13 Jan 2010   |   Viewpoint

Green IT could be a model for us all

The world’s computers may be throwing out heat when active, consuming electricity on stand-by, and polluting the environment when dumped, but now the industry is on a mission.

Nuala Moran, Senior Editor

There’s always a bright side for the information and communications sector. The world’s computers may be throwing out when heat when active, consuming electricity on stand-by, and polluting the environment when dumped, but now the industry is on a mission to save the plant with the advent of green IT.

Moves to reduce the carbon footprint of computers and their associated networks are of course welcome. And as we report this week, the industry is acutely aware of the need to do more, if only it could get its act together and agree on standards, benchmarks and so on.

The seminar on the subject of green IT organised by Science|Business raised the usual litany of obstacles of changing the culture, removing technical barriers, financing change.

None of these issues is new, or indeed peculiar to the ICT sector. This highlights how moves to become more environmentally-friendly require the same commitment, pulling together and judicious development of appropriate technologies, regardless of the sector.

And looking back at the factors that stalled the Copenhagen climate change talks in December, the same point can be made about how governments need to agree the standards, benchmarks and objectives first, in order to move on and take joint action.

So perhaps the formation of Green Touch - a global consortium of public and private research labs which has launched an open innovation project to make the world’s communications networks more energy efficient - can provide a useful model, not only for how other sectors can get together to mitigate climate change, but also for how open innovation can be applied to other large-scale global problems, such as pandemic disease, water scarcity and food security.

Green Touch has set the objective of developing the technologies needed to make communications networks 1,000 times more energy efficient than today. This is roughly equivalent to being able to power the world’s communications networks, including the Internet, for three years using the same amount of energy that it currently takes to run them for a single day.

What distinguishes the Green Touch initiative is its commitment to an ambitious but quantifiable goal that is rooted in a scientific assessment of the physical limits of the various technologies on which communications networks are based. In addition, the consortium – which is open for any company to join – has set out a timetable for delivering on its objectives.

The mobile phone industry recently made similar pledges, touting mobiles as a critical tool in reducing greenhouse gas emissions. This can happen in a number of ways, according to a thoughtful report from the industry group GSMA, entitled ‘Mobile’s Green Manifesto’.

But, says the GSMA, standards are needed for this promise to be realised, and it undertook that in the next 12 – 24 months it will develop a standard mechanism for measuring emissions from all energy sources under the control of mobile operators. The Association also committed its members to reduce green house gas emissions per mobile connection by 40 per cent by 2020, compared to 2009.

Something is shifting, as these two examples highlight. Industry bodies may have long recognised the need to get together and set standards to advance to the next level of technology. What they didn’t do though, was cooperate when using these standards as the basis for innovation.

A similar outlook to that of Green Touch – with its acknowledgement of the need to work with peers and competitors in an unconstrained and open environment – is embodied in the European Institute of Innovation and Technology’s recently–announced projects in climate change and sustainable energy. It is reflected also in other EU-sponsored projects such as the Innovative Medicines Initiative, in which the pharmaceutical industry is collaborating to deal with fundamental shortcomings in the way it develops drugs.

Industry was turning to Open Innovation to pull in external expertise and advance product development long before the term was coined in 2003. It is good to see industry leading the way and applying these principles of Open Innovation in such a wholehearted way to deal with external, large-scale issues of climate change, healthcare and those other big problems that concern us all.

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