Tag Archives: sustainability

Reflections on (cyber) sustainability

I watched the film Age of Stupid last night which documents the precarious position that, due to climate change, we are in. I recommend it, it’s a good watch (if a little in your face). Franny Armstrong is behind the film, and part of why I watched it is that I’m going to a seminar she is presenting on Saturday.

Anyhow. The reason for the blog post isn’t really related to the film, or to Franny… but watching the film made me remember this piece that I wrote, Reflections on sustainability and cyber sustainability – Can’t we just do something? Today? The piece may not make a great deal of sense when read alone – you really had to attend the lectures that it was in response to (the lectures were presented by Stuart Walker, and Bran Knowles- see here, here, and here) – but nonetheless I’ve added it to my archive of outputs generated from the HighWire MRes year.

Cloud computing and big/open data: tools for cosmic data Aikido?

It isn’t by chance that me and Rob Potts (colleague, and new friend, and universal tool for metamorphosing the everyday) have referenced each others’ blogs this week. It will continue, I hope. We are in fact attempting to instigate a general cross-referencing of the blogs that our HighWire cohort have to write for various modules this term in order to stimulate some innovation

The title of this post is a shout out to Rob’s blog Sustain and Release. Read that post and you might see what I mean about him being a universal tool for (occasionally in)coherent metamorphosis of the everyday into visual, spoken and cognitive metaphor (has he infected me?!). Rob says, in regards to sustainability:

Is this a ‘damned if you do, damned if you don’t’ situation?’ What is the smart way to proceed? Perhaps now we need to begin to work with matter, cosmic Aikido.

Professor Gordon Blair presented a lecture on cloud computing to us today. It didn’t contain anything I wasn’t, at least a little, aware of before.. however in the inimitable way that any good presenter can, Gordon’s lecture did make me think about these things in detail – something that is happening consistently in my time at Lancaster.

So back to the Aikido and cloud computing. Cloud computing isn’t a distinct thing. It is Google Apps,  it’s Dropbox, it’s Amazon EC2, it’s BitTorrent, it’s iCloud, it’s the data centres that startups and corporate giants use to harbor their data.

There is no hard and fast definition, and the list above could be a very long one, but in essence, cloud computing is a whole host of overlapping technologies. This is very well demonstrated in this image taken from Cloud computing: state-of-the-art and research challenges (Qi Zhang, Lu Cheng, Raouf Boutaba 2010), via Gordon Blair.

Cloud Computing Architecture

Cloud Computing Architecture

End users see the different levels as Infrastructure as a Service (IaaS), Platform as a Service (PaaS) or Software as a Service (SaaS). The diagram shows the kinds of resources related to each of these layers, and the examples on the right show real world examples of each one. IaaS generally refers to quite raw, ‘low’ level stuff (such as simply having a virtual machine running Ubuntu, or Windows 8, that you have access to via ‘the cloud’). PaaS takes it up a level, maybe you will have access to a programming framework, or a database. You don’t really have to care how it works, but you know you can access it for your own means. Lastly SaaS is the kinds of things that I use everyday, Dropbox, Facebook, Google Apps: user-facing applications. Sometimes you might find that a SaaS is built atop one or both the two layers below it.

Cloud computing is great. It’s very clever, and with the bandwidth available these days, and the hyper-connectivity that in its own right is an intriguing area of study. With it I can happily go to the University campus knowing the papers that I need to read are stored in Mendeley’s online repository, my music is in Google Music, any other documents I need are accessible from Dropbox, and that if i have an innovative startup idea today, I can easily get the computing power needed to support it online – without huge outlay – by tomorrow, and that that solution will be scaleable. It’s incredible.

There is of course the hidden cost. It’s hard to find a reliable figure for this, but you could argue, legitimately, that searching Google twice (incidentally, for each hyperlink in this document I’ve searched Google at least once…) uses the same amount of energy as boiling a kettle. It isn’t fair, I don’t think, to make that comparison directly. However what is undeniably true is that the energy involved in running cloud based services, and the infrastructure that supports them, is magnificently huge. As an evangelist for general movement towards sustainability, and a leading expert in distributed computer systems this actually puts Gordon in a sticky place I would say; I don’t envy him on that front. I am aware of sustainability issues, and increasing care about them (and I want to do something about them) but… fortunately I’m not an expert in distributed systems! Conversely it’s a damn good job that some of the eminent experts in this field appreciate sustainability.

