On HP Labs, Sustainability, Energy Demand Management and Bit Miles

I spent today in Bristol at HP Labs, learning about the company’s relaunch of its R&D organisation. I came away impressed with the crispness of the new vision. In the past HP Labs came across like an academic organisation, removed from commercial concerns. I am happy to report though that the new approach and tone seems much more focused and business like.

From a Greenmonk perspective the real meat came this afternoon when Chandrakant Patel, Director, HP Sustainable IT lab (and dab hand with a sketch pad, which made for lovely slides.) joined the session via web conference.

The conference worked a charm; I found myself nodding along and giving out non-verbal queues to a face filling a six foot screen. The contrast couldn’t have been starker with BT’s CSR event this week: the telco’s Boston-based head of videoconferencing didn’t fly back to the UK to avoid the air miles footprint (good), but instead of live conferencing he prerecorded a video (bad). Note to BT-showing can be a lot more effective than telling, especially when you have a room full of influencers ready to be impressed.

The 98%: dematerialise it

But what of HP Lab’s strategy for sustainability? Chandrakant’s first slide carried the same basic message at my own Green stump speech: that is, IT only accounts for 2% of global energy consumption (and so carbon emissions), wheras the great majority of the problem is found in areas such as buildings and heating, supply chain logistics and transport – the 98%.

IT is a small percent, but it has a unique opportunity to attack the 98% problem.

HP has more skin in the game here than you might think – because of its printing business. While HP didn’t use the term Bit Miles it did talk a lot about “Long Tail Printing”. That is, digital printing at the point of use, avoiding the need to pulp a bunch of copies of some book or magazine noone ever read. Bear in mind that print technology is now moving into three dimensions, so you can potentially print objects not just characters on paper. The potential for print and micro-fabrication to reduce transportation cost is vast. Chandrakant talked about the need to create an “IT ecosystem” for the printing industry, to ensure it is carbon positive rather than negative. The HP Labs’ approach he said was to replace conventional supply chains with sustainable IT ecosystems.

Of course not everything in the vision is new. On the contrary:

“We need to leverage the past to create the future.”

One of the key problems with the 98% is the complexity of the metrics involved. How do we really know, asked Chandrakant, that the carbon used to create the Halo video conference wasn’t greater than the flight he chose not to take? There is a need for irrefutable metrics. And we don’t have 15 years. HP Labs is now working on prototypes to model and predict the impact of different re-engineering strategies, then measure and monitor the results. “These tools”, said Chandrakant’s UK equivalent Chris Preist, will analyse consumption of available energy and greenhouse gases across the lifecycle.

HP’s vision here is nothing less than to give businesses the tools they need to simulate the greenhouse impacts of potential new products and services. What if I used IBM tools here, or a BT network? What if I chose Apple hardware over Windows laptops? And so on.

This could be an entirely new frontier in product design and lifecycle management.

In order to create these kind of footprint models we’re going to need manufacturing companies to share information about their production and logistics processes. Needless to say I suggested after the briefing that Preist talk to Gavin Starks of AMEE as soon as possible.

Hurry Up I said

When it came to Q&A my question was why such initiatives are in the Lab, rather than in the field. At least one industry- air travel – is no longer viable with oil prices above $80 a barrel. Other industries won’t be immune to the rise of transportation costs.

Chandrakant responded by contrasting HP’s current approach, going public early, with earlier efforts to persuade data centers to invest in smart cooling technology.

“Unlike in 1998, we need to act fast. This time we’re going out and talking about it immediately.”

Preist added: Why is HP being open and transparent? in order to solve the challenges we have around sustainability we have to scale. Talking of opening up, HP also plans a “Sustainability Hub… “, that is, an online place to share and pool information.

So what about the 2%?

HP does of course have a plan for low carbon data centers, which involves using beams of light rather than wires in data center equipment. This idea is not so far fetched- we’re all used to idea of TV traveling along optical fibre now, so why not bits along a beam? Atoms are cheaper to move than atoms, and photons are cheaper to move than electrons.

Using this photonics approach HP estimates it can make a 75% reduction in carbon footprint for data centers. Not bad for starters! I like HP’s narrative of dematerialisation, whether we’re talking about printed pages or processors. Don’t make things manifest unless you actually need to. That’s a key to sustainability.

“The ultimate goal is photonics, but we need intermediate steps. We have teams beginning to transfer technology but we’re looking for partners, that can co-create in this area… that’s critical.

Greenmonk Take

I came away generally impressed with HP and its progress in sustainability thinking. It has some super bright people thinking far beyond the 2% and ready to work with customers in a range of industries in becoming more sustainable. But even more importantly its increasingly clear the IT industry is not only fully aware of the need to become more sustainable but also is quickly reaching a consensus on how to tackle some of the problems. I see a lot of hope for standards, information sharing, and IP cross-licensing. The public sector may not get it. Manufacturing may not get it. The general public may not get it. But IT – IT gets it. It doesn’t matter whether I am talking to Adobe, IBM, Microsoft, or Sun the agenda is pretty well shared now. The green data center is important but completely overhauled supply chains and ways of living even more so.

disclosure: HP is not a client, but paid my train fare to Bristol. Adobe, IBM, Microsoft and Sun are clients.


  1. says

    Very good take, James. Favorite line: “Don’t make things manifest unless you actually need to.” This grows out of the fundamental difference between industrial reality today and industrial reality throughout the 20th century — i.e. that energy is now expensive instead of cheap.

    We’ve had more than 100 years of being able to think, “Ah, let ‘er rip — we can afford it.” And so that’s what we’ve done. But now we’re constrained, so it’s going to take the kind of thinking that HP is doing and that Greenmonk is doing to navigate that change. It’s like the difference between designing a luxury house and designing a luxury yacht: the *fundamental* considerations for the yacht are “How much space will it take?” and “How much will it weigh?” — concerns that are trivial for an architect designing a mansion.