Saturday, December 22, 2007

CBS Sunday Morning - A minute to Nature

Every Sunday morning, like many other CBS viewers, I too tune into to get a bit more educated with the CBS Sunday Morning. There's no doubt that it is one of the best weekly glimpses that TV has to offer.

My love for this TV program has grown more so because of the dedication it has towards environment. At the end of each episode, Sunday Morning dedicates a minute at the end to show the beautiful flora and fauna from different parts of the world. Their camera crew, it seems, locates some pristine part of the wilderness and let their cameras roll. And these clips are then broadcast without any visual and audio editing.


I like the fact that CBS is beaming these serene scenes to its viewers rather than running commercials. As per the current trends in TV advertisement rates it may very well be a $500,000 hit that CBS is taking.


Good going and excellent show of environmental responsibility, CBS. Best of luck!

Saturday, December 15, 2007

Play Pump - Watch out for Child Labor

Last year the most noticeable innovation that I came across was the Play Pump. It is a water pump that fills up overhead tanks in villages with fresh drinking water, which is powered by a merry-go-round that children play on. There is no doubt in my mind that it is one of the most ingenious uses of technology. The real estate on the water tank is also being used for advertisements that generate some revenue or display messages to educate masses on issues like HIV Aids.

While talking to another innovator who is engaged with development activities in Africa, I casually brought Play Pump into the discussion. He shared with me a perspective that is very interesting. He fears that in villages as much as it is a boon, it also has a potential to put children at risk of being forced in pumping water, against their wish(es). Another form of child labor. I am curious to know if Play Pump International has come across any such instances and how they handled them.


Image Taken From: http://www.playpumps.org/site/c.hqLNIXOEKrF/b.3639191/k.A19F/Our_Mission.htm

Monday, November 26, 2007

Technology and Development - Response Strategy for Economic Growth

After World War-II one of the topics gathering most attention in the circles around us is “Development”. While a lot has been said and written about development, there is no consensus on a single definition of what is and how it is measured. However, there is no doubt that the term “development” is used for countries, regions and societies that are technologically not as advanced as many of their western counterparts. This seems to be a very narrow view of development for a simple reason that the scope of development is reduced to just technological advancement and its measurement.

Is development the same as economic growth? Let us consider one fact before delving into development any further. Of the world’s 6 billion people in the year 2000, 1.2 billion lived on less than $1 a day. About 10 million children under the age of five died in 1999, most from preventable diseases. More than 113 million primary school age children did not attend school – more of them girls than boys. More than 500,000 women die each year during pregnancy and childbirth. More than 14 million adolescents give birth each year.

In this essay it is argued that economic growth of the society is a prerequisite for its development and should be concentrated on in parallel to developmental efforts of other institutions. Based on this assumption technology has been portrayed as a driver for economic growth, which indirectly results in development as many understand it.

Technology and Development are two issues that are often considered to be interrelated and each seems to be inactive without the other. It is important to understand the economic role of technology in the development process of a society and its role as a mandatory requirement for development. This essay discusses one specific developmental activity and how some of the present day technology can be used for its adoption and execution for economic development and the challenges it faces.


Development and Economic Growth – Dilution of Efforts
A lot of socio-economists argue that it is a myth that the early development economist maintain that they viewed growth as identical to increasing per capita income. On the contrary, increasing production and consumption was thought to increase employment and improve the standard of living. Hence, the national income translated into the average per capita income was thought to be the right indicator of economic development. However, the World Bank found a flaw in the approach and argued against the view on several grounds. The reasons varied from being unable to gather right data in developing countries to a situation where the high-income groups witness growth and low-income groups face stagnation on decline in incomes. Uneven distribution of growth socially as well as geographically too contradicts the fact that the increase in aggregate per capita income is an indicator of economic development. But there’s a consensus on the notion that growth in per capita income of a country over long periods of time with simultaneous reduction in poverty and inequality in society reflects economic development.

While economic development is just one aspect of the overall development process human development has also been argued to be an additional objective not to be omitted. The first human development report from the United Nations Development Program (UNDP) defined human development as a process of people’s choices. For these, the attention is concentrated around the opportunity to lead a healthy and long life, the opportunity to acquire knowledge, and the opportunity to have access to resources needed for a decent standard of living. In addition to these, political freedom and human rights, human development for men and women, environmental and other aspects of sustainability, and themes regarding citizen’s participation and opportunities to affect the political decisions in society have also been added.

With the same argument as before, development cannot be restricted to just the two spheres of economic and social conditions. To justify the cause, it must be holistic in approach and must at least include:

  • Economic development,
  • Social development,
  • Political development,
  • Technological development,
  • Development of formal institutions, and
  • Development of informal institutions.
Development in true sense should also be nationally responsive. There are certain benchmarks that have to be achieved before national responsiveness can take precedence. Development is its true essence does not necessarily require elements of westernization and modernization beyond a certain threshold.

This above defined scope of development has diluted the effects of efforts that have been put into by various agencies. Economic Development is the first and foremost pre-requisite for any other kind of development to happen. The ‘holistic’ model of development can only sustain itself if economic development is insured.

Economic Growth – Is Human Migration a Factor?
If economic growth causes development, then it becomes important to understand the causes of economic growth. A few examples are needed to understand the gist of how and why the countries have developed in the past and are developing today. The Netherlands (Holland), the marvel of medieval Europe, and West Germany in Europe, and Hong Kong, and Singapore in Asia are a few good examples that exemplify the causes of economic growth.

The Dutch were the first republic with sound rights to property ownership. This combined with the pluralistic (religious) attitude of the Dutch attracted educated merchants and bankers from all over the Europe, which helped and contributed to turning Amsterdam into the financial center of the 17th century Europe and resulted in the world’s first stock market in Amsterdam. Singapore opened its administrative, legal and educational system to multiracial population, which brought prosperity to the poor immigrants from rest of Asia. In a similar fashion Taiwan and Hong Kong were providing security and opportunities to the countless Chinese immigrants, mostly merchants, which were denied to them due to political instability. It was the migration of skilled people and lower taxes that brought prosperity to West Germany, very much like it did in the past in Holland, Singapore, Taiwan, Hong Kong in the past. Preeminence of Silicon Valley in the United States due to a large Indian and Chinese talent migration is a very good example as a contemporary phenomenon.

In Scotland, a financial market developed that was a response to the demands of a private economy. In 1810, there were forty independent banks. Unlike banks elsewhere that would lend only if the loans were backed by the security of goods in transit or in process and for no more than 90 days, the Scottish banks were free to lend for unspecified periods of time with no tangible securities. This later became the precursor of junk bonds. The Scottish banking developed and thus emerged differently from the hindered and distorted English banking safeguarded by a reliable English political and legal system.

Scotland further developed its education system and the output of Scottish scientists was the highest between 1800 and 1850. But Scotland allowed a large fraction of its bright and energetic people to migrate. With the absence of large scale of talent movement from around the world to Scotland the country declined and the Scottish miracle ended with the emigration of Scottish talent, more regulated financial markets, and higher taxes due to Scottish savings being all in private enterprises instead of government.

When capital and people move, the wealth that disappears in one country reappears in another. Even within a country it is important to stop people from migrating to cities. In increases the burden on cities and impedes rural development. India is a good example of this ‘rush to city’ phenomenon for the last two decades that has almost crippled the rural sectors. To make the matters worse, proportionally less efforts are being spared to plan for rural development, which is transforming the country as a society of extremes.

Therefore, the first and foremost effort towards developing a country economically should concentrate on preventing emigration. This can only be achieved by providing growth opportunities utilizing the modern day science and technology.

Clearly, in this century, where contrasting political ideologies, rising nationalism, religious persecution, resurgence of identity, and constraints of natural resources have risen to prominence than they have ever been in the past century, the dynamics of international labor migration is not an answer to address the problem of human development. Although, this has huge benefits for some of the recipient nations of the labor, this trend is a big drain on the talent pool of the source nations and a setback to their demographics that could have otherwise contributed to their economic bottomline. So, how should be respond?