In the same session Gordon covered some issues related to big data and open data. I actually abhor the term big data, as it happens, based on its inherent ambiguity – but no matter. Cloud computing is one of the factors that has enabled big data to splurge across the world, and as a result big data has become a significant area of study (and – excuse me – a big business).

Big data, I think, should be respected and watched. The respect because it can harness great power for, potentially for both good and evil. Watched to make sure that this power is controlled equitably. It scares me to think how much information Google hold on me. It scares me to think how much money our personal data is worth to corporations. It scares me to think that if my DNA or health records become part of this big data craze and comes to be in the hands of corporations concerned with profiting from it. But at the same time the quirky correlations between Google search results and things like house prices or influenza outbreaks, if they continue to emerge and sustain, have huge potential for good in the world (those are just two examples of how people can utilise Google’s big data, there are many other vendors, types and examples). Another interesting story of how scary big data is comes from Malte Spitz. Spitz wondered one day exactly what data his mobile phone company was collecting about him, after a lengthy legal battle he finally received a file that contained 35,830 lines of coded data. From this data you can virtually relive Spitz’s life over an extended period. I really recommend this TED talk, delivered by Spitz, where he sums it up beautifully.

Cloud computing and big data (and indeed the Internet as a whole) share their thirst for energy, and there are no signs of this appetite abating. I find when talking to colleagues that some find it incredibly easy to become ‘anti’ quite quickly when thinking about this. The mixture of the gloomy global outlook when considering sustainability along with the bitterness derived by most when considering issues of privacy and trust related to big data is a heady mix, that can make those concerned with it appear reactionary. Conversely others that, I think quite pragmatically, conclude that big data (and sustainability issues) are with us to stay, oftentimes become equally vocal, and it isn’t difficult to find confusing theories that lead a logical observer toward a head-in-the-sand approach to the dilemmas here (on account of a how entangled the issues are). A third camp, and that is where I see myself, are optimistic that the benefits of big data can be realised while the issues of trust and privacy issues are dealt with sensibly. Apart from revolutionists, I haven’t heard any convincing argument as to how we could realistically dispense of these innovations now that we have them.

The final part of this cosmic data Aikido jigsaw is open data. Open data is an equally broad topic as big data, so I won’t go into any detail, but broadly speaking it means data that are publicly available. You could say that open data are to information, what the open source movement is to software applications. Like open source some see it as a tool or a model that fits into current paradigms, others see it as an entirely different philosophy. I think it has the potential to be both. One example of an open data project is OpenStreetMap, a global map that is made for people, by people, and is owned by people. New York City has a large repository of data that covers everything from wireless hotspots in the city (the most frequently viewed, via the open data portal) through to after school programmes, privately owned public spaces, fiscal stimulus data, and refuse collection tonnages. Another example of open data at work was after the large 2010 earthquake in Haiti the OpenStreetMap data for Port-au-Prince was taken from being virtually nonexistent, to some of the richest cartographic data that’s ever existed. This data was used by aid organisations and health agencies to great effect. In NYC you can view crime statistics on an interactive map, and maybe plan a safer route home, or decide where to live accordingly. It’s early days for open data, but so far some of the applications really have had impact, and are almost heartwarming to my mind.

It’s a difficult thing to imagine, but I really believe that if all of the elements of the system could be modeled to demonstrate that the utility and methods behind cloud computing can deliver the benefits of open and big data in a scaleable and sustainable way. Apart from a hell of a lot of work and ingenuity, it would require a ‘global’ cooperation. If you take global to mean whatever system you’re looking at, rather than ‘planet-wide’, then I think this really could be a reality in the not-so-distant future.

