ICT doesn't just speed up our ability to collect and analyze data. It also enables us to learn and adapt more rapidly.
This blog post is the seventh of an eleven-part series on CSRwire that summarizes key lessons from the new book Cold Cash, Cool Climate: Science-based Advice for Ecological Entrepreneurs.
Information and Communication Technology (ICT) speeds up our ability to collect data, manage complexity, and more rapidly learn and adapt. My incomplete list of new capabilities enabled by ICT (taken mostly from Chapter 38 of Turning Numbers into Knowledge, which expands on most of these points) is as follows:
- Near-zero marginal cost of information reproduction and distribution
- Quicker publishing
- Easier sharing of data
- Quicker review of technical material
- Easier ordering and distribution
- Direct feedback from suppliers to consumers (and vice versa)
- Indirect feedback from consumers to suppliers (through data collection)
- Collaboration among users
- Access to information 24 hours per day
- Universal searching
- Easier and more widespread public access to technical information
- Dematerializing products and services
- Improving measurement and verification of processes
- Improving the speed and accuracy of analysis
- Enabling more rapid institutional change
The last five ideas bear further examination because of their direct relevance to climate-related entrepreneurial innovation.
Easier and More Widespread Public Access To Technical Information
Interactive links between the Internet and relational database management systems help those who possess detailed technical knowledge to make it useful to a wider audience, often buried in impenetrable and obscure reports. Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory (LBNL), for example, has for decades been the preeminent center on energy use in homes, but much of the information LBNL generated never reached the general public until the advent of the World Wide Web. LBNL’s Home Energy Saver website became the first Internet-based home energy analysis tool embodying the technical expertise of dozens of LBNL scientists and has had more than 4 million users since it was created.
The website ensures consumer confidence that the tool accurately characterizes energy use in her home because of the expertise and credibility of those who created it. Even better, the Home Energy Saver has an API, so you can incorporate the technical knowledge of those who created it into your own software and avoid having to recreate all that detailed technical work yourself. Think of it as your tax dollars at work.
Dematerializing Products And Services
My flip name for this category is “substituting smarts for parts” but it’s actually broader than that. It is usually possible to make products simpler in design using software and controls in the device itself like Makani Power, but we can also save energy and materials by avoiding the need to move physical objects and people from place to place. The three archetypal examples of this effect are telecommuting, replacement of physical compact discs with downloadable music, and video conferencing. It is not always true that moving bits instead of atoms reduces emissions, but it is often true.
Improving Measurement and Verification Of Processes
Because of the rapid decline in the costs of monitoring technology (driven by improvements in computing and communications), our ability to understand the effects of our actions in real time is increasing at a furious pace. This means better control of processes, less waste, and better matching of energy services demanded with those supplied. The most sophisticated data center operators, for example, have sensors that measure temperature, humidity, power flows, and other key data tens or hundreds of times per second, so their control systems won’t miss anything.
And the revolution in mobile sensors, brought about by the doubling every year and a half in the energy efficiency of computing, promises to substantially accelerate this trend.
Improving The Speed and Accuracy Of Analysis
Fortunately, the inrush of data from monitoring technologies has been accompanied by improvements in our ability to analyze and understand those data. Without new tools we’d have a hard time keeping up, which is why new data centers and industrial operations are increasingly demanding more powerful tracking software.
These developments are important because the data starting to become available on energy use will be at increasingly fine levels of geographic and temporal disaggregation.
With the proliferation of “Smart Meters” that allow real time metering of electricity use, our ability to understand electricity use in buildings will rapidly improve. In the 1970s, considered the early days of energy efficiency analysis, we conducted market assessments using simple averages of costs and savings for a single refrigerator model for the U.S. as a whole, for example.
Soon we’ll be able to monitor the response of millions of households to electricity price in real time, and disaggregate household electricity into its component parts with unparalleled accuracy. That will allow much more precise assessments of efficiency potentials and will give businesses the opportunity to target the biggest electricity users with energy saving innovations.
Enabling More Rapid Institutional Change
When companies first started buying computers on a large scale, economists were puzzled by the apparent lack of effect on productivity, eventually becoming known as “the productivity paradox”. This delay actually had historical precedent.
With electric motors, for example, the real benefits of that technology didn’t arrive until production processes were modified to take full advantage of the new technology’s benefits, and the same was true for computers. Once companies reorganized themselves to capture those benefits, productivity improvements started on an upward march that continues today.
But it’s not just that ICT requires companies to reorganize themselves to take full advantage of its benefits, it also makes the reorganization easier by improving communication, coordination, process controls, and creating the conditions under which complementary cost-reducing innovations can more rapidly be brought to market.
It is in this deep sense that ICT is a transformational technology.
As I’ll discuss more in the next post, institutional innovation is one of the beneficiaries of that transformational power, and it’s one of the areas where entrepreneurs can generate the most rapid and pervasive changes in the emissions intensity of the economy.
Next: It's not just about manufactured products.
Envisioning the Future We Want to Create
Addressing the Underlying Drivers of Emissions Growth
The Scope of the Problem
So You Want to Solve the Climate Problem...
Cold Cash, Cool Climate: Some Fundamentals
Cold Cash, Cool Climate: Science-Based Advice for Ecological Entrepreneurs