Tuesday, 23 February 2010

Dematerialisation explained


I wanted to explain dematerialisation, because its a bit of Green IT jargon, the meaning of which may not be immediately apparent.  I don't like jargon generally, it excludes people not "in on it" from understanding the debate, but seeing as it's part of the lexicon of Green IT we'll continue using it.

Dematerialisation is the process of changing material processes into forms with reduced resource requirements.  Using a "word processor", as they used to be called when there was competition in the market, was a form of dematerialisation.  Documents could be read, edited, shared, reviewed and stored all using a fraction of the physical space of non digital methods.  The materials being reduced were paper, filing cabinets, office space, couriers etc.   This was the basis of the much heralded "Paperless Office" of the 1980's.  Unfortunately office paper use has doubled since this time with the rise of an information rich culture, email and cheap printers, however the idea remains a solid environmental and efficiency proposition and there are many examples of effective moves away from paper based systems.  

The greenhouse gas emission comparison of purchasing music from a store and downloading it from the web was studied by researchers at Carnegie Mellon University, Lawrence Berkeley National Laboratory and Stanford University.  They found that downloading it reduced emissions from between 40 and 80 percent depending on how the user purchased the music.  Travelling to a store and purchasing a packaged item is more carbon intensive than ordering a package from a distributor online.  We've gone another step now, with no packaging involved whatsoever, instead downloading it directly onto the device that will be playing it (this benefit is lessened if you then go and burn it to a CD anyway).  The tiny music playing devices commonplace now would have seemed impossibly futuristic to the record owners of only a couple of decades ago.  The interesting thing is that downloading digital music isn't generally done by consumers for environmental reasons; a new way of consuming has dramatically reduced it's footprint purely through efficiency and consumer demand.

This is the "zone" of Green IT, using IT to make things more efficient and lowering their environmental impact.

The UK has been pushing its online tax return system and tax payers have been resounding in their positive response to the programme.  Online filings rose by over 50% in 2008/2009 to encompass 5.8 million tax returns, over two thirds of the total filed.  According to figures based on the WWF report "Saving the Climate @ The Speed of Light", the UK has saved a total of 5882 tonnes of carbon from this initiative.  It's not only obvious things like the printing and posting of the tax returns which is reducing carbon, it's not needing armies of office workers and support staff managing typing in figures from hand written tax returns.  The end result, a cheaper, faster and more environmentally friendly service.

Dematerialisation has completely changed modern offices and many business process along with it, and no doubt we still have a long way to go.  Films are already being trialed and soon no doubt the DVD case will be less ubiquitous in our living rooms, instead films will predominantly be downloaded and stored on our set top boxes.  From that point, once networks become reliably fast enough, we won't even bother storing them at home, they'll be stored on the computers of service providers and streamed to us on demand.

Books are a material good that has thus far, despite numerous attempts, resisted dematerialisation.  Part of the convenience is there, you can store thousands of books in a small amount of space, search them, go to exact places at the flick of a switch, even have them read themselves to you in broken American-English.  What hasn't quite been conquered is the equivalent experience of reading words on a page to the eye.  This hasn't been a solvable problem technically so far, but as large screen mobile phones are becoming the norm, I note people using them more to read during moments of downtime.  Perhaps in the not too distant future the cultural change of omnipresent mobile phones will overcome the technical obstacle of the pleasure of the printed word.  Technology is also catching up after many attempts, readers like the Kindle are starting to catch on, and they will no doubt continue to improve.

So perhaps books will become like CD's and DVD's, more absent from our homes and shelves, telling those who enter our space a little bit less about ourselves, whilst this cultural space of self expression is filled instead by mechanisms such as online social networking.  Enough philosophising...

How to identify dematerialisation opportunities

Dematerialisation is going on all around us and no doubt there is still a long way to go.  Identifying dematerialisation opportunities can be a huge efficiency and environmental move forward for your business, and can also be a lucrative business proposition.

The first step is to create a map/report of all the ways in which your business (or the part of the business you have influence over) touches the environment.  An environmental map/report is useful for many reasons, and can form the basis for an Environmental Management System like ISO14001 further down the track.  It should identify where external resources/materials are pulled into, and where are they being pushed out of, your organisation.  Your facilities/purchasing department should be a great help here, what you are spending money is a good place to find environmental impacts.

Next you need to approximate the negative environmental effects of each of the areas of impact you've identified.  Try to get at the hidden impacts of your processes.  For example we all know paper uses trees, but there are also a lot of chemicals used in it's manufacture, as well as water, all of this adding up to a toxic industry and one of the most green house gas intensive on the planet.  Environmental footprints can extend out forever though, so you'll need to limit the "scope" of your footprint somewhere to make your task manageable. (Learn more about scopes as they relate to carbon emissions)  To begin with concentrate on energy and resources you use directly and extend outwards in later phases.

You should then add less tangible but still important ways in which you could have an effect on the environment.  Could you potentially get involved in dematerialisation beyond your current business remit, could you have influence over other organisations or the public in some area of dematerialisation?  You may even come up with some potential business opportunities.

Once you've established this "map" of your organisations current and potential environmental impact, which as mentioned is useful far beyond dematerialisation, you then want to ascertain how much control you have over each of these elements.  Are they in your domain, your suppliers etc, are there regulatory requirements you have to conform with etc?  Hopefully you'll be starting to create a picture of what your major environmental impacts are, what you have the direct power to change, where you have influence over suppliers and delivery partners etc, and where change will be hard or impossible.

Your next step will be to figure out where your efforts can be best utilised in the initial phase of your dematerialisation programme.  Often some obvious areas for dematerialisation will make themselves apparent.  Marketing materials, business travel, conferences, meetings, accounts, internal communications, document archives etc.

One you've identified a handful of target areas, the next step is researching best practices in each of them. Try to get an idea of how other organisations have used dematerialisation to reduce their environmental impact across their businesses.  If an impact is through your suppliers, see if there are ways they or their competitors could provide less resource intensive services by the smart use of information technology.

The final and perhaps most important step is brain-storming.  You want to get people in your organisation thinking as creatively as possible about how you can change your practises as a business to remove some of the material impacts internally and externally.  As mentioned before potential business or philanthropic activities can come out of this phase.

Dematerialisation for your organisation will be an ongoing process as ideas and technologies change.  As the examples listed at the start of this post show, this is being done successfully all around us.  If your organisation can be a leader in dematerialisation, it will give you the opportunity to create competitive advantage, to make your business more efficient and to reduce your environmental impact.

Looking at the bigger picture, if we are to try to maintain or even improve living standards, whilst reducing our environmental impact as a society, dematerialisation is going to play an important part.  A knowledge and skills based society, where we decouple the economy from the environment, valuing experiences over things, has the potential to provide us with a more fulfilled and ecologically sustainable culture.  Hopefully you and your organisation can find a way to play its part.

For more information about dematerialisation (or dematerialization in US English) :
  • Wikipedia has a good brief introductory article (as ever) 
  • The Smart2020 report has a section on dematerialisation

No comments:

Post a Comment

Comments are most welcome. We moderate them, but very loosely and mainly for profanity and to keep the "cheap meds" deals to ourselves.