So what am I thinking? A hella distributed computer system. These distributed systems (some of which could be termed cloud computing) are really powerful. A system where every device would contribute its spare processing power and storage to the cloud, whether it be a phone, tablet, laptop, super computer, or a whole a datacentre. All data would be owned by everybody, so forcing a collective responsibility towards how much of it there is, and how it is used. To metaphoricalise it: imagine the world had a single well for drinking water. Nobody in their right mind would use it all up too quickly, neither would they treat it irresponsibly and contaminate it. Indeed if anybody tried to do either of those things, then everybody else would try to stop them. Interestingly the way I’m imagining this system, it could pretty much alleviate the privacy/trust issues associated with big data. You see, I think the best way to incentivise generators of big data to only generate, to only store data they need, and also to ensure that it is treated sensitively, is to store it in an entirely open cloud.

I realise having gotten to the end of this constructed idea of cloud-based cosmic data Aikido, that it is a little Utopian. Maybe a lot. However, there isn’t really anything to suggest that the idea couldn’t work on a relatively local level (look at Diaspora and BitTorrent), before being scaled up. Each increment of the network size would represent a net (pun?) ‘saving’, and a further step towards generating and using data responsibly.

Going a few steps further down the technological discovery line you can imagine how the Utopian vision described above could be supported by ubiquitous computing. It would be a challenge to quantify, but I dare say that if you added up all the spare processing and storage capacity that exists within the incredibly pervasive computer power in the world (including all the processes not only in phones, but in refrigerators, cars, escalators, boilers, routers, etc) – then you could maybe replace a large amount of the energy-gobbling (and expensive) data centres that power the (current incarnation of) the cloud and big data. On another note imagine that the way we store data could be disrupted by storing it inside DNAliving storage devices could be the answer to the practical problem of how to store seemingly infinite data (however, of course, this raises a whole myriad of ethical and trust concerns in its own right). It’s all possible though.

The European Union recently announced a €1 billion research project around large-scale brain simulations. I’m fascinated by it, and ever so slightly scared too. Depending on the outcome, maybe ubiquitous computing could become a vehicle for hosting a large scale virtual brain in a distributed manner. I think maybe I’ve watched too much Ghost in the Shell.

Put briefly, I love the things you can do with cloud computing, big data, and open data. I’m also aware that there are impacts. Computing is ubiquitous, but we’ve got to that stage without much thought for how to sustain it, or how to get the most out of it. Maybe it isn’t practicable, but, I’d like to think that there is a way in which all of these arenas are linked could be put to use and lean on each others’ strong points, while containing the negative connotations related to how we see them now.

“Hotpants vs Knockout Mouse” feat. Quad Bumlines (Sustainability Remix)

Imagine that planet Earth were a corporation with shareholders, how would investors be feeling? What would go in the annual report? It all comes down to exactly what it is the shareholders are interested in. One would usually assume that the corporation is interested in revenue, profit, capital gains of one sort or another; return on investment. So how is Earth Corp doing? Well it depends what you measure.

Could global human population represent “profit”?

Shows how dramatically human population has grown in last 200 years

Human Population

If global human population is the measure of success, then Earth Corp is doing pretty darn well.

But what else could we measure, that could be analogous to profit? Let’s be a little less abstract about how this corporation is measuring its success, and say that Earth Corp is measured by the Gross World Product, how much all of the economies in the world are worth. In that case you get something a bit like this:

Graph showing gross world product over last 80 years

Gross World Product

Also, not bad at all. The time frames on the two graphs are completely different, so don’t make a direct comparison, but the point is they’re both going up steeply. Population and economic output are growing.

In fact, there are very few measures that don’t fit with this trend of the graph goes up dramatically during the time of modernity.

 Try out global temperatures, you get the same pattern:

Global Temperature

Global Temperature

I’m sure most people are aware that if you overlay carbon dioxide levels in the atmosphere with this graph, they are very well correlated.