Reprioritizing Efforts in the 21st Century
The spectrum of development is very broad, as discussed before; economic, social, political, etc. The scope of development starts from the very embryonic effort of a literacy drive in countries like India and Bangladesh and goes as far as formulating and implementing laws for protection of intellectual property in the relatively technologically developing countries like China and Russia.

Considering the social setup of societies in different countries and taking into consideration the stage of evolution they are in, both socially and technologically, development policies should be framed that best help them emancipate the sorry conditions they are in and takes them to the next stage of developmental evolution. International organizations like the World Bank, International Monetary Fund, and the United Nations have all been actively monitoring and aiding numerous developmental projects across the globe. As expected the projects are very well divided into different areas of execution and there are various parameters that reflect the success of developmental efforts. While these statistics are a boon to us in order to understand the intensity of underdevelopment in a society and decide the magnitude of efforts required, we should not mistakenly use these statistics to misinterpret the extent of development in different societies. While a simple statistic like the number of ‘internet users per thousand people’ is a good indicator of development and should be used to compare the extent of development in countries like Norway and the United States, they are meaningless in countries like societies of East Africa and Asia, simply because there is a generation gap between the development stages in technology in both these cases. Hence, while each and every parameter used by these international organizations carries a lot of weight and significance, care should be taken in selecting the right set of measures to evaluate developmental progress and economic development should not be forgotten.

As professionals engaged in high-tech industry, often employed with organizations that have vast amount of monetary and intellectual resources at their disposal, it is not a surprise to see donations of technology to solve developmental problems around the globe. A majority of us, especially in the developed west believe in technology as the governor and driver of social change.

This has resulted in technology being utilized to ensure development as a whole: economic, social, political, technological, and formal and informal institutions. Many of these endeavors have been successful, but countless have failed to bear any fruits. Amongst many reasons, the one that usually is quite apparent is the lack of economic development. It should not be a surprise any more. Basic human needs need economic development of a nation and society. Economic development is almost a prerequisite for development of other institutions. With the failed experiment of socialism in communist USSR, capitalism is now the predominant economic model of the world. Most of the world is now capitalist, and even those not yet are somehow linked to the markets of capitalists. This warrants a reevaluation and reprioritization of developmental efforts across the globe. Ensuring economic development should be the first and foremost concentration. Although the war of political ideologies is still on, the journey to market remains the common underlying desire.

People-Centered and People Inclusive Development Approach
In the recent past the role and importance of technology in the development of countries has been very prominent and discernible. While there should be no doubt, whatsoever, about the relevance of technological determinism (the belief in technology as a key governing force in society) in the American society, it is still debatable for some other developing countries.

Technological determinism is embedded in the American culture and shows how artists, advertisers, and professional historians contributed to the emergence of a widespread popular belief in technology as a driving force in the society. This argument is even more plausible after witnessing the rise of ‘information society’, in the last two decades, which has become instrumental in shaping the economic and social policies of many economically developed countries.

We have witnessed the arrival of a technology driven revolutionary new global society which is beneficial to a lot of citizens and to society at large, and which has brought about great improvements in many areas. In particular, the concept of information society has become central in shaping the economic and social policies of the most economically developed countries, both individually and collectively through organizations such as the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) and the G8 group of nations.

In addition to having bought into the concept of technological determinism, knowledge and innovation are increasingly recognized, almost everywhere, as critically important for development, by many governments and agencies because in the advanced developing countries, the advances in scientific knowledge appear to have been a precursor to social and cultural changes critically important to development. Public policies are being framed to create network of institutions in the public and private sectors whose activities and actions initiate, import, modify, and diffuse new technologies. The new emphasis is on the enabling environment, which fosters innovation and technical change and the linkages between all the actors involved in innovation. These policies, widely, concentrate on:
  • Macroeconomic conditions and regulatory frameworks providing the environment for innovation in the private sector,
  • National systems managing and coordinating science and technology institutions,
  • Communication and information technology,
  • The capacity to monitor and assess relevant information,
  • Mechanisms for linking academic institutions and society,
  • Scientific and technological services and mechanisms to promote and facilitate the diffusion and transfer of technology such as information services and technological consulting,
  • Operating conditions and procedures, research and development capacity to generate knowledge and technique,
  • Programs to educate and train personnel,
  • The scientific and technological know-how of the labor force, and
  • Financial intermediaries and resources.
These policies concentrate on a wide range of fronts, but by their nature exclude individuals from being a part of the implementation group. These are meant to be played by Governments and International Organizations. The commitment of the private sector is utilized only to the extent of dialogs with the governments and devising e-strategies.

If economic development is the priority in this century, then the development programs have to be inclusive of all. Everyone everywhere should be able to participate; not just the individual recipients but individual donors as well.

How can we use the Information and Communication Technologies (ICT)?
In the developed world technology now has no country and regional boundaries. In a similar fashion, for countries to develop in science and technology and social structures and affairs, importation of technology as well as sharing and diffusion of regional successes and lessons learned have to be encouraged.

Over the last ten years social scientists too have been able to come to a conclusion that social development needs deliberation, participation, and information. If these are required then there must be:
  • Public spaces and networks for deliberation and exchange of services among people,
  • Channels through which experiences and knowledge can be shared among people, and
  • Sites where information/knowledge sources must be consulted.
Consequences of ICTs – From Foreign Direct Investment to Personal Finance
The availability and use of ICTs has in the very recent past created an atmosphere for many Indian entrepreneurs and multinational companies to invest in India. It is morphing the previously worrisome phenomenon of ‘brain drain’ into ‘brain circulation’. The very problem that plagued Scotland is now being prevented in countries like India and Mexico. With the investments that have brought down the telecommunication costs over the years and have made computers and Internet so pervasive, a lot of teleworking jobs are being exported out of the developed economies. Countries like India have leap-frogged into a world-class exporter of software services and production.

This will prevent the developing countries from being eroded of their talent pool further, which to a large extent addresses the problem of human migration. It ensures economic development of a country, a crucial process, in absence of which social development has seldom succeeded.

Micro Finance – A Step beyond Economic Development
In the interest of philanthropy, individuals and organizations struggle almost everyday to increase their impact and outreach. Some even struggle to start as the myriad of possibilities, both in number and nature, and the impact of help and investment are difficult to assess and hard to sustain. Amongst the many novel ways that have been explored in the past ranging from grants for low-income housing projects to research and development of a cure for deadly diseases like AIDS and malaria there is very little role and control for an individual or a small organization with a relatively smaller fund size. These, however, combined may well be the largest pool of donors; smaller private companies and high-income professionals who are associated with the high-tech industry or are involved in the development of ICTs. Microfinance is a basic and very opportune avenue that addresses the problems of social development at grassroots. As households have the economic means and financial resources they will concentrate on education, healthcare, and will ensure the sustainability of any developmental program, be it political, social, or institutional in nature.

Micro-finance or Micro-credit, as it is often called, is the extension of small loans, often collateral-free, to entrepreneurs too poor to qualify for traditional bank loans to fund their micro-enterprises. These loans are typically $200 or less and are used for investment in very small businesses. Being small in amount and with the associated high costs of transactions and lower profit margins, these loans are not attractive to traditional banks, which therefore do not commit resources like banking centers in remote areas. There are many micro-finance programs running all over the world, but none is as successful and prominent as Grameen in Bangladesh.

Grameen Foundation leverages the power of microfinance to create innovative and sustainable solutions using technology that:
  • Makes microfinance (micro-credit) operations more efficient
  • Creates income-generating opportunities for the rural poor
  • Provides poor communities access to information and resources
ICTs are very critical to make these micro-finance operations and supported businesses a success because a successful micro-financed venture needs:
  • Availability of Lenders
  • Availability of Credit (remittance systems from overseas)
  • Access to Borrowers
  • Management of front-line transactions
  • Back office MIS
  • Exposure to Markets
In absence of ICTs the management of the above components is a very human intensive task which runs a high risk of bureaucracy creeping in, fraud, and community marginalization. While all of the above are important for a successful microfinance operation, its sustainability depends on a combination of transparency, efficiency, and communication, and regulation. A successful operation of microfinance needs software that is able to seam together the various centralized and distributed devices like handhelds, ATMs, phones using both text and voice technologies over broadband connections in remote areas.

