Emergent Solutions for Global Climate Change: Lessons from Green IS Research

Emergent Solutions for Global Climate Change: Lessons from Green IS Research

Catherine Dwyer (Pace University, USA) and Helen Hasan (University of Wollongong, Australia)
DOI: 10.4018/ijsodit.2012040102
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In the emerging field of Green IT/IS, 2% is often quoted as the percentage of environmentally harmful emissions attributed to the IT industry. The term ‘Green IT’ is now part of the vocabulary, recognizing the problem of IT as a polluter and the responsibility of IT professionals. There is a counter argument that in IT, IS people have the potential to positively influence the global environmental future – in other words, develop Green IS to reduce the other 98%. Given the urgent need for progress on Climate Change, the authors argue that it is the duty of IS academics, researchers, and practitioners to reorient IS and develop new IS practices that optimize processes in support of sustainable outcomes. This argument is supported by the ability of IS to transform business processes. This paper describes Climate Change as an example of a ‘wicked problem,’ and argues that IS research has often demonstrated that imposed, top down solutions are ineffective for highly complex problems. In contrast, bottom up, emergent solutions have more promise for creating real change.
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Wicked or complex problems have ill-defined, shifting definitions and conflicting elements that belie solution although some resolution is possible through a holistic perspective (Rittel & Webber, 1973). IS research often frames complex problems in terms of interconnected economic, social, and technical components. This framing is largely based on sociotechnical systems theory.

Sociotechnical systems theory envisions large technological systems as complex, messy problem solving systems with ill-defined boundaries (Hughes, 1989). These systems contain technical elements, called artefacts, that contribute directly or through other components to a common system goal, and components, which are social structures that represent work-flow processes, as well as attitudes and habits in the use of technical artefacts. There is a double social component to these systems: technology artefacts are socially constructed, in that they are designed and built by people and organizations (Orlikowski, 1992). These systems also help shape social and organizational structures, by offering technological affordances that encourage certain actions, and constraints that discourage others (Markus & Silver, 2008).

An important understanding of IS through sociotechnical systems theory is that the role of technology is non-deterministic – in other words, there are no magic inputs, levers, or incentives that will guarantee a certain outcome (DeSanctis & Poole, 1994). Relying upon sociotechnical understanding of systems, much IS research, such as the analysis of failed Enterprise Resource Management systems within distributed organizations, shows that complex, ‘wicked’ problems do not respond to simple levers and incentives applied via top-down solutions. On the other hand, bottom-up emergent processes, though less politically acceptable, have demonstrated a higher level of success.

As an example of a failed top down approach, consider the Copenhagen Summit on Climate Change, COP15. It is generally agreed that the summit fell short of expectations. At COP15, so many contradictory demands were apparent that it is doubtful whether it produced many useful outcomes.

While an accord was reached, it was reported that the “Copenhagen deal falters as just 20 countries of 192 sign up to declare their climate change strategies” (http://www.guardian.co.uk/environment/copenhagen). We therefore ask: is it possible to have a one-size fits all solution to a complex or wicked problem such as climate change, which has inherent contradictions?

As anticipated from previous efforts, the Copenhagen Accord focuses on targets and measures for Green-House Gas (GHG) emissions to keep global temperature increases below 2 degrees Celsius as recommended by the science. This approach implies schemes, audits, incentives, compliance, regulations etc that are difficult enough to implement at national levels let alone internationally. In this paper we refer to this as the top-down approach. The Accord does go on to emphasize the special needs of vulnerable island nations and least developed countries. Tackling climate change at the local we refer to as a bottom-up approach.

The first paragraph of the Copenhagen Accord declares a “strong political will to combat climate change in accordance with the principle of common but differentiated responsibilities and respective capabilities”. This statement reveals the inherent contradiction between what can be done in common at the top global level and the different realities at the bottom local level. This paper aims to take a balanced view of how to deal with this and other contradictions inherent to climate change challenges. It should be noted that, while the authors represent two ‘western’ developed countries, there are different imperatives and contradiction both within and between these counties.

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