The Human Cloud Is A Greener Workforce

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The future of work is distributed, made up of employees scattered across the globe connected via broadband networks and using web-based crowdsourcing and other innovative means to achieve their goals. Our company calls this phenomenon “the human cloud,” and we’re throwing a conference in December in San Francisco on the subject called Net:Work. But to me, the human cloud is yet another example of how broadband can make our systems smarter and more energy efficient.

Workers that work in centralized offices less — relying on web-based tools like email, video chat, and collaboration software — mean workers that commute less, drive fewer miles in cars to work, and take fewer plane flights to conduct meetings. Video conferencing is supposed to explode over the next five years with an estimated 29.6 billion video calls made during 2015, according to a report on the video chat market from GigaOM Pro (subscription required).

The World Wildlife Fund estimates that by 2030, telecommuting and virtual meetings could cut nearly 1 billion tons of carbon emissions annually. Cisco, which all but owns the high end of the corporate telepresence business, often touts how its product can help companies reduce travel expenses and related carbon emissions.

One of the best things to happen to video conferencing in 2010 wasn’t a technology breakthrough, a business merger or the emergence of a new company, but the Icelandic volcano. The spewing monster shut down a good chunk of airline travel for many weeks, preventing the emissions of millions of tons of carbon dioxide, and reminded grounded business travelers that there’s a broadband-based alternative for that transcontinental business meeting. (For an interesting debate over video conferencing and carbon emissions check out this video clip of panelists at Green:Net 2010, Other Lab’s Saul Griffith, Jonathan Koomey of Lawrence Berkeley Lab and Stanford, Greepeace’s IT analyst Casey Harrell, Wired.com’s Alexis Madrigal and The Climate Group’s Molly Webb.)

Of course, broadband networks and connected computers, use energy, too. How much, in comparison to cutting commuting and plane trips, is hard to tell, but many researchers think that the Internet will end up being carbon positive, or in the worst case carbon neutral, because of its capacity to make processes more efficient and to reduce physical goods (called dematerialization in some circles).

Clearly putting hard data on the potential greenness of the human cloud is difficult, but I’m looking forward to more research and discussion on this at our Net:Work event next month.

Net:Work takes place, on Dec. 9 at the Mission Bay Conference Center in San Francisco (and you can register here).

Image courtesy of giopuo.

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