Without the help of ICTs even the most successful microfinance operations in the world, Grameen in Bangladesh, has struggled. In absence of appropriate tools required to run a successful microfinance operation, Grameen has faced problems like[1]:
  • Limited coverage of only 50% poor because it requires large number of human resources
    Fraud by credit workers and its late detection
  • Expensive audits
  • Borrowers remain hesitant because of cheating and lack of transparency
  • High transaction costs
Any replication of the Grameen model can utilize ICTs to de-risk its operations with the above identified series of problems. The inherent nature of ICTs will bring down the administrative costs. These savings can be passed on to the borrowers in terms of lower interest rates, which will encourage low risk taking potential borrowers to generate self employment.

Diversity in Contribution
Thus far developmental efforts have been almost exclusively a privilege of the rich and kind-hearted. Individuals who have pledged directly to a developmental activity, other than fund raisers and charity drives, have been very few and far between. Even the end goal of these contributors have been almost always been philanthropy, an investment in the deprived strata of the global society. Rarely has such community service ever been done as an investment with the goal of generating capital growth. Such intentions, especially by individuals, have been shunned as exploitative, inconsiderate, and selfish. Microfinance as a concept is a new dawn on the concepts of compassion, giving, and social development. This is an opportunity where for the first time both institutions and individuals can participate for development of the trampled without any guilt of profiteering materially from it, albeit a very small amount that is negotiable.

Some of the technological solutions suggested alleviating the current problems in microfinance operations are:
  • Operations – High costs of custom software development, scalability, high hardware introduction costs. This is further exacerbated by the fact that these technologies have to operate in strenuous conditions with little or no operational support.
  • Information asymmetry between investors, microfinance institutions (MFI), and clients – Client information is difficult to obtain, investors have little or no means to make informed decisions, and a prevalent lack of awareness about microfinance that still carries the image of failure and misuse of funds.
  • Impact and Outreach – High cost of decentralized operations due to geographic spread of clients in remote areas, illiteracy, and user-friendliness of technology.

The Holy Grail
Microfinance institutions currently use technologies that are outdated and far less efficient than what the need is. The penetration of ICTs in MFI is still very low will little innovation applied over the years. The relationship of ICTs and MFIs is in a rapid evolution with the offerings that exist in the market today. But the industry is plagued with cost and software problems. No two MFIs operate the same way, which makes the need for customer software development very high. This, however, warrants high costs that the MFIs are not predisposed to spend. Hence, here’s how the MFIs can be helped by individuals and institutions:

  • Donate money to MFIs
  • Donate technology – hardware and software
  • Donate effort for custom software development
  • Donate training in the implemented ICTs.
  • Donate infrastructure support
  • Create customer directories at regional and national levels

As with many other sectors in the past the efforts to integrate ICTs in MFIs have not been perfectly executed. The results so far have been mixed. The dominating discussion in the industry currently on how to realize the promise of technology appropriately. Cheryl Frankiewicz[2], in her report of the AfriCap seminar, states, “One conclusion that emerged clearly from the seminar is that MFIs cannot do it alone. Partnerships are going to be key, and stakeholders must build and share open infrastructure.”, and has made a few recommendations for any MFI for using ICTs as their strategic tool.

  • Define what technology should do and now how it should do it – Avoid copycatting just because your competitors are doing it. That’s not strategic.
  • Design for “should be” and not “as-is” – Since ICTs provide the opportunity to do things differently, MFIs should be open to redesign their business processes and not try to computerize their existing processes, if they are incorrect or have a scope of improvement.
  • Have a process – The biggest challenge in such endeavors is that there are many people involved who all may have a different idea of what they need and they’re building. It is therefore important to use a good methodology to determine the ICT needs.
    Involve users early and regularly – The IT department should interact with the users up and down the organization early and regularly. This will increase technology acceptance and quality of implementation. Even the adjustments in the technology to meet the user requirements will be less costly and faster.
  • Look for partners, not vendors – Since technology investments are expensive they should be looked at as strategic investments. Look for mutually profitable partnerships where there’s a clear understanding of what’s to be developed.
  • Make sure everyone benefits, especially your customers – Those who do not benefit are unlikely to embrace the technology and may contribute to failure of the project. MFIs need to understand the value proposition to the client as well.

Concluding Thoughts
So far, it has been argued, and there still is an ongoing debate that the technological advancements, especially in the United States, have brought about large increase in inequality and an absolute decrease in the standard of living of the poorest strata of society. Recent evolutionary development in ICTs present to societies world over an opportunity to bridge the gap and integrate socially and economically with the developed nations.

While it may be argued that technology has always been responsible in making or breaking a nation, there should be no failure to understand that it is the failure to use technology, and sometimes improper use of technology that has in the last century introduced differences in standards of living, strengthened and paralyzed economies that have created circumstances where we have the haves and the have-nots, the developed and the underdeveloped. As much as it appears to be a social phenomenon, it is a consequence of either neglect of technology or its underutilization.

Efforts in individual capacity or as corporate now have another option of harnessing technology for economic development. In particular, harnessing technology for transforming data and information into knowledge and making capital available is easier than ever and provides an opportunities like never before to help the needy, without having to associate themselves with governments and world bodies like the UN.


Reference:
[1] ICT in Microfinance: A Bangladesh Perspective. Md. Badruddoza Mia
http://www.fdc.org.au/Electronic%20Banking%20with%20the%20Poor/6%20Mia.pdf
[2] Information Technology as a Strategic Tool for Microfinance in Africa – A Seminar Report. Cheryl Frankiewicz.
http://www.africapfund.com/site/IMG/pdf/2004_IT_Seminar_Report-2.pdf

Monday, October 29, 2007

Bee Shall Overcome

Colony Collapse Disorder (CCD) is the latest threat to human race, specially to the vegetarians in the short run. There'd be no pollination, hence no more fruits, plants, etc. We'd just have to survive off of wheat, corn, and meat. A good concise read on CCD is available on Wiki ( http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Colony_Collapse_Disorder ).

CCD is a huge threat to our survival as a specie. A video program is available on this topic on PBS' website at http://www.pbs.org/wnet/nature/bees/ , which I found very informative. There's also a new Hollywood movie coming out this Friday, called 'Bee'.

I wonder if this is a mere co-incidence. Regardless of the fact, I think this movie will generate a lot of awareness of the important role that Bees play in the human food supply. Kids for sure will learn a great deal about Bees and that can only help.

This is probably is the first time that a major Hollywood animation movie would portray the complex interdependence in nature and address an environmental issue in making.

Image taken from: http://web.mit.edu/pkamvyss/www/pictures/bee.jpg

Sunday, July 29, 2007

Glass Bottle Beache(s) - Giving back to mother Earth

I always knew that sand is silica and silica is what glass is made out of. But I never thought that glass can actually be recycled into sand. Why, don't ask me that; may be it's the imagination that I never cranked up. Or worse yet, may be I didn't observe the problem at all. Yes, I think, to give myself a benefit of doubt, that it was the latter. I have been living around beaches for about four and a half years now. But I never thought for a moment that beaches might be under erosion. Yes, they are! Every year water is pulling more sand in it at sea. Moreover, the modern construction practices, specially in the United States, has made it possible to erect buildings almost at the water line now. The second picture on the right shows buildings right on water. It has resulted in beaches' natural layout to be disturbed so much that they are virtually gone now. In South Florida, around Miami Fort Lauderdale area the situation is much worse. Due to man-made ports and high-rises more and more sand is being pulled back into sea.

The erosion is so mind-boggling that the authorities are now planning to somehow reverse that sand loss. One of the steps being taken is to put artificial sand on the beach. The problem, however, is the source. I had always known of one, the sea itself. That's how beaches the world over where authorities can afford do it. They pump sand from the vicinity of the beach, but under water, back to the land. South Florida (Broward County), on the other hand, is exploring something new and unconventional. They are now experimenting with recycling glass back to silica and throwing out on the beach.

Literature
Here are a few links from the Broward County website about the history and cost of the project:

  1. http://www.broward.org/waste/beach_renourishment.pdf
  2. http://www.broward.org/waste/beaches.pdf
  3. http://www.broward.org/waste/beachglass.pdf
In gist, 21 of the 24 miles of beaches in this county are under serious erosion. They are very important for the economy, bringing about $420 million (as of 1995). But, the cost is prohibitive and there are regulator hurdles. Logistically, there is not enough glass to recycle and there are ownership issues of waste glass.

