In today's booming economy, it's easy to feel that all is right with the world. After all, according to the leading economic indicators, we're doing great. Many of us now have access to unprecedented amounts of information and money. Employment is up, and so is consumption.
But our traditional economic measures don't begin to tell the whole story. In our consumption-focused, sound-bite world, an age-old truth is often glossed over-that material well-being is not the end-all, but simply one of many means to the end. The real goal, most people would agree, is a happy, healthy and fulfilling life. Is a new DVD player required for that? Probably not. On the other hand, some very basic things are required, such as good health, connections with others and a hospitable environment.
Unfortunately, our consuming lifestyles are fundamentally at odds with a number of these sustaining elements, especially the environment. Today, earth's ability to support life is seriously threatened by what we do. IT is partly to blame, but it can also be part of the solution. Will "www" increasingly stand for "world without wisdom?" That's up to us.
Not a Pretty Picture
For most of the world, 1997, 1998 and 1999 were the three warmest years on record. This warming is at least partly the consequence of human behavior: Burning fossil fuels produces carbon dioxide and other gases that accumulate in our atmosphere, trapping the heat.
Currently the world is in its sixth major global extinction event. This one differs from the last-65 million years ago-in two ways. First, it is the direct result of human activity. And second, it is happening over decades rather than millions of years. Species of plants and animals are disappearing at 1,000 to 10,000 times the natural rate of extinction. Plants provide all our food, most of our medicine, clothing and shelter. They protect the topsoil, ensure the quality of drinking water and determine local climates. As many as 100,000 of today's estimated 300,000 species may be gone by 2050, because of compromised ecosystems.
On our current trajectory, as predicted by the Red Cross and substantiated by the best minds in science, climate change, environmental damage and population pressures will combine to make weather-related superdisasters the defining feature of our new century. Global warming will lead to flooding that may reclaim large portions of coastal cities such as New York.
Ecology Versus Economics
Economics, meanwhile, traditionally places very little value on the environment. All that registers on most balance sheets are the earth's exploitable resources, such as minerals and forests. But there are other, much larger things that the earth provides us-and businesses-for free, and these "ecosystem services" are seldom acknowledged. Examples include water storage and regulation of the climate. According to a report in the journal Nature last year, these services are conservatively estimated to be worth at least $US33 trillion a year. Even more important, there is no known substitute for them at any price, and we cannot live without them.
Yet we blindly continue to measure our success in terms of GDP, which does not even recognise these environmental services. An example of a more meaningful metric is the Genuine Progress Indicator (GPI), proposed by the public policy organisation Redefining Progress (www.rprogress.org), which includes the contributions and costs of family, community and natural habitat, along with conventional production measures. Whereas the GDP has more than doubled in the United States since 1950, not so the GPI. It rose from 1950 to 1970, but has declined 45 per cent since then. The rate of decline is accelerating too, with a 1 per cent per capita decline per year in the 1970s, 2 per cent in the 1980s and 6 per cent in the 1990s.
The IT Connection
It's not a good situation, but it's not a hopeless one either. We can change course. It won't be easy, but it need not be marked by sacrifice or discomfort. We can live better with less cost by using smarter technologies that yield new heights of prosperity, health and connectedness.
IT has great potential to help create a new, improved world, but too much of its power is still focused on enabling us to consume more and do more dumb things faster. To achieve the promise of a better world assisted by IT and the Internet revolution, we must seize the high ground.
A few months ago, The Nature Conservancy hosted a conference on the intersection of sustainability and information technology. The Conservancy is the world's largest conservation organisation, having protected more than 11 million acres of land in the United States and more than 70 million acres abroad. A number of ideas were discussed at the conference, including suggestions for how those of us in IT can help our companies move toward a more sustainable economy.
1. Use your strengths. Recognize that global sustainability requires a systems point of view-inputs, processes, outputs and interconnections among the various niches to keep the entire system in balance. Happily, this is one of the great strengths of the IT community. Our expertise in systematic thinking is precisely what is needed to help move us toward a better future. Whole-system thinking, including using nature's model of closed-loop production systems, can pay handsome dividends.
For example, when chlorofluorocarbons (CFCs) and their destructive influence on our stratospheric ozone first gained attention several years ago, many industry executives screamed for more time to phase them out and warned of huge economic costs and consumer discomfort to transition to new substitutes. CFCs were critical to the manufacturing of circuit board assemblies. But amid all the fuss, some companies looked around for alternatives. Motorola began successfully using plant-based terpenes, based on a derivative of orange peels. The natural cleaner proved more effective than the CFCs had been. Next, Motorola began to recycle rinse water from the system and reduced the cost of cleaning PC boards by 85 per cent. Better still, Motorola used this as a stepping stone to redesigning products that don't require any cleaning during manufacturing. The end result? Superior products, less pollution and more profit.
IT can play a key role in finding and enabling profitable, sustainable solutions. Take a close look at your company's value chain and internal processes for areas where your reengineering skills and whole systems thinking could help redesign things for the better. It's time to dispel the myth that changing away from dirty old technologies means figuring out who should bear the costs. The more interesting question is, Who should get the profits?
2. Take a broader perspective. A growing number of companies, including Procter & Gamble, are embracing a bottom line that attempts to measure not just their corporate health but also what is good for the communities in which they operate. While environmental and social measures are still rudimentary and far from standardized, corporations are finding ways to chronicle their progress. Tellingly, according to a recent joint survey by Dow Jones and Sustainable Asset Management, the top 200 sustainable companies outperformed the rest of the pack, including technology and energy companies.
CIOs can be advocates for advancing knowledge management for these broader measures of success. They can help business leaders broaden their view of what metrics they should be looking at and also expand their companies' systems so that they're capturing and reporting information that paints a fuller picture.
3. Focus on service. Information systems can help us transition our thinking toward a new business model that emphasizes meeting customers' needs rather than making and selling products. The book Natural Capitalism: Creating the Next Industrial Revolution (Little Brown, 1999) provides several inspiring examples.
For instance, United Technologies' Carrier division, the world's largest manufacturer of air conditioners, is shifting its mission from selling air conditioners to leasing comfort. Making its air conditioners more durable and efficient may compromise future equipment sales, but it provides what customers want and will pay for-better comfort at lower cost. Carrier will get paid to provide the agreed-upon level of comfort, however that's delivered.
Higher profits can come from providing better solutions rather than selling more product. CIOs can help by providing the necessary information infrastructure to facilitate this transition.
4. Listen and learn. Most major corporations have organisational units that focus on environmental concerns. Some leaders, such as P&G, have even reorganised their groups to incorporate all aspects of sustainability. Whatever the group is called at your company, invite its director out to lunch. Try to learn more about your company's environmental challenges and opportunities, and explore ways that IT can be part of improving things.
5. Help out. Last, but not least, lend your expertise to your favourite nonprofit. Don't let the IT revolution pass by the organisations that reflect the best parts of ourselves.
Now is a great time to bust out of old boxes, risk speaking and acting on the truth, be a leader, be thoughtful, be creative and be generous. Small visions don't serve us well. Let's make them big, bold and powerfully good-for ourselves, our families and communities, and for all life on our small, precious planet.