Information Systems and the Environment Overview and Perspectives
BRADEN R.ALLENBY, W.DALE COMPTON, and DEANNA J.RICHARDS
Today, solutions to environmental challenges are aided by an arsenal of information and knowledge systems that were unavailable for most of the last 30 years when environmental management was predicated on “command and control” mechanisms such as remediation of specific sites or compliance with, and enforcement of, end-of-pipe emissions requirements and standards. As knowledge about the causes of environmental ills has grown, so too has the number of options on how to handle them and the development of collaborations and partnerships aimed at harnessing the growing incentive-based approaches to environmental protection. As additional information technologies and knowledge management techniques evolve, environmental considerations will join other areas of strategic importance to industry.
Information technologies are unique not just because of their growing use in decision-making and knowledge management systems, important as that is. Their use has also yielded significant improvements in the efficiency of energy and materials use. This has contributed to economic expansion without the increases in environmental impacts that would have resulted had the efficiency improvements not occurred. Advances in information technology are likely to continue to provide opportunities for the development of improved and new products and services.
This will not occur, however, without continuing attention to both the individual units (e.g., factories or cars) that contribute to environmental degradation as well as the interaction of these units with each other and the environment. The system studies that are necessary to assess the trade-offs in such areas as materials choice (e.g., paper or plastic grocery bags, disposable or cloth diapers) are
difficult and frequently are hampered by lack of understanding of these interactions. Understanding the total system remains a daunting challenge.
This volume builds on earlier efforts of the National Academy of Engineering (NAE) in the area of technology and the environment.1 It contains selected papers from the July 1997 Workshop on Industrial Ecology, Enabling Environmental Performance Improvement: The Role of Knowledge and Information Technology. The papers are presented in three sections. The first section explores the implications of information technologies for sustainable development and the legal context within which information and knowledge systems are evolving. The second section focuses on the areas where most of the path-breaking work is occurring—the individual corporation—and the information- and knowledge-sharing tools and techniques that are being developed in that arena. The third section provides examples of systems that are evolving in the relationships between corporations and society as a whole. Although the latter are still in development, they offer exciting potential for substantially improving the environmental efficiency of the economy.
This overview provides a context for the accompanying papers by discussing the role of information and knowledge systems in the evolving discipline of industrial ecology. It describes how companies are leveraging these systems to reap environmental benefits and how novel applications of information technologies are bridging the gap between industrial practice and society’s interest in the environment and sustainable development. It concludes with suggestions on how to address some of the difficult issues related to “green” information and knowledge.
THE INFORMATION TECHNOLOGY REVOLUTION AND INDUSTRIAL ECOLOGY
Compared with the previous several decades, we now have a much better understanding of how human activities affect the environment. The vast majority of obvious environmental problems—caused by practices such as dumping trash and other waste material in open pits, disposing of wastewater in streams and rivers, and emitting emissions of pollutants into the atmosphere—are the result of what were once standard industrial practices. Steps to remedy these problems have focused on remediating specific sites and instituting compliance with, and enforcement of, end-of-pipe requirements and standards. Although adequate for their limited purposes of providing clean air, water, and land, these approaches increasingly are recognized as inadequate to deal with the more global perturbations of natural systems—climate change; loss of habitat and biodiversity; and depletion and degradation of soil, water, and atmospheric resources.
The knowledge base on which environmental decisions can be based is much broader and deeper than ever before. Ecology, which involves the study of the
interactions among organisms and between organisms and their physical environment, continues to inform decision making across a wide range of applications, from agriculture and forestry to the design of artificial wetlands and the restoration of healthy ecosystems. Along with the other basic sciences, ecology will continue to improve the understanding of relationships between environmental concerns and human economic activities.