Summary
So the next time you throw away a glass bottle in waste, think about it. Glass bottles in recycling bin can actually mean a wider and more beautiful beach near you. The problems and hurdles mentioned above are very temporary. But let's not forget, it all starts with the raw material without which this won't ever be possible. So, as a first step, let's start tossing those used beer and wine bottles into your recycling bin.

Sunday, May 06, 2007

My Greenest Week Ever

Since childhood, I have been a very green person. Choosing smaller vehicles over larger, walking over driving, planting trees, relocating grown up trees rather than cutting them down, etc. has been my way of life. The biggest kick I ever got was when we (I along with my father) uprooted 20 foot 4-5 year old trees and planted them elsewhere. And we did this almost every year.

This past week, however, was my greenest ever. I think, that my green deeds have never been better than this, even after all those years of moving trees around like people do with their furniture.
It all started with the Arbor Day last Saturday. I along with a friend of mine got 2 trees and 4 plants that we evenly distributed between us and planted in our homes. This was a free tree giveaway from our city government. It was my second year in a row when I did this and first ever when I encouraged someone else to do the same. Last year, we planted 2 trees and 2 plants in our house. To my heart's content, the line of people out there to take advantage of free tree giveaway was larger than I had expected and almost double that of last year.

As if it was not enough, the very next day I got a mail from a company that sent me a Meyer Spruce sapling, very nicely packed, in a mailing tube. This was the first time ever that I saw and got a tree in a mail. I think this is a very fascinating concept and hope that it becomes a trend - gifting trees; somewhat like gifting flowers.

Later in the week I was scheduled to attend a yearly gathering of my company, which I was looking forward to for the last few months for very many reasons. None of those reasons was related to the environment. The first thing that happened as I reached the venue not only surprised me but also made me appreciate my employer a lot more than what I did in the past. After the initial sign-up all the guests were given a tote bag for shopping, so that we can avoid using plastic bags. It was a big satisfaction to realize that some of my co-workers feel strongly about the environment, like I do. Actually, now I am convinced that that they are quite ahead of me in the sense that they not only talk and think about it but follow it up with action that sends a message to hundreds of other like minded people. Kudos to them for taking the bold step of spending money to get these bags and handing them out.

I already started thinking about how the week was by far the best and the greenest for me. There were absolutely no signs of what was yet to come. It was again a novelty for me - a tree in a box. Yes, one of my other co-workers had this bright idea of handing out trees to all of us. What better and more convenient than to give it out like any other gift; in a small box. Yes, in this 2in x 2in x 2in box is a decidious tree. It's the majestic and the beautiful Red Maple. It's hard for me to be away from home and moreso now since I can't wait to see this Red Maple in my backyard.

Sunday, April 22, 2007

No Kidding for Environment - Give me a Break Please

I am slowly turning into an environmentalist - trying to reduce my global footprint as much as possible. This desire has also given me an uncanny ability to smell and spot environment related debates, writings, editorials, discussions, and practices that usually don't get any attention from others.

However, recently I read something that threw me off-balance and made me say 'NO' to it. The Globe and Mail recently had an article on the occasion of Earth Day and it was titled, Don't have children, save the world - Parenting may be natural. It could also kill the planet. The author draws attention to the a group called the No Kidding (http://www.nokidding.net/), which is an international organization for people who choose to be childless. It mentions a couple in there who have decided not to have children because they see a family with kids put out four or five bags of garbage and no recycling bin.

Bigger Function of Practice than Size
In my opinion this viewpoint and sentiment is as much a disease as being a germophobe in the name of cleanliness. Four or five garbage bags and no recycling bin is a process and discipline issue. Countless families of two, without any kids, can do and actually do the same.

There's no doubt that there's a certain finite number of people that this planet can handle. But it's common sense that it all depends on how much we waste and at what rate. Having no children, however, is not addressing the problem at its root.

A more humane and educated goal should be to reduce the size of an average family down to a certain number like four and not to have any kids at all. This to me is a narcissistic point of view, one that is hardliner and can never be mainstream.

Better Solutions
It is completely natural and acceptable to not have children for medical and biological reasons or whatever, but to not have them to save the environment is foolish and deceiving. It is akin to duping other and robbing them of an experience of lifetime.

There are other ways to save the environment that should come first before even thinking of a step as radical as starting a movement for a "child-free" society. As starters, get those heavy, custom built, gas guzzling million dollar RVs off the roads and certainly off the camp grounds of North America. National Parks and Reserves should have no place for 3 miles a gallon bus with granite floors, flat screen TVs, and comfy leather couches. National park are more fun living in a tent close to nature and the elements of wilderness.

Say 'NO' to No Kidding
It is time for the existing and founding members of this groups to say 'NO' to people who say no to children to save the environment. This would be a wise decision in the long term, one that would not only save countless from regretting later but also keep the human race going and providing the diversity of ideas and background that has brought it to a point of technical, literary, and artistic excellence today.

Friday, April 20, 2007

Discipline with Glass Bottles

Glass was once a dominant product in the industry and was used for anything from a glass table top and beverage containers. A lot of glass use is governed by the trends in different industries like Automobile and Construction. While on one hand the use of glass in automobile industry has gone down, the construction industry has lately been fascinated by it. It is not uncommon to see fully glass clad buildings even in the underdeveloped countries now.

One industry in which the usage of glass has remained fairly constant, though, is the food industry. We still get beer and juice in glass bottles. Quite amazingly, glass seems to be coming back into trend now. Coke has glass bottles and the popularity of Wine has increased the usage of glass.

The big question, however, is - what do we do with our glass bottles after we use them. I was talking to a friend of mine who I recently got to know and who is also a passionate recycler. She along with one of her other friends collects a whole lot of glass bottles from their friends and in her office and sells them back to the recyclers. They get an average of $0.07 (7 cents) for a bottle. But here's the amazing figure - it totals to over $40,000 a year between the two of them. And, this figure seems to increase every year partly because they are now getting people to participate in their program, but also because the usage of glass is increasing in our daily lives.

Sadly, most of us are not disciplined enough to throw the bottles into recycling bins, we just toss them into our normal garbage bags and forget about it. Why, because who'd care to be so disciplined for a mere 5-7 cents a bottle. But the problem is that increasing amounts of glass is now ending up in landfills. Imagine acres and acres of beautiful land having glass buried under it. What are we doing to our planet and can we prevent this from happening? Sure, we can. The lesson to learn comes from a very unusual group of people. Interestingly, my friend also told me that the most disciplined people she has come across when it comes to recycling glass bottles is none other than beer drinkers. I am suspecting that this trend would be the same across North America. Ketchup, pickels, jams, juice bottles and broken frame glasses and other discarded glass items still end up in the trash can, predominently. I guess, we are still not used, or shall I say discipline to, throw them in the recycling bin instead. And, this is the habit we've got to change if we have to save our planet.

The size of landfills and the waste generated per person in North America is at its peak right now. In other words, it is increasing and there are no signs of it reducing anytime soon unless we all change our per capita waste generated. The easiest way to do that is to start with glass. Use less of it and if you use it try to recycle it.

I have in the past come across confusion around the potential of recycling colored glass. Red, Brown, Green, Blue, no matter what color, it is qualifies as recyclable. See if you can get find some time out to collect the glass waste from your friends and turn it to a recycling program and earn some cash. Nice way to get some money out for charity. Isn't it?

Saturday, March 31, 2007

Cork, Rubber, and Shoe Lace

For the first time in my life I stepped on to a floor made of Cork, a few days ago. Let me tell you this, I have never seen anything like it ever before. And as if love at first sight was not enough, I went to and office and there it was again, although in different color and finish.

Beautiful !!!

