David Tebbutt, Teblog

Sometime today, as a consequence of its labs shake-up, HP will announce that its new Sustainability Lab has had its projects and staffing approved. But our tip-off goes on to say, “As befitting a Lab, it has a long-term horizon, so don’t expect product or services to flow for a few years.”

Does this mean we should ignore the lab until something pops out? Maybe. Or should we get some idea of where it thinks it’s going, so that we can broaden our perception of HP? A few weeks ago I found myself talking to some HP worthies including Chandrakant Patel, the boss of the Sustainability Lab. All of them were interesting, but I figured that if we understood the way he thinks, we’d get some sense of the lab’s guiding principles.

His aim is to deconstruct the business model in order to leave a lighter footprint on the world. His words, not mine. But they are increasingly being echoed by other companies such as Sun, IBM, Logica and BT. (The first ones that popped into my head, so don’t read any particular significance into them.)

To someone weaned on Small is Beautiful, which I read and acted on in 1974, then on Cradle to Cradle in 2002, I get uneasy when I hear companies talking of leaving a “lighter footprint”. According to these leading lights of the sustainable movement (and, yes, I know there are plenty of others), the world would be better off if we left it in a better state than we found it. But perhaps we have to get from here to there in a series of well-intentioned steps. And who knows what discoveries we might make as we adjust our minds to minimising the consumption of raw materials and the pollution of our world. Or to put it in Patel’s terms: “use the least energy and the least materials.”

He likes the idea of someone creating a kind of wikipedia for sustainability – into which everyone can contribute their expert and/or specific knowledge. Given the difficulty of tracking down sensible environmental and sustainability information – carbon footprints, practical measures, regulations and suchlike – a central and open resource, sounds like an excellent idea. But it would, of course, run slap bang into a policing issue as vested interests with big budgets try to distort the knowledge base. If we have a putative Jimmy Wales reading this, I’d love to hear from you.

Patel regards ’joules’ as a consistent measure through which we can judge our impact on the world. In simple terms, a joule is the energy destroyed in doing some kind of work. One measure is the production of one watt for one second. Wikipedia has others. The point is that it is concrete and measurable. This metric can be used for the entire manufacturing, operation and disposal lifecycle. He talks of good joules and bad joules, mentioning different flavours such as coal, nuclear and photovoltaic. The last item is interesting, because it reminds us that this lab isn’t really new-born. It is the result of the gathering together, filtering and focusing of a number of previous R&D initiatives under one umbrella. One has to hope that no babies have been thrown out with the bathwater.

So, while we might not expect to see short term outputs from the lab, a recent announcement from the company will hopefully give an indication of the quality of output we might expect in due course. It relates, as I hinted, to photovoltaics. Yesterday, Hewlett Packard licenced the ’transparent transistor technology’ it developed with Oregon State University to Xtreme Energetics to create solar energy systems which are anticipated to generate electricity at twice the efficiency and half the cost of traditional solar panels.

This is exactly the sort of thing we need. I hope that the “use least energy and least materials” is able to accommodate this kind of project.

PS If you’re interested in research done by Freeform Dynamics into ’Green Computing’ take a look at the report that went online a few minutes ago.



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