Some of these concerns are directly related (e.g., the link between chlorofluorocarbons and stratospheric ozone depletion). Solutions to such concerns (e.g., the Montreal Protocol and the development of environmentally friendly technologies and policies to speed their deployment) have tended to take into account industry’s use of materials, energy, capital, labor, technology, and information, as well as the interaction of industrial systems with natural ecosystems. Industrial ecology is based on keeping track of the former and understanding the latter. Solutions based on industrial ecology include such approaches as designing goods and services in terms of their environmental life cycle so as to minimize environmental impacts and defining, assessing, and charting future technological directions to enable the achievement of sustainable development.
In industrial ecology, systems of production and consumption are considered as one. Therefore, solutions to environmental problems need to consider how production and consumption operate as a unit and interact with the large-scale environment. Yet much of environmental policy still focuses on manufacturing and production practices that often merely shift the problem elsewhere in the system. The more comprehensive view is critical when one considers, as Allenby (this volume) points out, the growth of the services sector. This sector, driven by information and knowledge acquisition and sharing, accounts for at least 60 percent of U.S. economic output and employment (U.S. Department of Commerce, 1996). The industries in this sector perform key economic and societal functions such as transportation, banking and finance, health care, public utilities, retail and wholesale trade, education, and entertainment. With the exception of transportation and utilities, these activities are not commonly associated with environmental impacts. Yet all consume energy and materials, and some, such as banking and financial institutions, indirectly influence the environment (e.g., through investment decisions). The service sector thus represents an untapped resource for environmental efficiency improvements. Service firms are well positioned to leverage their suppliers (upstream of operations) as well as their customers (downstream of operations) to effect systemic change (Richards and Kabjian, this volume). Their ability to do so can be enhanced by having better information upon which to base decisions.
To be successful, industrial ecology must adapt and incorporate technologies from any area that is found useful. Neither traditional environmental remediation—compliance or pollution control technology—nor “green” technologies alone are sufficient if environmental concerns are to be effectively mitigated. Information technology is a case in point. Never developed for environmental or
“green” purposes, it nevertheless is creating new sectors of economic activity— most recently, electronic commerce—that is already changing the economics of industry. Freeman (1992) refers to the innovations in information and communications technology as technoeconomic revolutions—innovations that transform production and management throughout the economy.
Indeed, the current information and communications revolution is allowing pervasive changes to be made. The impacts of this revolution on the industrial metabolism of the economy and on industrial systems are being felt already, particularly in the monitoring and control of emissions; the use of energy and materials; the control of quality and inventory; and the improved control of manufacturing processes. Many of the energy-saving technologies and process changes that promote cleaner production depend on the incorporation of electronic sensors and monitors that provide input to control operations. System models of these processes often are complicated and their use requires online computers for proper implementation and compliance with many regulatory objectives.
Information and communications technologies also make possible improved quality and inventory control and help to reduce and eliminate defective or sub-standard products. This is not a result of the technologies themselves, but of a diffusion of a management philosophy associated with the technology. Pressures to reduce costs or to meet quality, design, performance, manufacturability, or environmental goals have been met by continuous improvements that are the result of the collective actions of all who are involved in the production or service function, or by users and customers. More recently, these improvements have been aided by the adoption of information technologies that help manage inventory and controls and capture and disseminate knowledge. Although the combined benefits of applying information technology with new management philosophies extend beyond a single plant to networks of plants, including outsourced activities, some of these practices may have negative environmental consequences. For example, just-in-time practices can lead to increased transportation (by truck, rail, and airplane) and associated increases in energy use and local air pollution.
Information and communications technologies also have resulted in fewer materials being used per unit product or function. For example, semiconductor technology uses vastly fewer materials and less energy than old vacuum-tube technology, and it is much more powerful. Similarly, on the materials front, there has been a reduction in metal consumption over the past 20 years (Sousa, 1992). Some of this reduction can be attributed to the information and communications revolution itself, which underlies improved product design systems. These systems use computer modeling to decrease reliance on prototypes. Information and communications technologies also have improved energy and material efficiencies because they have enabled innovations in new efficient manufacturing processes and the creation of new complex materials. The use of more-complex
materials, however, has made recovery more difficult, and past experience shows that many previous environmental ills have resulted from the accumulation of materials in the environment. Hence, one might expect separation technologies to grow in importance as part of an overall environmental strategy.