In just a week I saw and felt the advantages of a using a cork floor - already sold on it and going for it the next time I get the floors done. Here are a few benefits:

  • Sustainable Resource
  • Mold Resistant
  • Sound Absorbing
  • Heat/Cold Insulating
  • Anti Microbial

Another new development, which The Epoch Times reported, is the new state of the art sports club that the famious Canadian born and Phoenix Suns' basketball player Steve Nash is opening. This will open in Vancouver (http://www.stevenashsportsclub.com/index.php) sometime in the summer of 2007. The club building itself will be designed aspiring Leeds Silver Certification, which is the top notch recognition for being green.

The reason I call the club state of the art, however, is for different reasons that what most of us are used to. The sweet part of the story was to read that the floors in this building will be made of recyled and sustainable material - Bamboo, Recycled Tyres, and Shoe Laces. Yes, you read it right - the area rugs will be made of reused shoelaces.

Sunday, March 25, 2007

Child Labor in Canada

Yes, that's how unbelievable it was when I read the title of this post after I wrote it. There seems to be a mistake here. Child Labor in the developed West is not only outlawed but these countries also dedicate resources to stop this practice in other parts of the world, specially Asia. But let me tell you, it is not.

Gold Paved Roads
It is a not a secret that Canada's crude oil reserves are one of the largest in the world, only second to Saudi Arabia. One province in particular, Alberta, which is on the western frontier of Canada is the leader with an estimated 174 billion barrels of oil (http://www.energy.gov.ab.ca/1876.asp) just in the Oil Sands (google for Oil Sands to learn more about it). This is such a big area of natural resources that the oil companies have been investing billions of dollars every year for the last few years in order to tap into the back gold rush. Approximately 100 billion dollars worth of investment is on the board for the next 5 years so that these companies can double and triple their production throughput to take advantage of the rising oil prices in the world and the developing geopolitics.

Long story short, the province of Alberta that has only 3 million residents, which are primarily centered in Edmonton and Calgary, is one of the fastest growing regions in North America. The situation is so bad that housing is a problem in Calgary and literally hundreds and thousands of workers have to be accomodated in mobile trailers by their companies, at times 6-8 to a trailer. There's T-cranes all over the downtown of Calgary reflecting the optimism, enthusiasm, and the sense of urgency for developing office and residential high rises, fast. Jobs are plenty and there's a shortage of labor specially in trades like carpentry, plumbing, electricals, etc. The euphoria in the area is running so high that there're myths far and wide that the street of Calgary are paved with gold. Calgary, at time seems to me a re-enactment of how San Francisco might have developed during and immediately after the gold rush of the mid 1800s.

Youth in the Labor Force
With a city that is growing leaps and bounds and where people are moving into from as far as Toronto and Texas arise the problems of supply and demand. Low birthrates and aging population is not helping either. There is so much demand for labor in this province that the government had to lower down the age limit of employment in the province of Alberta in 2005. Children, 12, 13, and 14 years old can now work in some trades, including restaurants. Youth unemployment rate is now the lowest in Canada, at 7.3%. Details of employment for persons under the age of 18 can be found at http://www.hre.gov.ab.ca/cps/rde/xchg/hre/hs.xsl/1476.html/.

Labor Law Violations
Adolescents in Alberta are allowed only in certain trades, during certain hours of the day and under the certain supervisory arrangements. This is to ensure that children are not exposed to hazardous conditions like heavy machinery and high heat apparatus like deep friers, etc. Special work permits are required by employers to hire adolescents. There is an extended list of codes that and regulations that on the first sight make it look like a very ingenuine way not only to solve short-term labor problems but also to build long-term capacity for the nation.

The provincial government's decision of lowering the age of employment to 12 years, although being done with good intention, is firing back. It is drawing a lot of flak lately from the local newspapers and other groups. Not a day goes by without editorials, or letters to editors, or other forms of open expression in public. It is not uncommon to over hear convesations, generally opposing the government decision to lower the age. The reason is quite obvious - while the laws are there the vigilance is missing. There's just not enough enforcement of the laws by the goverment. Employers don't apply for permits or don't follow the guidelines properly or at all sometimes. The results, as published in newspapers are horrendous. Children with frequent burns, longer than expected work hours during school time are not uncommon to hear of.

A big question now is - if this is not child labor, than what is? How is this different from young boys and girls working in shoe manufacturing companies in some Asian country? Should this be allowed to go on just because this is Canada? What would it take before proper enforcement is carried out - a death? What moral authority will the government of Canada have to police child labor in other countries? And, the biggest question of all - isn't this creating a environment where a lots of children will end up missing a chance to get proper education and ultimately end up in the workforce not fully qualified?

Friday, March 23, 2007

Wind Energy - A Substitute for Solar in the North

A good news to begin with - Wind power is the fastest growing segment of the renewable energy sources. :) Denmark generates 20% of its energy demands from wind power. Global wind energy capacity has sustained growth rates of over 25% (source: The Pembina Institute). And, Canada plans to generate 5% of its energy demands by 2010 from wind power.

For a few years now I had always wondered how the colder countries of the North like Canada, Sweden, Norway, etc. will be able to take advantage of solar energy. The reason is that both the availability of sunlight and the efficiency of solar panels go down drastically in those regions due to climatic conditions. I never realized that some of these countries are actually very lucky to have wind power like no where else in the world. Western Canada for example has abundant natural wind available year round that some of the hotter regions of north American doesn't have.

As expected of responsible corporations this energy source is now being invested and tapped into and being developed into a parallel revenue stream by some energy companies. Suncor, in Canada, has already been named as one of "10 Green Giants in Business" by Fortune magazine this year. It has invested in wind power for approximately 140 MW ( http://www.suncor.com/default.aspx?ID=1091 ) of power generation in Canada from wind power, although there was no mandate from any regulatory authority to do so. This is anticipated to reduce the CO2 emissions by 400,000 tonnes, half of which has already been achieved.

Here are three biggest advantages that a wind turbines and wind energy has:

  1. It has got very little footprint. Turbines can be installed in the rural areas and the land below them can still be used for farming.
  2. Energy partnership can be inked with the local farmers where the energy company promises the farmers a percentage of energy generated. This will not only ensure availability of land but also much needed power to the farmers, specially for irrigation.
  3. The cost of wind power or wind energy has come down to almost 4 cents per KWh, a decrease of 80% in the last 20 years.

Images are from Suncor website.

Tuesday, March 20, 2007

Rainbow Flower may not be Pointless Afterall

A few years ago when Wipro Technologies changed its logo to the rainbow flower (shown on the right) the first thing that popped in my mind was 'environment'. There was no reason other than getting on the green bandwagon, at least that I could think of, why Wipro would choose the logo it did. Its lighting business and the portfolio that also includes manufacturing services were convincing enough pointers back then.

Month turned into years and I never ever got to know the reason and rationale behind the rainbow sunflower. That was until I read Bangalore Tiger by Steve Hamm ( http://www.wipro.com/bangaloretiger/index.htm ). Turns out that there wes no green philosophy that prompted Wipro to change the logo. In fact, it was an image makeover by a Bengali painter, Shombit Sengupta to revive brand Wipro. Oh Well!

But as I read the book further on, it turned out that Wipro actually has an incredible record so far when it comes to caring for the environment. Here are a few facts I got from the book:

  1. Wiproites planted 174, 422 saplings along the shore of Bay of Bengal to help restore the coastline.
  2. Wipro has reduced water consumption by 60%.
  3. It reduced food waste by 38%.
  4. Energy consumption is reduced by 10%.
  5. Wipro grounds/lawns and toilets use recycled water.
  6. It harvests rainwater in its Bangalore campuses. In 2005 alone 12,000 kiloliters of water was collected, which was good to serve the facilities for 45 days.
  7. Wipro center in Gurgaon, India is certified as a platinum rated building, by the US Green Building Council, for its energy conservation features. There are only 10 other such buildings in the world.
Going the extra mile to reduce food waste, on Wipro's part, is really impressive that I had never heard of before. In 2001 Wiproites wasted 85 grams of food per person, which seemed excessive to Wipro. So, it started to sensitize its employees, measured waste weekly and published the numbers so that people can have a look at it and reduce their serving size. It seemed to have worked and now the waste is about 45 grams per person. What's even more impressive is that this waste is composted and is used to fertilize trees and shrubs on its grounds.
I am not sure if I can ask for anything else after efforts like these. The best part is that it is all coming from top down, something that will get emulated by the rank an file in everyday life. Good going, Wipro.
Images are from www.wipro.com and www.amazon.com

Thursday, March 15, 2007

Travel Mug is a Friendly Idea

Like millions of other human beings I too am a caffeine addict. But I try to restrict my intake just in the form of morning coffee. Well, that's actually how it started until I got hooked on to it. Now, I step inside my favourite coffee shop, wherever I can find it, about 3-4 times a day atleast if not more.

