Green consciousness around information technology continues to grow these days. Practically speaking, most of the marketing and product (re-)positioning is around energy-efficient hardware and infrastructure. What about software?
I have been thinking about this lately as I experience new writing and organizing around environmental justice. I especially recommend Van Jones’ “The Green Collar Economy” and checking out related e-advocacy initiatives such as Green For All ( http://www.greenforall.org/
), 1 Sky (http://www.1sky.org/
), and the Apollo Alliance (http://apolloalliance.org/
). Jones explores the “dual crisis” of “radical socioeconomic inequality” and “rampant environmental destruction.” He envisions transformed jobs and work as a core engine for both economic and environmental progress.
When he discusses energy conservation, Jones notes that “buildings are responsible for 36 percent of our energy use , 30 percent of our greenhouse-gas emissions, and 30 percent of our waste production” (p 117). Technology folks know that along with heating and lighting for office workers, it’s the modern computer infrastructure that costs dearly in heat and energy. All to run software, get on the Internet and so on.
Yet reading the book was kind of a revelation for me. Instead of sheepishly thinking of the care and feeding of software as part of the problem, what would it mean to think of software as part of the solution to office energy consumption and waste? Instead of starting with paring back the servers and computers to run all our stuff, what about starting for a change with what it would mean to have a concept of energy efficient software and the greening of software jobs?
I had these somewhat random thoughts, and maybe others will be able to go a lot further.
First, moving from networked to web-based software (think Salesforce, Convio, customized Drupal or other choices) for advocacy, constituency and services management is happening for a lot of reasons, including changing views of support and infrastructure. It is likely the case that your organization’s energy footprint will shrink by reducing internal server hosting in favor of web- or cloud-computing. Shifts like these have huge strategic implications and involve complex cost evaluations.
Moving to web-based systems also allows moving from full powered desktops to more basic ones, and now to lightweight and inexpensive laptop “netbooks,” smartphones and mobile devices. Does it make sense for your organization to consciously include environmental factors in assessing these software choices?
Where full web migration doesn’t fit, a parallel choice involves moving to “thin client” networked solutions. This could mean recasting software so that it can run on Microsoft Terminal Services or CITRIX. While Terminal Services or CITRIX themselves mean more demanding, more energy consuming, servers, they also open the possibility of using energy efficient network workstations at the desk. Even Microsoft Access databases can be recast to run on Terminal Services. This in turn means that the desktop client can be low power terminal workstations or else the same sort of web devices mentioned above.
Going one step further, a lot of the trend in application development these days is not just moving to the web, but moving to rich browser experiences. Users accustomed to getting their work done with traditional, highly programmed local systems press for similar kinds of responsiveness in the web applications that replace them. In strategy discussions about the possibility of moving applications to the web, decision-makers ask if those web applications can be imbued with the lively, interactive user experience staff expect.
It is an exciting time for software developers. Open Source JQUERY libraries, AJAX frameworks, Microsoft Silverlight, Adobe Flex are all competing frameworks to permit doing real work, including sophisticated data collection and reporting, within the web browser. It means that heavily used web data systems can still have customized, organizational mission aware features. This in turn helps tips the balance in discussions moving to the web.
In addition, in our own experience, finding that we can share things like JQuery programming tools and techniques across our Drupal, .Net and “pure PHP” projects invigorates those on the front lines of changing requirements for web development.
I am imagining a parallel to the new environmental movement “green jobs” kind of thinking. Why not envision software selection and reprogramming work to reengineer organizational systems in this mode also as green software jobs?
Second, a different aspect of the situation concerns organizational communications and reducing the handling of paper.
Many small businesses and organizations, while increasingly sophisticated in their enewsletters and web publications, often layer these on top of their traditional print publications. A monthly enewsletter to activists AND a quarterly print newsletter. A Facebook page AND mailed legislative roundups.
Though we just finished the holiday catalog season and know how much stuff still gets sent out, the post office reported its worst mail and bulk shipping year in history. This means top of the food chain corporate marketing is changing. For small organizations, without the sophisticated marketing research of the largest corporations, it should still be possible to look fresh at whether printed monthly newsletter, weighty annual report, or annual calendar (in a thick tube, not flat envelope) mailings still have the same, hmm, weight as they used to. The goal should be to reduce, not eliminate print by issuing materials in transportable, browser friendly format.
Yes, put the constituency strategy first, but don’t lose sight of the budget and environmental savings.
Likewise, can we frame strategic planning to insure that a component of software investment goes to eliminating paperwork? When we do technology assessments, we spend a lot of time looking at paperwork—inquiry forms, applications, intake, administrative and management reports. It has struck me that moving processes such as initial intake out to the web has become way more practical in basic community services settings. Where this works, it both eliminates paperwork, and also can reduce the amount of manual entry and re-entry drudgery for busy staff.
I say where it works because there is still a digital, and a generational, divide, limiting access to computing resources. And a lot of community services interactions do need to be face to face, unmediated by giant computer screens. That said, it is worth exploring at what point and in what manner data collection takes place. Similarly, instead of casually taking all printed reports for granted, research which can be turned into emailed documents or direct electronic exchange. In our own work, we are in the process of switching over to electronic invoicing. Our clients may in the end need to print out file copies, but over time, less and less we hope.
Another part of the paper problem is that it also makes sense to organize shared resources in ways that don’t require printing everything: review your shared drive organizational structure, invest in indexing software, move to a web based system that allows tagging, use a wiki. Where there is lethargy about the “old ways,” bringing an environmental perspective to bear may make a difference.
Final thoughts. We are now in a time of more dire pressures and also new opportunities globally. For the environmental issues about technology to take hold, it makes sense that organizations look for opportunities to engage on environmental issues, even if it not their traditional place. If you are a youth jobs program, investiga
te the green jobs movement, such as our local Green Justice Coalition, affiliated with the national initiatives mentioned earlier, and fund-raise to support your part in them. The commitments will complement each other.
I also have a sense that embracing Open Source and related initiatives, such as Creative Commons, plays a part. We can use the Open Source collaborative spirit and practices to elaborate a green software jobs perspective.