But maybe Earth Corp has some understanding of Corporate Social Responsibility, so the board are ensuring that they’re trying to move their activities to be in accord with the concepts included in the triple bottom line (TBL). TBL is akin to “full cost accounting”, and the idea is to incorporate several factors into a single measure of success, specifically economic, societal, and environmental factors. In fact the graphs above, could conceivably relate to the triple bottom line. So how do we interpret those graphs in relation to the TBL. Well… I guess the rise in economy means more wealth, which is good. The rise in population means that society must be working on some level, and maybe that health is improving, so that’s good too. And from where I sit, the increase in global temperatures, and correlation to CO2 output, is probably a bad thing.

So so far I’ve just pointed out some obvious facts. What I’m interested in is making sustainability tangible. How can we become more sustainable? Looking at each of those graphs, the one big question that occurs to me is how long can that go on like that?

Stuart Walker, speaking to me and a my cohort at Lancaster University, introduced me to the triple, and then quadruple bottom line only very recently (so admittedly, it’s something I’m still getting my own head around). The extra element added to the trio to arrive at the quadruple, is a spiritual element (also known as the personal element). I was surprised how much of an accord this had with me: I’m an atheist. However I do think there’s a place for spiritual understanding in the world (anyone who has a tension with being a spiritual atheist should probably consider exactly what spiritual means, or how it is meant) and actually where this idea of the triple or quad bottom line is concerned, it is essential in order to give the other factors some sort of context.

Another of the revelations that Stuart imbued was related to how the economic factor plays out in these models. In it’s pure form, the TBL is just an spectrum for measurement, that includes several factors. Great. However if you look at how it is implemented, used, how the world actually works.. then 9 out of 10 times the economic factor is an “end not a means” (quoting Stuart). The big point here is to view the triad of society, environment, and personal as the ends, and the economic factor as the means. Value beyond money, I suppose. I mean, who cares how much money you have, if there is no society or environment for you to personally enjoy it in. It is a fantastic idea, but sadly at the moment seems a bit Utopian.

Stuart concludes his lecture series with;

A more holistic approach…. From a knowledge economy based on what we can do, to a wisdom economy based on what we should do..

Stuart tentatively lays the foundations for some answers to the big questions like “is it possible to live in the world in a sustainable way?” (and similar) but purposefully doesn’t begin to address them directly. And who can blame him; our unsustainable way of living, isn’t something you can solve with a discrete solution, it is a wicked problem, and the unsustainable traits of modernity are so deeply ingrained it seems almost impossible to imagine a world where we’ve moved forward.

It’s one thing to talk about possible innovations that might help, but for now I’ll avoid that (I’ve got some ideas.. but they can wait for a future blog). What I want to talk about is the nature of innovation. How does innovation relate to risk? How do established norms relate to innovations? What strategic position is best to adopt when faced with a wicked problem? (in particular this wicked problem)

In order to answer this there are a few points I want to join together: the un-understood behavior of Kingfish, a reference to innovative heated hot-pants (the counterpoint to which is the maverick personality responsible for “knockout mice” and gene therapy), mentioning the complexity involved in figuring out the carbon footprint of the BBC… and then using those four points to ask, what is it those calling for innovation actually want?

First, the Kingfish. I only know about the Kingfish because I watched a recent episode of Africa on the BBC, presented by David Attenborough. The interesting thing about the Kingfish is that, despite being solitary hunting animals, they swim upstream once a year, in a large group, and then spontaneously begin circling round and round in the water. The Kingfish don’t spawn there, they don’t mate there, they don’t die they, and they aren’t from there. There’s no explanation for the behavior. Attenborough called them pilgrims. If these fish were people, deciding to go there, then you might say they had a cognitive bias, which in the words of Paul Ralph is a “systematic deviation from normal judgement”. Something that you do, because it’s the way its always been done.

Kingfish circling (screen grab from BBC's Africa)

Kingfish circling (screen grab from BBC’s Africa)\

Second, the “hot” pants. The pants in question are designed to keep cyclists’ muscles warm in the time between the warm-up finishing, and the race starting. The pants were part of the “marginal gains” programme that the British cycling team developed in the years preceding the Olympics. Matt Parker, head of the programme, realised that the pants would give the Brits a tiny advantage. There were no end of these tiny advances, each a little innovation in its own right. Another marginal gain was the practice of applying alcohol to the wheel rims (reducing dirt, and friction). None of these advances will redefine cycling though, in fact in sporting events this kind of practice either becomes standard (i.e. everybody does it) or gets banned. So in some way, it is a temporary gain.