Recently, one morning I stopped for a coffee along with a colleague of mine when she actually went ahead and bought a travel mug. I asked her why and she said because she always uses one and prefers to get her coffee in her mug. Again, out of curiosity, I asked her if it tastes better in a mug. The answer was not quite what I had expected. I was waiting for her to say "yes" so that I get an excuse to buy one myself. They look cool, don't they? Sorry for the digression - but her answer was, "No". That's when I couldn't resist and asked her one more question, "Why would you spend $10 to get a mug when you can get it in a disposable cup?" Just as I was asking the question the obvious answer came to me. And that's exactly what she said. She didn't want to waste paper.

Alert and Thinking
Putting it all into context, I ran a few numbers quickly. My favorite coffee shop chain may be selling between 1.5 to 2.0 billion paper cups annually. That number in itself was mind boggling and big enough for me to become a convert. I am glad that the coffee company realized the impact it has on the environment. So they introduced 10% post-consumer recycled fiber in their cups and sleeves. The difference it made is substantial, which is highlighted in the figure on the right. Imagine a world where we don't have paper cups at all in just this coffee chain alone. It would:

  • Save atleast 780,00 trees from being felled,
  • Provide 6400 homes a total of 580 billion BTUs of energy,
  • Avoid 470 million gallons of wastewater, and
  • Prevent 30 million pounds of solid waste.
These are huge figures, that doesn't count the other big places where we as consumers waste paper getting out water and sodas in paper cups. Think about it the next time you are out to grab a cup of coffee. The environment may be safer with you buying a travel mug.

Did I just waste $10
So you just bought the idea because you want to have a little impact on the environment because of your coffee drinking habit. Well done, you say to yourself and head to get the $10 travel mug only to have a last minute revelation that you are actually getting robbed. That's what I thought too only until I did a little math.

Bringing in my own travel mug saves me about $0.10 cents everytime I buy a coffee. With my consuming pattern of 3-4 coffees a day, it'd be just a month of so before I break even and almost get a tavel mug for free. It's not a bad proposition, if you ask me. And let's not forget that I also contributed 100 less paper cups to the trash cans.

Wednesday, March 14, 2007

Save Energy in Offices


A few months ago I was browsing through my picture gallery and wondered why I took so many of them, late at night, not of people but of high rise buildings. That is because there's something about tall buildings, well lit from inside against the dark sky that fascinates me. That's when I started noticing that residential towers start to turn dark as the night progresses but corporate America almost never have their lights turned off. Look at the picture on the right, the bulding on the near right is an office that is lit when the two towers to the far left are starting to turn dark as the night progresses.

Just last week I was in an office space trying to turn the lights off so that a powerpoint presentation could be better visible. It turned out that there was no switch on that floor that'd do it. This was an 80 storey building and seeing the lights on late nights from outside on the street, I suspect that this is how most of the floors would be. Now I realize that it's not the hard working employees putting in long hours but the outdated and inefficient electrical systems designs and layouts that make the metro skylines beautiful at night.

Inefficient and Outdated Lighting Systems
What surprises me is that in this day and age these building engineers can't program their lighting systems efficiently and install intelligent sensors that would turn the lights off when no one's around. Imagine the benefits this could reap if high rise corporate America can take a few little steps. The power saved could be used to get the chillers ready for being used next day to cool the buildings, putting less load on the grid during peak temperature hours. Or it can be used to cool down the server farms that are now consuming more power than ever and growing at an astounding pace, around the globe. Most important of all, the money saved in electricity bills can be donated for charity, or to investments in alternative energy sources.
Image Polishing
It is not long before people like me along with other environmentally conscious, hopefully like some of you, will start to realize that the real belivers and caretakers of the environment are the ones who think and act genuine, who innovatively try to reduce the negative impact they have, and who take steps to conserve the precious resources we've got. It is or will be very obvious that no matter how much media you get on your side highlighting your getting on the environmental bandwagon, it'll all be seen as image polishing steps unless basic attitudes and habits are changed and demonstrated. Turning your offices dark at night can be your first step towards a greener world.

How can you Help?
So the question now is who can take steps to do something about it? It certainly should be the facilities managment staff of these big buildings. But even before them, it's people like you and I who can make a difference. Turn your office lights off when you leave for home. Shut down whatever you can before you leave for home, including monitors, TVs, table lamps. And spread these good habits around. Talk to your friends and co-workers and influence them to do the same.

Tuesday, March 13, 2007

Corn Hangers - Promotionally Challenged


A few weeks ago I wrote about Walmart's initiave to turn green. On my last trip to Walmart I wandered in the clothes' hanger section out of curiosity to see how the product range has varied since my last visit. To my surprise there wasn't much change. But it was good to see the corn hangers have a decent space for themselves, albeit a little lower than I had expected. Yes, they were in a row that was about at the knee height of a person of average height; a place where it was not quiet as noticeable as it it ought to be. Another thing that made it a little less attractive was the pricing. Can't blame Walmart entirely for it. At $3.xx for a set of 5 hangers it was about 3 times as expensive as the all plastic ones which were $0.99 for the same number. I guess, the technology is still expensive.

Missing from the Website
Another area of improvement is the placement of the product on the Walmart website. This product doesn't show up in the search result for Featured Items. I guess, it's the price that makes it a lesser candidate to show up on the site. At Walmart price is the biggest differentiator, afterall.

Made in the USA
All said, the sight of those was wonderful and pleasing. Specially, when I read "Made of 100% Corn", "100% Compostable" and the big and bold, "Grown and Made in the USA".
Walmart website image is from www.walmart.com and the image is edited with the text box and text, "Where's the Corn Hangers, Mr. Green?".

Tuesday, March 06, 2007

Nau Open - For Positive and Substantive Change

In a previous blog about Walmart's green intiative ( http://udairaj.blogspot.com/2007/01/greenwalmartcom.html ) I had written about cloth hangers made out of corn. To take the concept a little further down and closer to your body today I am glad to write about clothes that are made out of corn.

Nau, an apparel business, has recently announced opening new stores in Boulder, Portland, Seattle, and Chicago. These stores, which will open by April 2007, will be the first for the company.


It has launched a line of clothing, both indoor and outdoor that is made out of corn and recycled soda bottles. Moreover, they have committed to contribute 5% of every sale from their point of sale process to an environmental, social, or humanitarian charitable organization, which are preselected. Every customer has an option at the time of purchase to select an organization of their choice to make their donations to.
It is impressive to know that Nau has an environmental inclination while designing material and clothes. They recommend line-drying, not ironing, avoiding dry cleaning, and a cold wash. Just think about how much energy and water we'll all save if we all followed these practices. Well, don't worry, if Nau gets popular, very soon it'll be a trend.
And just when you thought, 'what about after my clothes wear down', Nau is ready with the solution. They have an afterlife program for clothes. Give it back to them when you think you have worn it enough. They'll ensure that it doesn't end up in landfill somewhere. Slick, isn't it?
Image is from Nau's website.

Friday, March 02, 2007

DestiNY USA - Dream too Ambitious?



How often does it happen that people draw business plans and invest their time not just for material gains but for improving the world around them. Not very often. And that is because the road for common good is not as simple as the road for personal good. Sadly that's exactly what happened with the DestiNY USA project; the road was bumpier than expected.

DestiNY USA?
DestiNY USA? Yeah I know. I Had the same reaction the first time I heard of it. Name sounds like a philosophical offshoot out of a socio-economic research at some ivy league. Suprisingly, it is quite the opposite. It's a name that Robert Congel chose to name his 'monumental' gift to America. In concept, DestiNY is a huge theme park that will not only transform the local economy of the surrounding regions of Syracuse, NY but will also be a live example of eliminating dependence on fossil fuels and will drive innovation in areas of renewable energy, sustainable design, building systems, transportation, and lifestyle technologies.

