Tuesday Mar 24, 2009

The Sustainability Challenge: Can the Internet Help?

Today's Green:Net event in San Francisco's Presidio District brought together some of the most informed and influential people working at the intersection of sustainable business and high tech. It was good to see this cross section so enthusiastically pursuing opportunities for improving the environment and their bottom lines while most of the rest of the economy is struggling to stay afloat. I was proud to represent Sun, which was one of the three event sponsors.

No Consensus Here

Kudos to the Green:Net organizers for hosting a wide spectrum of perspectives in the keynotes and panels of this one day conference. The poles of the spectrum were aptly represented by Saul Griffith and Bob Metcalfe. Both of these engaging speakers are big heros of mine.

Both have expansive knowledge relevant to dealing with society's energy dependence. But they differ on the approach to meeting the challenge. I think Griffith would agree with Metcalfe when he said, "Our goal is not to darken the Earth," but he would differ with the Internet tycoon on priorities. Metcalfe, true to his venture capitalist roots, believes the real challenge is to feed the every increasing demand for energy, and he cites the evolution of the Internet as a great reference case for meeting that challenge. Griffith's perspective, on the other hand, places the priority squarely on conservation. I have to side with Griffith, with all due deference to the man behind the Law of network effects, if for no other reason that it represents a bigger shift for society and implicitly acknowledges that there is much that is broken in our current consumption orientation. In an era where some mainstream scientists are projecting the decimation of human populations, knocking our species down from six billion to one billion by the end of the century due the effects of climate change, it's time to consider an emergency exit strategy. Griffith gave his emergency exit strategy in a condensed version of the one hour talk he gave to the Long Now in January, and still managed, in 20 minutes, to convince many of the 200+ attendees that the situation is dire and, crucially, that we (that's the royal We,) have a shot (about a 1 in 3 shot,) of keeping CO2 below the 450ppm threshold where scientist agree we might still avoid irreversible feedback effects. Griffith and Metcalfe effectively sanctioned the rules for the Green:Net conversation: consensus is not required to participate; differing opinions are valued.

Open_Source is a Verb

One of the highlights of the event was the Sun Workshop titled, Open Sourcing The Sustainability Challenge: Technology for Social Good. The panel discussion was Moderated by Josie Garthwaite with Sun's own Lori Duval, Natural Logic's Gil Friend, EQ2's Steve Burt, and AMEE's Gavin Starks providing the subject matter expertise. Data was the focal point of this discussion with lots of emphasis on accuracy and integrity being critical success factors for measuring GHG inventories and environmental effects. It was clear that these leaders appreciate the magnitude of the challenge, yet they do not shrink from it. It was also clear from this workshop that the companies and NGO's and governments building these data collection and analysis systems are going to need a lot of computing infrastructure and specialized information systems knowledge to manage the Big Data sets required for accurate and meaningful analysis. Openeco.org was cited in the discussion as a good example of an open model for collecting, protecting and comparing data. However, Openeco.org, and the range of the carbon calculators and GHG inventory tools on the web do not fill the need for a comprehensive analytics system needed by decision makers who deal with GHG emissions policy and standards. Bigger, more sophisticated and integrated systems are needed here.

Can the Internet Help?

Another highlight for me was the Panel titled The Green Web Effect, which dealt with the use of web technologies to create a successful call to action in the green business movement. Much of the highly evolved thinking about the network effects of the Internet that is typified by Clay Shirky's work was abundant in this panel consisting of Moderator Alexis Madrigal, Erin Carlson, Director of Yahoo! for Good, Ron Dembo, Founder and CEO of Zerofootprint, Jason Karas, Founder and President of Carbonrally.com, Kevin Marks, Developer Advocate for OpenSocial at Google, and Dara O’Rourke, CEO of GoodGuide. Alexis opened the discussion by saying, "We didn't necessarily start the fire, but we're trying to help put it out." Framed in that context, he then asked the panelists, "What do you want to have happen out in the world?" I liked O'Rourke's answer the best, because it aligns with a vision I've had for many years. He said, "We want to help people to make better decisions by providing the right information at the right moment." He was speaking of the GoodGuide service, which helps consumers understand the environmental, social, and health impacts of their purchases at the decision point in a retail environment. I've just started using their new iPhone app and am pretty impressed with what they've accomplished in less than a year as a business. I am very excited about the potential for this service when they add barcode scanning capability. I'd also really like to see them add some reputation enabled crowdsourcing capabilities. I'd also really like to help them build that.

At the end of the day, I think it was pretty clear to everyone at the event that open networked systems for dealing with global warming, and energy efficiency are not only possible, but imperative if we are going to have any chance of avoiding catastrophic consequences of climate change. The event was another reminder of why I'm proud to work at Sun.

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At the confluence of cloud computing, sustainability, and open source

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