Putting people at the heart of low-carbon technology

22 October 2010

By Tashweka Anderson,
Global low-carbon ICT Project Manager, The Climate Group
Op-ed, Guardian Sustainable Business

In 2008, The Climate Group, in collaboration with management consultants, McKinsey, and the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI), published the seminal report Smart 2020. The report highlighted the potential for Information and Communication Technology (ICT) to lead the transition to a low carbon economy by saving 15% of global emissions by 2020.

Thanks in large part to reports such as this, demonstrable innovation by technology makers and a great deal of advocacy at the highest levels, such as COP15, and real world experimentation, the role that ICT can play in supporting more sustainable communities, cities, corporates and public sector entities is now better understood. Legislation like the CRC Energy Efficiency Scheme and other drivers have accelerated the case for using technology to help achieve more sustainable businesses, societies and governments.

There is now a plethora of solutions on the market, each aimed at addressing one or more areas of the sustainability challenge. However, to date, little attention has been paid to the interaction between technology and people, or to wider applications of new and existing technology rooted in a people-centric approach to collective action, collaboration and engagement.

Let us take a simple example. Many organizations have spent hundreds, even thousands of pounds installing video conferencing and other AV equipment in an effort to reduce cost and travel-related CO2 emissions and to improve productivity. If they do not have the skills in-house, an organization will contract a provider to design the technology, install the equipment and upgrade the networks and cabling, and some technical training on how to use the technology may be provided for staff.

The organization can then sit and wait in anticipation of the results of the deployment – reduced travel costs, fewer travel-related CO2 emissions and better collaboration among staff, external partners and clients.

Yet after several months, what they observe may be very different from what was expected – travel patterns and costs remain the same as video conferencing suites and other collaboration technology collect dust – leaving many organizations to ask why?

The simple answer is also an obvious one – collaboration technology does not in and of itself generate collaboration. The technology is simply a tool, a facilitator of people's communication needs and habits. I believe, and have seen through experience, that for any technology to be truly transformative, it has to put people at the center.

There are many ways to do this, but one of the best ways to ensure that any technology transformation is supported by a robust communication and engagement programme – a feature that is too often missing from many technology-led initiatives. This is especially true for technology solutions that have low carbon or other environmentally sustainable outcomes at their core.

Communicating the uses of the technology, the benefits, the sustainability impacts and implications at a macro, mezzo and micro level and truly engaging and supporting people in the use of the technology as a tool that can help to accelerate the achievement of shared goals, is imperative. It is important to remember that people are at the heart of technology use and can make – or break – the most meticulously developed and rolled out green technology solutions.

Smart organizations are wising up to this reality and are becoming serious about engaging their employees around the topic of low-carbon technology to achieve personal and organisational sustainability objectives. An example of this is a recent Guardian employee engagement workshop that formed part of Guardian Sustainability Week in June. This approach of combining green technology solutions with engagement is also extending beyond organizations and into communities.

For example, the London borough of Brent is piloting an innovative program that combines the use of energy monitoring devices, the internet and social media to engage residents around climate change and energy efficiency behaviors. The project, Brent Going Green, brings residents together to raise awareness, reduce energy use and save money on their energy bills. Another example is a trial by one utility supplier as part of the Low Carbon Network Fund that combines technology and community engagement.

The trial includes a metered local substation to monitor the community's energy consumption; a financial reward of £20,000 for a 10% reduction at the community level; fitting smart meters in participating households; energy efficiency advice; various community events and energy saving incentive schemes organized at local level.

As the market for home energy management increases and public authorities and utility companies seek to engage residents in a range of energy efficiency behaviors, the role of people in the deployment and use of low carbon technologies will continue to be an area of interest and practical investigation.

I firmly believe that ICT is only as good as the extent to which they enable and support behavior change for the desired goal, in this case an end to climate change. This does not mean that there is no role for automation and intelligent controls. But we forget people at the heart of low carbon technology at our peril. And when it comes to climate change, amnesia could carry a high price.

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