Economic Transformation


  • 250,000 new jobs

  • $65 billion in new taxes generated over 30 years

Independence from Fossil Fuels



  • 100% fossil fuel free vehicles

  • 100% water reuse

Innovation Powerhouse



  • 3-D design and simulation for construction

  • R&D Park

Using these innovative techniques Bob Congel's dream is an 800 acre waterfront recreational theme park that has 6 million sq. ft. of glass covered paradise under it with 4000 hotel rooms.

Problems

Recently, the project has run into rough waters. On the one hand there are concerns about the genuinity of the intention behind the dream, while on the other there are doubts about the technical feasibility of the project. There is no such building in the world as of today and none of the mega-scale projects have dared to even claim being as green as DestiNY is promising. The kind of consumption pattern that this theme park will generate once it comes up is also a matter of concern to some. In particular, the gas people will burn to drive up to Syrasuse, NY from different parts of New England and eastern Canada and the upper mid-west including flying from different regions is not going well with the sceptics.


Meanwhile, it seems that Bob Congel has diverted his attention back to his original business - mall construction.

Feelings and Frustrations

It is sad to see such a good initiative, which had the potential to change the energy generation and consumption patterns of this country, come to a halt, which leaves me wondering how the people of Syracuse feel. What are there feelings and frustrations they have about this see-saw with a capitalist and the government?


The website of DestiNY USA is: http://www.destinyusa.com/

Images are from the DestiNY USA website above.

Wednesday, February 28, 2007

Newspapers in Hotels - A Service to Reconsider


Nothing is more pleasing and gratifying to the interested and the inquisitive than to open the hotel door in the morning and almost step on a thick stack of paper with pretty colored pictures on, staring right at you and begging to be picked up. You pick it up and give it the traditional shake, holding it with both hands very impressed with the hotel service and how much they care for your morning needs, not quite reading anything yet. Of course, who will? The pictures these days are too colorful and just either a tad too revealing or personal; something that wouldn't have made past the editor's desk a few decades ago. Suddenly, you realize that the gentleman next to you, in the elevator, is taking almost as much interest in the picture as you are. That's when you avoid embarrasement and divert your attention to the headlines pretending to read and flipping pages. That's when the news thirsty individual in you awakes and starts to look for something interesting that you don't already know about or haven't read online yesterday. Time to toss the paper in the trash can outside the elevator door, and that's exactly how most of these newspapers end up. Simply put, no one has the patience to wait until the next day to get their news. It already got wired on their computers and palm-pilots as it happend, yesterday. Newspaper is just an old habit like morning coffee, only it doesn't have the same kick anymore.

Life is too Short
So what's the life of a newspaper these days? I would say less than a few minutes. Gone are the days when a newspaper was picked up even at the midnight or the next day to keep up with the world around. I remember reading newspapers from other countries in the libraries where they showed up a week late because that's how long it took them to be shipped. Gone are those days indeed. These days newspaper gestate longer than the time between they are picked up by hotel guests and tossed out of the bags.

Environmental Impact
That said, isn't it obvious that the hotels are now wasting money delivering an almost outdated commodity to its esteemed guests. Are they draining their resources? I am convinced that they are. But then this is considered a measure of service. Other hotels do it so should us, thinks the person in charge of guest satisfaction in the hotel. Not only will this save the hotel some money it will also save huge amounts of paper and wood and of course the energy that is used to print and distribute tons of it around the world. Yes, tons. Consider this, as per the School of Hotel Administration at Cornell there are about 10,000 hotels of US origin in a certain segment. And this does not count the Waldorf Astorias, Intercontinentals, Tajs, and Oberois of the world. Even without these the number of rooms we are talking about is approximately 3,000,000 (3 million). With 70% average occupancy this is about 2.1 million rooms occupied every day around the world. Long story short there's about 440 million lbs of paper every year that is wasted. This is a huge environmental impact.

Redefine Service
It is time that the hotel industry realizes that 440 million lbs is a substantial impact in the number of trees felled and takes steps to save paper and trees. They can still maintain the same 'sense of service' by modifying the process a little bit.
  • Instead of pushing newspapers to guests, the guests should be asked at the time of check-in if they'd like to get a newspaper delivered in the morning.
  • Another possible way is to have the papers stacked at a common area where the patrons can pick them up from.
I am very optimistic about the savings that just these two workarounds will help achive without disturbing any of the returns in guest satisfaction.
Update
On March 24, 2007, one of Canada's leading newspaper, The Globe and Mail, reported that the growth of free dailies is dropping in Canada. One of the leading papers in Toronto has seen as much as 11.7% drop in its weekday readership.

Saturday, February 24, 2007

Carbon Footprint



Utopia
Imagine a world where your daily commute to work is just an elevator ride or a bike ride or a small walk on tree-lined avenue away. Sadly, this is a dream especially if your work address is in a urban setting or repute and might anywhere across the world. Not only is it financially exhausting to travel to work for both the employer and the employees, it is sadly bad for productivity and the mental well being of the commuters. To alleviate the problem there has been very high developmental activity in the segment of remote collaboration tools like video conferencing, PC accessibility and connectivity, etc. But that has still left us with a lot to be desired. Moreover, there are times when remote collaboration just doesn't cut it nice and clear. There's nothing as of yet to match the magic of human touch and face-to-face interactions. If that doesn't make you feel bad let me burden you with the harm that these commuters have done to the environment bellowing CO2 in the enviroment. One third of the CO2 emmissions are from the transportation sector alone in the United States.

Does that mean that as professionals, work-from-home is not going to give us the 100% we desire at work and the commute is going to get us all baked to ashes? Actually, in short that is the sad reality we are faced with today. As a civilization we are at the cross roads where we have to now start balancing the needs of civilization with the needs of the environment. Sadly enough you may not be able to leave this decision to your children as it may be too late by then.



Car Pool
One of the practices that I have been most impressed with so far is Car-Pooling. This is probably the best model of environmental optimization to date. Personal benefits like saving on fuel costs, lower wear and tear and hence maintenance, improved longevity, less stressful commute, etc. have driven people to share rides. The overall benefit to the environment is huge at it not only saves on fuel but also reduces congestion. Until a few years ago I used to share rides with my co-workers where the 3-4 of us would drive to work in one car. The other benefit that I derived out of it was that of better time management. Sharing rides made me more disciplined and organized as I had to rearrange my work style to fit with others and I think so did the others. During a six month period in which I kept a track of the miles I drove for work I saved around 250 miles every month, which is about 10 gallons of gasoline and hence about 5000 lbs of CO2 emissions (as per the chart on the right for an OK car). This is what I meant by a good model of optimization; I engaged in an activity that was not only beneficial for me (local/personal optimization) but also to the environment (global optimization).

During the last 2-3 years, however, that situation has changed dramaticallly for me. The nature of my work now take me almost every week of the year to a place that is a few hours flight hop away, at least. I fly out to whereever my client is and return to my home to be, well, at home. While, on one hand it is a good thing that I am sharing a flight with others, on the other it is bad because this is a far cry from the ideal world that I have in mind. As a side note, I have come to realize over discussions with a lot of frequent flyers that they would all prefer to have their own airplanes if they could afford and knew how to fly, which in itself is a disturbing trend.

But let's not digress from the topic. The gist is that now, as a flyer, I am contributing even more to the emissions of CO2 than what I used to as a solo driver. And this is my new carbon footprint - larger than ever and growing fast. As globalizations is spreading and opportunities are beign generated far and wide across the world flying to work is becoming a trend. Flying, in the recent years, has penetrated to the segments of society that it had for years wanted as clients but just couldn't afford to give a cheap ride to. New low cost carriers in countries like India and Malaysia are a testimony to this. And the future looks a little unbelievable. In a little more concrete terms 27,000 airplanes are scheduled to enter service in the next 10 years.

Proposed Model
So, what can I do about it? Well, there are several ways out of it. From the imprudent, which is to change the nature of my job, to the pragmatic which is to reduce flying if I can. The latter is now starting to catch attention of responsible employers and employees. It is time we get a little innovative and come up with synergistic pricing models for the services provided by the travelling consultants like me.

