University combines “information” and “technology” to reduce carbon emissions

27 May 2014 | Carlos Oliveira , Founder, Shaping Cloud

If a business really wants to reduce its carbon footprint, it needs to focus not just on its own operations but on its sphere of influence—on suppliers, vendors, and other members of the broader supply chain. That premise drove the University of Sheffield (South Yorkshire, England) to develop a web-based application for the Centre for Low Carbon Futures (CLCF) that can help public- and private-sector organisations calculate carbon impact in a meaningful way, and gain access to information so they know what can be done about it.

The University worked with Shaping Cloud and CLCF as part of an ambitious two-year research project to develop a decision-support tool—the Supply Chain Environmental Analysis Tool (SCEnAT). The purpose of the project was to show how IT—information plus technology—can be combined to help organisations reshape the way they work and become more environmentally sustainable.

SCEnAT collects information from several disciplines including sustainable and social sciences, engineering, economics, and technology. The complete data set—dynamically updated with user input and external industry data sources—is accessed by SCEnAT to run complex carbon calculation algorithms. Hosted in the cloud on Microsoft Azure, SCEnAT allows a business to map its existing supply chain with a user-friendly web-based interface. The admin interface is built into the tool, and users with administrative access can simply log on to create, edit, and delete content.

Using SCEnAT, businesses can instantly compute their carbon footprint for each process stage in their operation. The cloud-based deployment is important since it allows researchers to quickly run carbon calculations while scaling up the number of processes. These complex calculations could take up to four minutes on a typical singe-server configuration; Microsoft Azure reduces this to between 10 and 20 seconds.

In addition to calculating carbon hotspots, SCEnAT also offers access to information to guide ongoing sustainability efforts. SCEnAT provides suggestions to users to help them reduce carbon emissions, and links them to an extensive interventions database—a collection of research gathered by university researchers comprising best-practice case studies. Users have instant access to data and key performance indicators collected from real-world organisations that have implemented the interventions. Since the database is dynamically updated, users have access to the latest data and insights as soon as the information is uploaded.

The cloud-based model helped the CLCF keep costs down, and the inherent scalability of the cloud means SCEnAT can expand without limit as more data is added, increasing its usefulness over time.

Shaping Cloud has demonstrated the potential for these types of Microsoft Azure-based, platform-as-a-service models not only for sustainability-focused companies but also for government agencies, universities, and research institutions. For all of these groups, two main benefits tend to rise to the top:

  • On-demand infrastructure. Cloud infrastructure allows rapid prototyping of research ideas and projects, allowing complex, process-intensive calculations to be completed without an upfront capital expenditure.
  • Global reach. All users across an organisation receive the same performance from the app, even when demand spikes or as data sets grow larger.

Microsoft’s Chief Environmental Strategist, Rob Bernard, may have said it best when he said: “Microsoft sees IT as an indispensable ingredient of any recipe designed to improve energy efficiency, while at the same time stressing the need for innovation.” That mindset—turning information and technology into greater sustainability—is an idea whose time has come for all organisations, private as well as public.

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Carlos Oliveira
Founder, Shaping Cloud