Wednesday, June 27, 2007

Sustainable Development for ICT Professionals

Natural Advantage of Nations (Book Cover)Michael Smith took me to task for criticizing his book, "The Natural Advantage of Nations", without having read it. So I borrowed it from the library and here are some more considered comments.

The book is a comprehensive 527 page collection of work by Michael Smith, plus: Amory Lovins, William McDonough, Alan AtKisson, Hunter Lovins, Michael Fairbanks, Karlson Charlie Hargroves. It is in five sections, with 23 chapters. It starts with "The Need for a New Paradigm" and ends with "Achieving Multi-Stakholder Engagement". The chapters are written by different authors, and while there is some repetition, the content holds together well.

The basic argument of the book is that we need a sustainable approach to development and that this will lead to economic prosperity as well as improving the natural environment. This is an argument gaining popular currency and the authors are to be commended for having consistently stuck to their message when it was not fashionable to do so.

The book is worth dipping into to read a few chapters. But I recommend skipping the forwards, and instead reading the introductory chapter of each section and the selecting the areas of most interest.

However, my criticisms of the book remain. It will most likely not be read by technologists, such as ICT practitioners. They could have benefited from the message, but will see this as some sort of political or religious movement, rather than science or engineering. The book has five forwards, as well as a preface and a messianic quote at the front from William H. Murray quoting Goethe. The first forward suggests that we need to tackle not only energy efficiency and reduced materials use, but also international peace.

Sustainable Living For Dummies (Book Cover)The average ICT professional trying to do their job, might be willing to do some work on energy energy reduction or recycling. But if you quote Goethe at them and suggest they need to work on world peace, and they have to read five hundred pages to do it, then they are unlikely to read further. Short and practical advice is needed, along the lines of
Sustainable Living For Dummies, ABC TV's Carbon Cops" and SBS TV's "Ecohouse Challenge".

Michael's Natural Edge Project has also produced materials for twelve lectures of a course on "The Role of Engineering in Sustainable Development", which are available under a Creative Commons License. These are more suitable for ICT professionals (having been written for engineers). The lecture notes are more succinct than the book, but still suffer from an excess of forward matter and the urge to convert the reader to a particular point of view, rather than educate.

That said, exactly how, or if, it is possible to educate professionals from a strict technical and scientific background as to techniques for sustainable development is an open question. Perhaps, to some extent, it is necessary to convince the professionals they need to save the planet, before discussing techniques for doing so. This should make an interesting topic for debate by the ICT Environmental Sustainability Group.

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