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Communications of the ACM


Windmills in the Water

Carnegie Mellon Professor Jeannette Wing

Windmills in the water were my first sight in my approach to Kastrup (Copenhagen’s airport) flying in from Zurich.   Blades gracefully spinning in the air—a surprisingly serene sight.   Wind power supplies 20% of Denmark’s power grid, with the goal of 50% by 2025. Denmark, a country of five million, is itself an experiment in alternative energy.

Apropos, I was on my way to Helsingor (known as the home of Hamlet’s castle) to attend an OECD conference on Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs), the Environment and Climate Change. OECD, which stands for “Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development,” is a 30-country membership organization, dominated by European countries, although the US contributes the most to its budget (25%) and Japan, the second most. OECD’s mission is to help governments tackle questions that affect the global economy, society, and policy.  The conference was heavily populated by high-level government officials and industry executives; I was one of a handful of academics present.

At the opening plenary roundtable, I posed this question to the audience: What are the scientific and technical challenges that the ICT research community should be working on today, in anticipation of tomorrow’s energy and environment problems? The reason I wanted government and industry officials to hear the word “research” is that I sense that non-scientists might think that it’s a mere matter of money and a mere matter of deployment of existing ICT technology to solve these problems. I don’t think so.

ICTs account for 2% of global carbon emissions, according to estimates by Gartner . So, reducing our footprint with more energy-efficient devices, computers, and data centers will have a direct effect on ICTs’ carbon footprint. Moreover, we need to look at the entire lifecycle: creation, use, re-use/re-purpose/recycle, and disposal. And what about ICTs’ role in the other 98%?  ICTs will enable smart cars, smart buildings, smart infrastructure, smart grids, and smart logistics [Smart2020]; they will enable telecommuting, telepresence, and telemedicine. So, ICTs have an indirect effect too, by helping other sectors save energy. Finally, what about systemic effects? First, algorithms, software, computational methods, computers and networks are foundational to sensing, modeling and simulation, used by engineers for building smart things and used by scientists to observe and model the environment and climate; so, our science and technology will help others attain their sustainability goals. Second, ICTs are just part of a much larger system of systems: it’s the interactions and especially the non-linear coupling effects of energy, the environment, and the economy that need to be modeled and understood (again, with help from ICTs). 

With my question, I raised to the attention of government and industry leaders at the conference the importance of research and the role of academia in the academia-government-industry ecosystem. On the other hand, I have not seen any formal study by or for the research community that frames a research agenda for ICTs and their role in energy, the environment, climate science, or more broadly, sustainability. This blog entry calls to the diverse readership of CACM to spark a discussion on what a comprehensive research agenda might look like.


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