The IT industry is not usually first in the firing line for accusations of environmental irresponsibility – that dubious accolade is usually reserved for oil and gas, mining, heavy manufacturing and transport. Nonetheless, IT is a major emitter of carbon dioxide – at about 2% of the world’s total, roughly in the same league as the aviation industry.
There are also issues around the sourcing and recycling of materials – especially given the rapidity with which hardware becomes obsolete. But these kinds of issues are being grappled with by the main industry players who recognise that they are uniquely placed to make a difference and that there are competitive advantages to doing so.
In the Wallonia region of Belgium, several well-known companies, including Cisco, IBM and Microsoft, are working together with the regional government not only to find and develop synergies with each other, but also to encourage small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs) in the hi-tech sector to get to grips with green issues.
One such hi-tech initiative is the Green IT project, which has a physical presence at the Euro Green IT Innovation Center in the Walloon city of Mons. The government of Wallonia – which lays claim to the Green IT project's conception – describes it as a public-private non-profit partnership “designed to promote the use of IT to reduce carbon dioxide emissions and to optimise the energy efficiency of IT infrastructures.” Its role: to foster local initiatives focused on green IT, information and communication technologies (ICT)-enabled sustainable development and green energy efficiency.
Pol van Biervliet, general manager of Cisco in Belgium, tells fDi Magazine that his company’s involvement began with a chance conversation with Walloon government officials en route to Stockholm by train who, he says, were looking at ways to marry high-tech innovation with green initiatives. “The vision coincided with ours in some ways,” he says. There was definitely scope for collaboration.
In fact, the vision is articulated in the Walloon government’s economic development strategy – the Marshall Plan 2.Green, a key objective of which is the “stimulation of economic development and job creation in Wallonia, through the support for new technologies that contribute to a society that has a greater respect for our resources and our environment”.
Wallonia has very particular economic needs. For centuries, the region thrived economically on the back of heavy industry, manufacturing (it had one of the largest defence and armaments industry in Europe) and steel. But is now recovering from many of the post-industrial malaises that beset similar regions that were unable to keep pace with a global market, including high unemployment and high state spending on welfare. The government’s response has been to prime the pump – not just through spend and investment, but also on helping Walloon companies to help themselves, organising roadshows, coordinating the development of industry clusters, and collaborations, for example between academia, SMEs and more established players, not only in the ICT sector but also in bio, aerospace and pharmaceuticals.
Pierre Leclercq, head of Invest Wallonia, says it was important that the government was seen as the originator of the concept – that in a competitive investment market it is necessary to do more than tout the usual investment advantages (such as tax breaks, low costs, skilled labour and logistics), but to actually create something attractive in its own right. In terms of the collaboration, what the government is able to offer is real estate and logistical support, while the IT companies themselves offer the man hours and the expertise.
Cisco’s key contribution to the Green IT project in Mons is the development of its smart work centres (SWC) – part of its Urban Technology programme, the principles of which are to use wired communications to provide infrastructure and wireless communications to provide mobility.
An SWC is an office in close proximity to a residential community, providing high-tech spaces for workers in individual or group work settings. They reduce time spent commuting and the need for business travel, thereby reducing carbon dioxide emissions. Cisco says that where they pack a punch is “through the use of ICT – all work processes are fully supported and enhanced… employers can take advantage of the setting to provide workers with scalable and flexible workplace options.”
Pilot projects have also featured other services that can enhance workers’ experiences of their everyday lives, including the Cisco TelePresence, which combines rich audio, high-definition video and interactive elements to deliver a unique in-person experience, as well as other low-tech facilities such as crèches, cash machines and restaurants.
Cisco has built three SWCs in Mons (although the concept has also been piloted elsewhere, for example, in Amsterdam and Almere in the Netherlands). The SWCs are very much at a pilot stage, but Mr van Biervliet says he foresees dozens of SWCs in Wallonia, and they are already attracting the interest of local entrepreneurs.
IBM goes green
IBM is another keystone partner in the Green IT project; the two organisations say they bring a complementarity that enables close collaboration. “We have a long-standing co-operation,” says Mr van Biervliet. “Each party is looking at where the other can bring the greatest value… what both of us bring is the benefit of scale and millions of dollars spent globally on research and development.”
According to IBM’s country manager, Jacques Platieau, the Green IT project is excellently aligned with the company’s own Smarter Planet and Smarter IT cross-sector strategies, which he says has largely developed as a result of the company's decade-long transformation into an organisation focused on helping other clients reach their own goals. The company has launched a Smarter City Assessment Benchmark and says it is making a cloud-computing infrastructure available to public administrations, academic centres and start-ups.
Clearly, private and public sectors will derive quite different benefits from these innovations. The regional government of Wallonia is looking to create up to 250 jobs through the Green IT scheme, a modest number, perhaps, but the added benefit will be in creating a new focal point for other companies in the sector – and perhaps others – to invest in Wallonia.
In addition, the region benefits from the enormous technological experience that large companies such as Cisco and IBM can bring to bear. For their part, the global giants value the input that Wallonia brings – networking, for example (in the old-fashioned sense of the word), and real estate, which of course is still a valuable commodity in the virtual world. If the Walloon pilots are successful, everyone could benefit from the fruits of their labours.
The cost of this report was underwritten by the Wallonia Export & Investment Agency. Reporting and editing were carried out independently by fDi