innovation for a greener economy

Jenny Marusiak, Eco-Business.com, 30 May 2012 - IT is an increasingly important component of achieving sustainable development goals. This article highlights the contribution of smart IT systems in construction, conservation, agriculture, energy efficiency and other areas.

Software giant Autodesk knows Phil Lazarus as a “superuser” who has taught the IT firm’s experts a thing or two about new ways to use its software. Mr Lazarus is a specialist in building information modelling (BIM) for engineering firm Arup, the company behind iconoclastic projects such as Singapore’s ArtScience Museum at Marina Bay Sands and the upcoming Singapore National Stadium.

BIM software creates 3D computerised models of buildings that include all the information needed to design, engineer, build, operate and eventually dispose of them. It is among the many information technology (IT) applications that the building industry is adopting in the transition to a greener, more efficient economy.

At a recent media briefing hosted by Autodesk, Mr Lazarus told Eco-Business that BIM has opened up new possibilities for the building industry, and has given firms such as Arup a competitive advantage by allowing them to tackle the complex structures that architects design today.

Apart from enabling engineers to translate imaginative architectural designs into functional buildings, BIM helps to save considerable time and resources because developers and contractors can find glitches in the planning stages of a project rather than during construction when they are costly to fix, he said.

The building industry is not alone in seeking out IT innovations that can improve the way it manages the world’s resources. Businesses, governments, non-government organisations (NGOs) and academic institutions are all tapping into new capabilities emerging from IT.

Geneva-based Jose María Díaz Batanero, coordinator of corporate strategy for the United Nations-backed International Telecommunication Union (ITU), said in an interview that almost every industry will somehow be transformed by IT.

Mr Batanero and his colleagues have just wrapped up a UN summit in Geneva to discuss how IT can help the global community meet its Millennium Development Goals, a set of internationally agreed targets for reducing poverty, hunger, social inequality and environmental degradation by 2015 through improved infrastructure and services.

Participants at the summit issued a strong statement that IT should be considered as fundamental infrastructure along with electricity, water supply and healthcare.

The IT industry leaders, ministers and NGOs who attended the annual event – called the World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS) – will be presenting this statement at the upcoming Rio+20 event on sustainability in Brazil next month.

“IT has to be put at the top of the political agenda,” said Mr Batanero.

He noted that ministers for telecommunications have long recognised the importance of exploiting IT capabilities, but that other ministries, such as health, education and economic development, should also be adopting the integrated use of IT to reach their goals.

When the UN first started paying attention to the role of IT – at the first WSIS held 10 years ago – the emphasis was on improving access to technology. Now, the discussion is about how it can be applied to improve learning, medical care and access to services such as banking, he said.

For example, an Indian IT company called ITC Limited has raised the incomes of some small-scale farmers in India by setting up internet kiosks that give them access to information on current crop prices, farming techniques and local weather reports.

In Japan, global IT firm Fujitsu is developing new technologies that combine sensors and cloud-based applications  to help local authorities predict and respond to natural disasters.

Andrew Milroy, vice president at consulting firm Frost & Sullivan, said that IT innovations such as cloud computing are becoming universally accepted solutions when it comes to developing in a more sustainable way.

Smart cities, smart grids for energy and water, and similar trends in sustainability depend on sensors and other devices that collect massive volumes of data that have to go somewhere to be analysed, he said.

“You’d be mad not to use the cloud for this,” he added, explaining that it allows all the devices involved to communicate instantly and in the same language.

In contrast, many utilities and telecommunication companies are still bogged down by what Mr Milroy calls “legacy technology”, referring to the technology and related supporting infrastructure that has developed over the past 40 or 50 years. Such technologies do not communicate with other systems effectively, he said.

With cloud computing, companies can avoid expensive investments in hardware and software that may soon become obsolete or incompatible with other systems, he added.

He explained that while cloud computing is not in itself green – overall energy consumption and carbon emissions from cloud computing is rising – the technology allows people to reduce costs and environmental impacts by sharing resources more efficiently.

From measuring impacts to managing them

Other IT innovations help organisations track their impacts on the environment.

David Solsky, chief executive of Australia-based global environmental management software firm CarbonSystems, told Eco-Business that new IT applications to monitor and report environmental impacts are improving corporate and social responsibility (CSR) management for firms, particularly those that operate in markets with government regulations that require regular CSR reporting.

While the vast majority of companies still track their greenhouse gas emissions and other environmental impacts using a variety of spreadsheets, an increasing number are turning to specialised software because it gives them confidence that they are producing auditable, financial-grade reports, said Mr Solsky.

“As soon as reporting becomes a compliance issue, there is a notion of ‘I’m reporting to the government, so it’s got to be right…we can’t do this on spreadsheets anymore,’” he noted.

Moreover, client demands have pushed environmental management software beyond the periodic data-oriented measurement and reporting required for annual publications.

“What we’re seeing now is more and more clients moving toward applications that help them improve their overall sustainability performance,” said Mr Solsky.

He explained that clients want a single application that can handle all the information they require, including data on energy, carbon, water, waste and supply chain sustainability. And they want the information updated continuously so that they can monitor progress and identify areas for improvement on an on-going basis, he added.

Clean technology, or cleantech, industries are also making good use of IT innovations.

Norwegian-headquartered solar manufacturer Renewable Energy Corporation (REC Solar) depends on IT to deliver the consistency the company is counting on for weathering the industry’s current crisis of diminishing profit margins and slow demand.

Head of Asia Pacific for REC Solar Matt Daly said on a recent tour of its Singapore factory that its fully-automated manufacturing and testing processes gave it a competitive advantage when it came to cost and quality.

“The nature of solar production requires high precision and a near-zero threshold for error which can only be achieved by the effective implementation of technology, people and tightly run processes,” he noted.

Those processes run 24 hours a day for seven days a week. They rarely pause because computerised systems for tasks such as ordering supplies, tracking and shipping client orders, and coordinating with distributors are all integrated into a system that managers can access at any time.

IT also plays a significant part in the firm’s research and development by automating and speeding up the process, said Mr Daly.

The value of information

While organizations are using IT for many different functions, environmental NGOs are reaping the benefits of its most basic currency – information.

In addition to the powerful campaigning tools that are available through social media and other internet applications, IT has provided new ways of getting information that was previously impossible or difficult to access.

For example, a new programme by the United States-based National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration uses satellite-driven global positioning systems (GPS) to protect endangered right whales. Specially equipped buoys ‘listen in’ on the communication of right whales and alert nearby boats to their whereabouts.

The project’s managers hope to prevent collisions between ships and whales, which have caused more than one third of the species’ known deaths over the past three decades. Scientists estimate that only 350 to 550 right whales remain.

Other projects help consumers and businesses make choices that are better for the environment.

For instance, global NGO WWF’s ‘EcoGuru’ application helps people calculate and improve their ecological footprint, and their website features an index to help companies find sustainable sources of paper.

ITU’s Mr Batanero noted that IT applications such as these help reduce consumption.

He added that the industry’s contribution to a sustainable future lies not just in its ability to support a green agenda - it is also the one key factor that can integrate solutions for socio-economic, environmental and economic development.

“IT transforms processes, products and services and gets us to rethink the way we do things. It allows us to do more with less, and expand access to services globally,” he said.

This Spotlight on IT series is brought to you by Microsoft.

Source: Eco-Business.com

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