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Digital And Green Innovation -- Sooner And Later

EMERYVILLE, Calif. -- Which technologies will have the power to transform business -- and save the planet -- in the next five years? Answers ranged from sci-fi to so-Twentieth-Century at a panel discussion produced by the Netherland-America Business Exchange (a chapter of the Netherland-America Foundation) last night.

The Future of Innovation: Digital and Green, hosted by Ex'pression College for Digital Arts, brought together experts from a variety of disciplines to discuss whether technology, one of the biggest sources of pollution, could help reduce it.

Today's social-media fads are signs of a deep transformation that is creating "participatory digital culture," said Andrea Saveri, a research director with the Institute for the Future, a Silicon Valley think tank.

Today, it's photo-sharing and music-swapping. Tomorrow, it's the basic infrastructure and core systems. "Telecommunications, energy, water, utilities, transportation -- all show the dismantling of centralized, monolithic infrastructures," she told the audience.

The year 2005 was a tipping point for environmental awareness, according to Gil Friend, CEO of Natural Logic, a consultancy that helps companies find competitive advantage in reducing waste and pollution. That was the year that Wal-Mart said it would begin analyzing the environmental impact of everything it sold, while Hurricane Katrina showed people in the United States how vulnerable we are to disaster.

"In this country, we've lived with the assumption that it's either/or, business or the environment. Business said, 'We can't afford to make those adjustments.' Government said, 'We're going to force you to.'"

Preparing for the future

Smart companies are planning now for diverse scenarios, Friend said. For example, while most electronics manufacturers seemed to be caught unawares by legislation requiring them to provide recycling of their products, HP already had deals in place that would let it profit by selling the parts it took back.

C.J. Koomen, a member of the early-stage funding organization Band of Angels, pointed out that venture investment in energy has outstripped that in software. "Ten trillion in investments is required to undo all the carbon dioxide pollution in the world," he said.

Jim Jones, managing director of Scale Venture Partners, discussed how one of his portfolio companies, NComputing, could provide computing power to the 5 billion citizens of the world who don't yet have access, while greatly reducing the energy costs.

NComputing provides thin client devices designed to provide multi-user access to one computer. The $70 devices connect to a central computer, providing a full PC experience.

The nation of Macedonia is using NComputing's gear to provide computing resources to all 350,000 of its students. Jones believes this idea can make long-term contributions to emerging economies resulting in short-term effects.

Within two years, he said, instead of having three or four PCs in the home, there will be only one central computer to manage, with everyone connecting to it via thin client. "In the next four years," he added, "you'll see an opportunity not only for low-cost computing, but for no-cost computing."

Telecom operators and cable providers may offer free thin-client devices, the way they do set-top boxes today. And a company like Google might offer a free device that connects not only with search but also with its online applications as a way to serve you still more advertising.

The impact of thin-client computing could be felt in the enterprise within six years, dramatically lowering power consumption in IT datacenters and on desktops.

Sun has installed 2,000 thin-client systems in 41 locations and reduced its costs by more than 30 percent. So, asked Hans Appel, CTO of Sun Microsystems, why haven't thin clients taken off if they're so cheap and efficient? It's a cultural thing, he said. "People want to have their data with them."

Another issue, Friend said, is trust. Will they be able to gain access to their applications and data when they need to?

Next page: Results in real time.