The information and communications revolution is forging a far more integrated economy. At the same time, addressing environmental and sustainability concerns requires a multidimensional approach that is interwoven with the global economy and the planet’s natural systems. Both factors, according to Allenby (this volume), are mutually reinforcing. This is because the concept of sustainability requires a global economy in long-term harmony with its supporting natural systems, which in turn will generate a far more robust economy—one that is more informationally dense, in which information is substituted for other inputs such as raw materials and energy. Citing economic trends in the information industry, Allenby shows that substitution of information for materials and energy has reduced the costs and use of these resources. He speculates that the demands for sustainability will increase the substitution of information for other inputs and postulates that sustainability itself may well be unattainable without such substitutions.
Information substitution, although an important contributor, will not, by itself, generate the ideal environment. As noted above, such substitutions are not without trade-offs, and “smart” policies will be needed. In the area of transportation, for example, there has been a merging of information and communications technologies in automobiles and traffic systems, including the development of so-called smart highways and vehicles to control traffic flow. The same has happened in air travel. Yet in neither case has the fundamental problem of reducing traffic been addressed. There are solutions, such as increasing ridership on public transportation. This may occur if significant improvements are made in transportation systems and if personal vehicle use is discouraged. Another alternative is to encourage people to work from home, telecommuting instead of traveling to work. Although such telework policies are beginning to appear in the workplace, gains from such practices can be offset easily by increases in other types of travel. For any of these approaches to be effective, the focus must be on addressing the problems of the total transportation system with a view toward minimizing the need for travel.
Hence, in many ways, information and communications technologies will continue to contribute positively to the environment in terms of reductions in materials and energy use. However, the final outcomes of such measures are likely to remain uncertain. Other areas in which application of the technology can contribute to environmental improvement include knowledge management— capturing information and knowledge so that past mistakes are not repeated (as discussed by Richards and Kabjian, this volume)—and knowledge creation. Legal barriers that are predicated on the traditional physical formats of knowledge, such as books, need to be addressed, according to Cohen and Martin (this
volume). The current legal system is not well equipped to deal with “data mining” of publicly available information and to protect intellectual property rights in a world where access to information is easy and the information itself can be quickly reproduced.
At issue is data ownership. Is it the creator of the data or the individual who compiled them who has rightful ownership? Current intellectual property laws were not designed to protect and encourage the dissemination of compilations of factual information. They were designed to protect property. Creative expression and data do not fit well in either of these categories. Data are neither creative expressions like books, paintings, or sculptures, nor unique inventions. Database creators want protection the very moment that their data are gathered. In addition, databases are extremely dynamic and undergo constant change. As Cohen and Martin (this volume) point out, current patent and copyright laws are not suited to protect data or the compilation of data in a database. In the case of copyright, not only is current law ill-suited to the task, but it expressly bars protection of ideas, principles, and facts. In the case of patent laws, it can take years to process a patent application, and a clear definition of the unique invention is required.
Other laws, such as those related to trade secrecy and the tort of misappropriation, are equally ill-suited to protect the compilation of data. To address the common flaws intrinsic to the current intellectual property laws, Cohen and Martin suggest a two-phase approach that incorporates both property and liability. The first phase would provide a “blocking period” designed to give a certain amount of lead time for the database creator. During this period, a property rule would apply, and competitors would not be permitted to use or copy the new database without the database creator’s consent. This initial blocking period would be followed by an automatic license. Absent some other agreement, the database creator would be obligated, at a minimum, to share the data with all secondcomers at rates established by a regulatory body composed of industry representatives and government officials. Under this approach, data creators would recover investments made during the compilation process, but the data would remain publicly accessible under fair and reasonable terms. This framework would serve society’s interest in knowledge sharing, research, and development as well as data creators’ legitimate interests in recouping development costs.
