Wagner: Look for opportunities

If we want to reduce our footprint on the planet, we must rely on technology and intervention

During the first wave of green, I worked at the Environmental Protection Agency. Part of my portfolio in the early 1980s was EPA’s first systematic effort to study global warming. At the time, the risks seemed quite real, but the uncertainties were also quite large. Most people dismissed us as alarmist and said, in any event, there was plenty of time to figure out what, if anything, to do.

A quarter of a century later, the scientific consensus is clear: global warming is happening, it is being caused by human activity, and we need to do something about it. And almost more importantly, the societal consensus is clear. The top three presidential contenders all have proposals to deal with global warming. Nearly everything has been touched by the green movement. It’s hard to walk through an industry trade show without tripping over a display of some company’s environmental credentials. The private sector clearly sees more green in green.

Green is back. Everywhere we see environmental and energy constraints that will take innovation and diplomacy to overcome. This matters a lot to the information technology industry, and it may matter more to the part that works with the government. First, to paraphrase columnist and author Thomas Friedman, you can’t make a product greener without making it smarter. Second, markets undervalue green factors, thus making a case for government intervention. This can be done through mandatory regulation, voluntary compliance programs, using the government’s buying power to help drive markets, and diplomatic efforts with other countries. Expect all these and more. Dealing with our environmental and energy problems will blend a heavy dose of technology with government intervention.

Technology offers solutions by making products more efficient. Smart data center managers found they spent 50 cents on power for every dollar they spent on technology, and the IT people didn’t talk to the utility people. Growing constraints in space, energy costs and workload growth are forcing changes in how data centers do business.

But look beyond the hardware on your desk. Think of the web of sensors in the world generating torrents of information. Think of the tools to evaluate that information for management. The best way to save energy is to not use it at all.

For example, the cell phone system knows how fast cars are moving down the road. That data could in principle be used to manage traffic lights to reduce fuel consumption and travel time. Add in the experiments in congestion charges that New York is exploring and Stockholm is using, and you have a good illustration of the challenge we are facing: lots of data in different places, tools to use that data for insight and management, and a connection with government. The challenge will be less about technology and more about finding ways for organizations to work together in new ways.

So what are the lessons for us? Look broadly and sideways — opportunities are likely to come from unusual directions. Look end to end — energy consumption is part of a value chain, and you don’t know the net effect from looking at a single link. Look at what government is doing — it is likely to be involved.

Wagner (marty.wagner@us.ibm.com) is a senior fellow at the IBM Center for the Business of Government. In 2007, he retired after more than 30 years in government, serving for a time as the acting commissioner of the General Services Administration’s Federal Acquisition Service.

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