My third point centres around Mario Capecchi’s “knockout mice”. Capecchi won a nobel prize for his work on the mice. I can’t confess to fully understand the process, but the context here is how and where he got the funding to do the work. When Capecchi said what he wanted to do, those funding the project told him they respected his work, and his talents, didn’t trust that his research would work – it was just so far out. So radical. Nobody believed he could do it. They did want to invest in the man though, so they said sure you can have the money, but please just do something boring, something sensible, something that is ‘doable’, something that will definitely work. Capecchi said fine, took the money, and did the mouse research anyway. He totally ignored the wishes of the funding body. The knockout mouse, as it happens, is the foundation for all gene therapy. It is invaluable work. And the body that funded the work were, retrospectively, grateful for Capecchi’s decision to ignore them! A maverick person was required in order to stimulate radical innovation, which in turn, may well see radical change in society as the cutting edge work founded in the knockout mouse begins to filter through to practical applications.

My fourth point is about bundles and complexity, in this case characterised  by how the BBC are trying to quantify their sustainability credentials. If you consume television media, have you ever considered what it’s environmental impact is? Have you ever wondered what the “best” way to consume content is? I have, but only so far as whether I listen to the sound through my hi-fi system, or use the TV speakers. If you’re the BBC and you’re trying to figure it out, it gets rather more complex. How many people watch via the digital terrestrial network)? How many watch online? Out of either group who records the programme, and who is actually watching it? How many people are sat in front of the TV? How big is the screen it’s connected to? This is all before you start to think about the resources that go into actually making the programme to start with.. For the BBC to figure out a method, which in turn will figure out a value, for a specific viewing of a specific programme. That’s tricky. For information, there is some relationship between distribution method (IP via iPlayer vs radio via digital terrestrial network) and number of viewers. If there is a single viewer, it would be most efficient to only distribute via IP. However if there are, for example, 10,000,000 viewers 90% of which are watching via radio, then those watching via IP will be consuming far more energy than those watching via radio. Probably… it’s complicated! The BBC have employed Janet West to look at these issues.

So how are these things related? Well, firstly they’re all to do with the BBC (the British Cycling/Capecchi examples came from Tim Harford’s new podcast).. but that’s more to do with chance than anything. Harford was making the point that although the marginal gains programme meant that the British cycling team was far more successful than any other in the Olympic velodrome, that fundamentally the marginal gains are quite boring. Boring, but easy to get funding for. Easy to convince people it’s the right thing. In fact the English Rugby Football has poached the man behind the marginal gains for their own needs. In a sense you might say this sort of innovation is fine on its own, but it won’t bring about a paradigm shift. On the other hand, the sort of “radical” innovation that Mario Copecchi brought about with his knockout mice is much riskier. Radical innovation will (yes, definitely, will) completely fail a lot of the time, but.. when it works, you get major advances. Marginal gains vs major advances… who is the winner? Well…

We need to stop being Kingfish. We can’t just continue doing things in the way characterised by modernity, congested with cognitive biases that are predicated on the fact that ‘this is the way its always been done’. We need to shake things up and get radical. At the same time however we need to be accepting of that fact that marginal gains do bring about advances. Understand that risky research will arrive at massively significant outcomes (but maybe only 1% of the time), less risky research will arrive a marginal improvement, but quite frequently. We need to spread our bets.

Lastly. What is it we’re trying to achieve? It is fine to be aware of our (complete lack of) sustainable living, but are you prepared to act? Are you happy to go through your life, along with the masses, living out marginal gains that will ultimately have negligible effect? (recycling your waste, doing a car share, using toilet paper from renewable sources) Or are you driven to radically innovate, shout your cause (whatever side of the argument you’re on) from the rooftops, and take a chance on being the fly in unsustainability’s ointment? What would you be willing to change, to live sustainably?

I don’t think it’s an easy one to answer.