INFORMATION SYSTEMS WITHIN THE FIRM
The legal issues raised by Cohen and Martin are a product of our knowledge-driven society. Many experts in management believe that the manufacturing, service, and information sectors will be based on knowledge in the future, and business organizations will evolve into knowledge creators in many ways.
Drucker (1993) suggests that one of the most important challenges for every organization in the knowledge society is to build systematized practices for managing a self-transformation. Organizations have to abandon obsolete knowledge and learn to create new products and processes by improving ongoing activities and continually innovating in an organized way. Successful organizations of the future will have institutionalized the concept of growth based on knowledge creation and learning.
Three papers in this volume describe how private firms can develop information systems to better manage and create knowledge for environmental purposes. Richards and Kabjian point out that there are several opportunities to improve and apply environmental knowledge sharing, many of which cross traditional organizational boundaries. Such knowledge sharing may occur within a firm or involve the firm in collaborations with outside stakeholders that have interests in the company’s environmental performance. Examples from DuPont (Carberry) and Rhône-Poulenc (Heptinstall) provide case studies of how individual firms in a heavily regulated sector—chemicals—are beginning to develop internal knowledge-sharing initiatives. Carberry shows how a vast array of information technologies such as e-mail, relational databases, CD-ROM, expert systems, Internet-based Web pages, teleconferencing, and videoconferencing is helping companies communicate environmental policies, exchange information about cleaner production technology, and report compliance data. In each instance, these new technologies provide for the rapid distribution or dissemination of environmental experiences, information, and knowledge that enhance technology transfer and enable companies to more effectively address compliance control and remediation. Hepinstall, on the other hand, discusses the challenges that firms face in implementing knowledge-sharing systems that share relevant environmental information internally within a company.
Graedel (this volume) and Ishii (this volume) explore another facet of the green technology challenge, namely, creating environmental knowledge that is of use to product designers. Graedel walks us through the design process, showing at what stages—from initial concept to final design—environmental knowledge can be useful. For example, when a product is in its conceptualization stage, he suggests addressing very basic environmentally related questions such as whether forbidden or highly regulated substances or materials will be required to manufacture the product and what the potential environmental impacts of the product throughout its life cycle, including recycling, might be. Some of the information needed to answer these questions may be located easily, but in other instances, the knowledge required may have to be created. Ishii illustrates one technique— the reverse fish-bone diagram—that designers can use to gain knowledge about parts and components of existing production. The purpose of undertaking such an exercise is to create knowledge that can be used in future designs to improve the recyclability of the product or family of products.
These examples show some steps of knowledge management and creation that a firm can take to improve its own environmental performance. Modern production operations, however, are nodes in an increasingly complex network of suppliers and distributors, which in turn require equally sophisticated knowledge systems if they are to be properly informed. Kleindorfer and Snir (this volume) explore environmental stewardship activities in this highly complex supply chain by focusing on how environmental information is gathered and used. They suggest that information technologies may help firms improve the environmental aspects of their products at three important levels: product and supply-chain design to minimize environmental impacts, ongoing waste minimization and risk mitigation after the product has been deployed, and diagnostic feedback from supply-chain participants to assess opportunities for new products and processes.
Heim (this volume), in turn, addresses how new software developments and the use of the Internet to distribute the software will allow small companies to model their manufacturing processes by accessing “plug-and-play” software components from various sources to develop manufacturing models of their operations. Whereas these models often can be used to optimize production, the technique of accessing such software and developing unique models is new. Similar applications may be developed that will help small manufacturers improve their environmental performance.