So, how can this be done. It won't be a bad start if instead of coming back to my home every weekend, I am allowed to come back every alternate week. Big deal, do it! Actually, it is. The question now becomes - who'll pay for my stay over in Gotham, United
States where the hotel prices are through the roof and food and entertainment is far more expensive than Smallville. Questions like these are not new anymore. People like me raise them almost every day and discuss it and, that's it. It's a good fodder for discussion in bar and has recently become what whether used be. Yes, you read it right - you know, everyone talks about how bad the weather is but can't do anything about it. That's how conversations are usually bootstrapped. But here's some good news. We are now in a position where we can do something about our own Carbon Footprints - indvidually as well as collectively. So, the few models that I have either come across and/or have been thinking of lately are:
  1. Client agrees and pays for my stay over in Gotham. This can be a little burden for the client because they'll have to foot my bills over the weekend.

  2. Client agrees for and contributes to environmental sustaining and building efforts in order to engage me. What does this mean? It can be as simle a thing as planting a tree for every 10 roundtrips that I make to my clients office in Gotham or replacing one lightbulb with an energy saving long-life incandescent bulbs for each of my roundtrip. Turns out that this is the easiest and cheapest thing to do since it'll cost the client about $10 to do so per week.

  3. Other option for the client is to match my travelling expenses in contributions and committments towards investment into alternative energy sources like Photo Voltaic (Solar).

  4. For a certain number of miles travelled by their consultants the clients should sponsor a rooftop garden and foliage at one of their facilities.
There are very many other ways that I as a traveling consultant should be able to make my clients feel responsible and contribute to lowering my carbon footprint. Overall, the theme I am suggesting is to start sharing the responsibility of protecting and sustaining our enviroment. It is time now that this effort moves beyond just the individual level to the organization level in the industry, where companies negotiate their services/products and its pricing treating our natural environment as much as a partner in the play as others. It is the responsibility of people who travel and organizations that sustain themselves on the model of providing services which include frequent flyers to start charging their client and contributing that revenue to saving the environment by planting trees and reducing travel as much as possible.

Wednesday, February 14, 2007

Solar Panel Shortage - Good or Bad?


For the last few weeks I have had mixed emotion about the current trends in the solar market. I have been trying to buy some solar panels only to be informed that currently there is a shortage in US market and the backlog of orders is huge. To make the situation a little more shaky if you are not in for a large order you may have a little more trouble.

Who's the Culprit?
So here's what's going on - Germany, Italy, UK, and Japan have become very large consumers of solar panels lately. The production is still geared to meet the demands of yesterday and it will take time for the manufacturers to ramp up their production.

On one hand this is a good sign but for some this is bad. As an enthusiast and proponent of solar energy it gives me immense satisfaction. An increase in demand so much so that it has caused a shortage in the market is a good sign of the technology adoption and affordability, albeit subsidized. But as a potential consumer myself, I can only wait for so much before realizing that this upswing in demand will cause the manufacturers to increase their capacity, not only to match the current market but also for future, which may lower the prices due to competition later. If this is a temporary spike in demand in Germany and Japan, then the time is not far away when the surge of demand will stablize but not the inventory of panels. The manufactures will then give rebates to cut down their inventories. So, I should wait and watch.

Now, the questions is why do I think that this is a temporary surge in demand. Well, the answer to that is very easy. German and Japanese governments are providing huge subsidies to solar buyers at the moment, which they are unlikely to continue for long. In Germany the subsidies are as much as half (1/2) a Euro per kWh currently with promises of 0.99 Euros per kWh for feeding electricity back to the grid for next 20 years, around 2002. In addition, there are interest free loans that now have as many has 10,000 applicants backlogged. Is this all realistic to sustain, specially for a country that now has almost negative growth rate of economy.

Am I losing it?
For a consumer, in short, yes. As a serious buyer in the United States all set to invest in solar energy, I am indeed losing. But as I mentioned before, the loss is to a market which is a bit skewed at the moment. Not to mention that the current shortage has also overheated the market - prices for panels are higher than they should be what they were a year or two ago.

For an investor this is probably the best time to invest in these companies. This trend is here to stay for a while. After this shortage is over the demand will pick-up in different states of the US that currently allow consumers to sell power back to the utility companies.

For an entrepreneur, this is again, probably one of the most conducive environments to get into the business of solar panel production.

Monday, January 29, 2007

Paper Footprint - Reduce it and save Forests


Last year alone, as per my approximation, I may have gotten about 350 lb (159 kg) of marketing bulk mail from USPS. As per the 2000 census there were 105,480,101 households in the United States. This means that there was at least 36,918,035,350 lb (36 billion) of marketing material, called junk otherwise, generated across the nation in just one year.
Paper Addiction
To give you an idea of what that means - it takes 24 trees (40 feet tall and 6-8 inches in diameter) to produce one (1) ton of writing/office/print paper. Saving you the pains of calculations this translates to about 443,949,606 trees being clipped every year so that someone can print a promotion with a few pretty pictures only to be thrown in the trash can by you. Assuming that each of these trees is planted 6 feet apart to be able to grow 40 feet and 6-8 inches in diameter this means a forest area of about 3,995,546,454 sq. feet or about 371,198,412 square meters, which is a land area of about 12 miles by 12 miles.
At this rate, an area of the size of Yosemite National Park can be wiped out in 8 years and the state of Rhode Island in just 7.
Friends, this is what you junk mail can do to forests. Let's not forget that paper is also used for:
  • newsprint,
  • magazines,
  • books,
  • office stationery,
  • packaging, etc.
Althought it is difficult to actually guess the affects of this on the forests around the world, I can only imagine the havoc we as humans are wrecking on nature just because we love paper so much.

Let's Play the Blame Game
While these are considerable changes I am noticing in the newprint and publication industry towards a market induced shift to electronic formats, there is very little that is being done in our offices and warehouses. 20 years ago I heard/read somewhere that the world will be paperless in the next two decades with the advancements in technology and I still hear that today. What a shame!

I am not very upset by that trend. There is some progress, it's just that the rate of adoption of paperless means is very slow and the technology is still very expensive. Someone somewhere is to be blamed for it. Direct Marketing Association and Consumer Data Banks, maybe.

Time to Change
Junk mail is something I just don't understand a need of. I am sure that like me a majority of people who receive these promotional material discard it immediately. It's a pity that so many trees are fell every years only to end up in our trashcans and landfills without generating any value.

It is time that the marketing industry really does some study and get convinced that they are wasting time, money, resources, and most of all the environment/forests and getting no returns for it.

So, what I am suggesting here? Should these companies close their doors, lay off workers, shut down their business and contribute to a slowdown of the economy and high unemployment rate. No, that is not what I am suggesting. I am rather hinting that its time to move ahead and come up with electronic means of marketing the promotions. How sweet would it be that I have a hand held device where I receive all my coupons and promotions electronically, that get wiped off the device automatically as they expire, and remind me when I am in a mall. How easy and organized would that world be where people just beam their coupons and promotions electronically rather than having to sort, fumble, gather, scan, and debate the validity of already expired promotions.
How can you help?
Well, one of the first things you can do is to start discarding your paper trash into the recycling bin. Shred your junk at home and carry it to your office to discard it as recyclable material, if you don't have a separate recycled trash collection at home. This is the least you can do. But the problem is much bigger in scope than apparent. There are so many players and industries involved that you as a consumer might just feel helpless.
If you can:
  1. Do not checkmark the options to receive promotional material in post/snail mail, USPS at any of the websites that you register at or buy stuff from.
  2. Subscribe electronically, if you can, to your periodicals.
  3. If you don't get a newspaper thrown at home, you are already my hero.
  4. See if you can get your bank statements online and stop the paper being mailed to you.
  5. Whereever you get a service or product from please insist that you name and address not be traded to other companies.
  6. Register yourself at the Direct Marketing Association's Mail Preference Service (MPS) at https://www.dmaconsumers.org/cgi/offmailing
The above few steps can reduce your "paper footprint" a little. I think there should be a law in this country that prohibits merchants from selling consumer information to anyone. And by law they should stop sending marketing material in print if requested by the consumer(s).