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.

Feedback at your fingertips

On the more speculative end, self-configuring, ubiquitous mesh
networks of intelligent devices might provide real-time, personalized
information to individuals. A personal dashboard could tell you how
you’re doing in the things that matter, whether that’s energy
consumption or carbon dioxide emissions.

Smart dust mechanisms will be hidden in the environment, ready to
configure themselves into context-aware networks, said Appel. The
system will adapt automatically to the changing conditions around
you, providing you with the information you need depending on your
role at the time.

Perhaps, Saveri suggested, these ubiquitous, flexible networking
devices could enable participatory, bottom-up environmental
monitoring systems to monitor, for example, water quality in the Bay.

The Networked Bay Environmental Assessment Monitoring
Systems project, a partnership between San Francisco State
University, Agilent Technologies and Sun Microsystems, is testing
using floating sensors broadcasting over inexpensive cell phones
using Java open source software to do something similar.

Such real-time feedback actually can change behavior, Friend said.
For example, in an experiment in Sweden, half the homes in a
development were fitted with a smart meter that showed them how much
energy they were consuming, and its cost. The households that got
this feedback used 30 percent less energy. Utilities in the United
States already are introducing
smart thermostats.

“The challenges we face in technology pales in comparison to the
challenge of behavior change. That’s where the real work is,” Friend said.

Other panel highlights

  • Neil Shepherd of McKinsey’s Technology Initiative said companies
    are beginning to take advantage of the masses of data now available
    via sensors, smart dust, RFID tags and smart devices.
  • Stan Williams, the HP senior scientist who leads the company’s
    nanotechnology division, said that nano would let HP build
    high-density memory that would be 200 times greater than DRAM, but
    much smaller and more energy-efficient.
  • Paul Braund, CEO of the RiOS Institute, a group that works with
    governments, non-governmental organizations and businesses to create
    sustainable technology projects, said that the U.N. is a tough sell
    in hard-nosed Silicon Valley. But he believes the U.N. can play a
    valuable role in helping businesses innovate in other countries. He
    added that it’s not only emerging nations that need help. One RiOS
    project is in East Palo Alto. “The digital divide is right there on 101,” he said.
  • Marten Sierhuis, a senior scientist at NASA, discussed its
    development of intelligent agents that can provide information on
    energy use, which would be critical for outposts on the moon and
    Mars. He cracked up the audience by saying, “I firmly believe that we
    have to inhabit Mars in order to survive as a species.”

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