OPPORTUNITIES FOR COLLABORATION AND NEW TECHNOLOGIES
Beyond the firm, environmental knowledge creation and management involve collaborations that are more complex. The complexity tends to be a huge obstacle that impedes the progress towards individuals involved working together effectively. Yet there is a critical need for collaborative work in the larger arena beyond the firm, and several collaborative arrangements have emerged. One is sector specific. In the for-profit world it takes the form of consortia of firms from a specific industrial sector working together on a particular problem. In the nonprofit sector, it takes the form of government agencies often forming task forces to work together on common issues. Another collaborative arrangement involves partnerships consisting of for-profit firms, private nonprofit interest groups, and the government that work on developing consensus on and solutions to issues of common interest. While the motivations that drive the two types of collaborations may differ, the challenges in both revolve around developing a common understanding of approaches to the problem at hand and establishing a standard terminology that all can work with.
Killgoar (this volume) makes the point that, from a private-sector perspective, the motivation for collaboration is to gain data, information, and knowledge. Using the automotive sector as an example, he describes the nontechnical, softer
issues that arise in establishing and ensuring successful collaborations, such as building trust and developing common terminology. These issues, if successfully dealt with, can have enormous payback in development of new technologies. The challenge is to integrate information gleaned from these collaborative efforts into the operations of the constituent firms.
Government collaborations, on the other hand, are motivated by public-interest concerns such as getting information obtained by the government into wider circulation. The Environmental Data Exchange Network (EDEN) project, a collaborative effort of the U.S. Department of Defense (DOD), the U.S. Department of Energy, the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency (EPA), and the National Institute of Standards and Technology (NIST), is a case in point. These agencies have different types of related information from disparate sources and in different databases. According to Pitts and Fowler (this volume), EDEN seeks to provide a dynamic information system for accessing environmental data stored in diverse distributed databases. Like the collaborations in industry, the players involved in EDEN also had to agree on a framework of common approaches and a common terminology.
This collaboration also illustrates the innovative use of InfoSleuth™, a new software technology that uses intelligent software agents to provide uniform access to specific sets of information on geographically distributed environmental databases through standard Internet browsers. InfoSleuth™ itself was developed in a collaborative effort involving General Dynamics Information Systems (formerly Computing Devices International), NCR Corporation, Schlumberger, Raytheon Systems, Texas Instruments, TRW, and the DOD Clinical Business Area, and was partially supported by NIST. The motivation behind the development of InfoSleuth™ was to broaden the focus of current database research to produce a model that combines the semantic benefits of a structured database with the ease of publication and access of the World Wide Web.
Technologies like InfoSleuth™ will grow in importance as publicly available information changes the landscape of knowledge management and creation. Eagan, Wiese, and Liebl (this volume) describe Wisconsin’s effort to develop an information system that will provide integrated environmental information about industrial facilities throughout the state via the Internet. Not only are socially responsible investor institutions on the quest for such information, but the public is also.
The extent to which information systems, mainly based on the Internet, support the development and distribution of environmentally relevant information and the potential power of this type of information distribution system usually is not well recognized, in part because of the newness of the medium. Already, however, global environmental information networks, complete with chat rooms and instant reporting of environmentally relevant events, are being developed (Knauer and Rickard, this volume). The Internet is unique in its ability to facilitate dialog.
Use of the Internet is enhanced further by effective organization of relevant information. Choucri (this volume) demonstrates how distributed knowledge-networking systems, such as the Global System for Sustainable Development (GSSD), can broaden the concept of merging knowledge from science with management prescriptions. GSSD is designed specifically for use in conjunction with Internet resources. Its knowledge base is organized as a hierarchical embedded system of entries about human activities and conditions; sustainability problems associated with human actions; current scientific and technological solutions; attendant economic, political, and regulatory solutions; and the broad range of evolving international actions and responses.
