By Ryan Whisnant
Last week I attended a panel hosted by the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan: “Green Tech: How the Web and Information Technology are Empowering Sustainability.” The panel featured Nick Aster, founder of TriplePundit.com, Nigel Melville, assistant professor of Business Information Technology at the Ross School of Business (who hosts a blog on IT and sustainability), and Karl Rosaen, a former member of the Google Android team who is currently working on realtimefarms.com , which aims to empower local farmers and raise awareness of the availability of fresh local produce.
The core question that emerged from the panel was whether new information technologies empower sustainability and, if so, how. Web 2.0 and social media technologies including blogs, Facebook, Twitter, and online video are clearly increasing the volume and sharing of information, but does this translate to more sustainable practices, either by companies or by individuals? One dynamic that has clearly shifted is the quest for authenticity. While business transactions in the not so distant past required establishing real human relationships, only recently have “layers of firewalls and PR departments” created a buffer for this direct human transaction with business. Ironically, it’s technology that is bringing back a sense of authenticity. Whether information sharing and human transaction are really the same thing is questionable, but there’s no denying that web 2.0 has created a system of checks and balances that helps hold companies more accountable in a public forum – companies just can’t fake it any more.
In this new “authentic economy,” what are the risks? The panel offered several public relations examples that set companies scrambling for a response, including the revenge song about a broken guitar on United Airlines, Kevin Smith’s trouble with airline seats and Kryptonite locks that could be picked with a Bic pen . Companies have the choice to ignore consumer response to incidents like this, but they now risk paying a heavy price in terms of their reputation because of the way they can spread. The alternative is to “evolve” as a company, embrace a response to new technologies, and let more transparent relationships with customers help guide choices as a company.
Authentic or not, is all this information simply overloading customers? With all the channels now available, it seems that people are, in general, overwhelmed by the volume of information. In one example Aster raised, consumers really want to know “what Oprah says is OK to buy,” and they don’t want to be scanning barcodes at the supermarket to discover the hidden impacts of all their food. Information is just information – what matters is whether the information adds value or not – whether there is a change in attitude. One great example is Walk Score , a service that rates how walkable a given address is. It has empowered consumers to consider walkability in their choice of where to live. In this case, the availability and use of information has shifted attitudes about walkability, and as a result has shifted the real estate industry, which has begun adopting walkability as an important metric.
Beyond the social media side of web 2.0, there is vast world of opportunity in applying technology within the enterprise to enable sustainable practice. But the application of “green IT” is, as Melville put it, “still in the Stone Age.” Surprisingly, many large companies are still using spreadsheets to manage their carbon emissions. He envisions software in the future that will allow financial and sustainability statements to merge in some standardized format, and expects carbon management IT solutions to develop into a multibillion industry. Ultimately, technology is only an enabler and an expression of the underlying business and organizational structure. You can’t just throw technology at a business problem and expect results. Technology only supports an organization in changing how it does business – it should not drive the process.
This begs the question whether web 2.0, in fact, enables consumers to consume more or companies to simply be more efficient at being less sustainable. Here again, IT is only a tool. Companies and consumers must understand their respective business or personal model, be aware of the implications and impacts of IT on sustainability, and use that to guide them appropriately. Rosaen challenged whether shying away from technology is even a possibility: “How do you ask a society to do this?” While I don’t disagree with the challenge, it’s important that we make sure that we are driving the technology and not the other way around. Ultimately, IT holds tremendous potential for enabling more sustainable practices – we just have to make sure the underlying human and process considerations are leading, and that we continue asking the question, “is this moving us in a better direction?”
Ryan Whisnant is currently completing a dual MBA/MS degree program with the Erb Institute for Global Sustainable Enterprise at the University of Michigan. After graduation he will be joining software and IT services company SunGard as their Director of Sustainability Strategy.