Green:Net 2010 - Turning Atoms into Bits: Using Computing to Cut Carbon and Stuff From Our Lives

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Photos by Jaymi Heimbuch
Green:Net is all about how technology is benefiting our struggle towards sustainable living. But rather than a festival of green gadgets or services that do little more than help one monitor how much juice their gadgets consume, the event is a gathering of the best minds that look at how technology can play a role in utterly transforming how we interact with our world. IT has its own footprint to worry about, it's true, but it's minute compared to the footprint of transportation and buildings, and more importantly, IT can be used to drastically reduce the footprint of these parts of our lives and practically every other part as well. Several of the sessions looked specifically at how technology can help us use less stuff, get rid of stuff altogether, or quickly optimize efficiency in what we do manufacture and how we manufacture it. Everyone from Saul Griffith of Wattzon to Bill Gross of Idealab to Bill Weihl of Google (all widely acknowledged as some of the most brilliant thinkers in this area) put in their two cents about how technology can help us not just more highly value what we have, but change what it is we value in the first place. Cutting Down IT's Footprint While Boosting Its Use
Bill Weihl, the Green Energy Czar of Google, gave a presentation on the fact that data center energy consumption is a key focus of Internet companies this year.According to Weihl, the IT industry is responsible for about 2% of all GHG emissions. And Weihl states that if we want to see progress, we need to see that number go up. Not because IT will use more energy, but because it will help bring down the the emissions of everything else, becoming a bigger piece of a smaller pie. But as the status of IT in our culture goes up, the energy it consumes needs to be managed as efficiently as possible, and that means looking at the equipment and infrastructure of data centers.

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Relying on New Software Systems for Sustainability
Software systems for carbon accounting is a big component of technology playing a role in sustainability, and the use of IT in shrinking personal footprints. Panelists Jim Davis of SAP, Gavin Starks of AMEE, and Udo Waibel of Hara are at the forefront of this industry. Software for accounting for carbon in businesses is a big area as we shift to an economy that puts a price on carbon. Businesses will be concerned with where and how to cut back in order to save money, and software (as well as practically every other technology from telecommunications to product design software) will help them do that. The more we focus on environmental footprints, the more important technology becomes in assisting us increase efficiency. Luckily, the efficiency of computing itself is getting better.

Moore's Law Cuts Cost of Computing, and Therefore Cost of Everything Else
Our use of IT is skyrocketing, but Bill Gross of Idealab showed that while everything else is going up in resource consumption - from water to oil to minerals - computing is going down. We can make computations at ever cheaper costs as our technology improves; in other words, the same computation made a year ago takes less battery power to make today, making that same computation cheaper. Harnessing that efficiency in everything from building cars to solar arrays means the products we manufacture can be optimized for efficiency, taking up less energy to make (and therefore having a smaller embodied energy and carbon footprint) and taking up less energy as they're used.

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Tech Doesn't Do Any Good If It Doesn't Change Our Addiction to Stuff
But Saul Griffith, creator of Wattzon, dismissed the idea that technology will save us, reminding us that we will never get below a certain point of embodied energy in the products we create, and rather than worry about how we optimize the stuff we make, we have to shift away from stuff altogether if we want to keep the planet healthy. Jonathan Koomey, Project Scientist and Consulting Professor of Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Stanford University underscored the point, saying that the purpose of technology is to identify what tasks people are trying to perform, and then come up with a non-material-based solution - or at least vastly improved - way to accomplish that task.

Green:Net's most important message was that we need to "trade atoms for bits" and move the real importance of green technology away from gadgets and towards product-service systems. For example, we can use technology to dream up sensors to turn off lights when we leave a room, or we can use technology to help architects create buildings where lights aren't needed in the first place.

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More on Green:Net 2010
Green:Net 2010 - Greenpeace Ranks Cisco As Leader in Green IT, Scolds Entire Industry
Green:Net 2010: Microsoft and Google Swap Notes on How to Look at Energy Management Market (Video)

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