An example of how environmental information on the Internet is organized and used for broadcast and communication is provided at http://www.scorecard.org. This Internet site, established by the Environmental Defense (ED), pulls together Toxics Release Inventory data that companies report to the EPA and relates it to specific manufacturing sites on local- or national-scale maps. Knowledge is enhanced by linking information on specific chemicals to information on health and toxicity. By linking data and information, ED has put knowledge about emissions from specific industries and their potential harmful effects into the hands of individuals who may be affected. The existence of the Web site allows users to act on the information they find by, for example, communicating their concerns to responsible individuals in companies or to local regulators.
The implications of these developments for companies is that they have to be vigilant in providing accurate and meaningful information to the public. Knowledge, not just data, is particularly important because, with knowledge, the public can influence firms to change their behavior. Costs that reflect environmental performance and the availability of capital to address issues will have immediate and powerful impacts on firm behavior; similarly, public concerns about a firm or a nearby facility can create significant costs and even force curtailment of operations or closure of the facility. As the chemical industry learned—and responded to through the Responsible Care Program— public accountability is an increasingly powerful reality of corporate life. By reducing the level of false information, the credibility of all involved in environmental discussions will be heightened. If decision making is to be effective, it must be informed.
THE CHALLENGES AHEAD
As the papers in this volume show, an environmentally and economically efficient world will not necessarily be a simpler world; rather, it will be more complex and more informationally dense. There will be more, not less, demand for systems that can integrate information into knowledge across disparate spatial, temporal, and organizational scales.
These trends have at least three important public policy implications. First, there have to be incentives to generate environmentally relevant knowledge. From an industrial ecology perspective, such knowledge can impact the design of products, engineering or reengineering of ecological systems, communication with customers, understanding materials and energy flows, and research and development. Government support of academic research in this area can help identify new processes and techniques that enhance ecological objectives, articulate technical and management standards that reflect best strategic environmental approaches, and define criteria for determining environmental impacts and metrics of environmental performance. This narrow need within the realm of the industrial sector may seem trivial in the context of larger environmental issues of climate change and biodiversity but it is critical, particularly for the large and growing number of small and medium-sized manufacturers.
Second, there is a serious need to ensure that the environmental information is of high quality, not misinformation. The difficulty in this regard is that growth of scientific knowledge involves uncertainty. A useful safeguard might be a peer review process that continually assesses the validity of the information on which government agencies and private enterprises depend for decision making.
Finally, given the world’s increasing technological sophistication and the close interaction between technological progress and environmental concerns, there is a need to develop a technologically and environmentally literate citizenry.
Over the past several years, the NAE Program on Technology and Sustainable Development has explored technology’s impact on the environment through its role in production and consumption. Efforts in this area have focused on technology transfer (Cross-Border Technology Transfer to Eliminate Ozone-Depleting Substances, 1992); the relationship between science and environmental regulation and the effect of regulation on technological innovation (Keeping Pace with Science and Engineering: Case Studies in Environmental Regulation, 1993); industrial ecology and design for the environment (The Greening of Industrial Ecosystems, 1994); corporate environmental practice (Corporate Environmental Practices: Climbing the Learning Curve, 1994); The United States’ and Japan’s interest in industrial ecology (Industrial Ecology: U.S./Japan Perspectives, 1994); linkages between natural ecosystem conditions and engineering (Engineering Within Ecological Constraints, 1996); design and management of production and consumption systems for environmental quality (The Industrial Green Game: Implications for Environmental Design and Management, 1997); the diffusion patterns of environmentally critical technologies and their effect on the changing habitability of the planet (Technological Trajectories and the Human Environment, 1997); the impact of service industries on the environment (exploratory workshops held in December 1994 and June 1995); the examination of best or promising practices in several industrial sectors (The Ecology of Industry, 1998), an exploratory examination of metrics used by industry to gauge their performance and by ecologists to gauge ecosystem health (Environmental Performance Metrics and Ecosystem Condition, 1999); and a report on how the use of industrial environmental performance metrics may be improved (Industrial Environmental Performance Metrics: Challenges and Opportunities, 1999). Information on these publications is available online at <www.nap.edu>.
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