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Handprints in the Cloud: Exceeding Environmental Footprints

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By John Pflueger

In our last installment, we talked about the environmental footprint – the notion that our work and actions have potential negative effects.

The “handprint” is the positive counterpart to the footprint – the good that arises from our actions and work. The term was coined by Greg Norris of the Harvard School of Public Health who realized that we were only looking at the negative part of the equation and ignoring beneficial by-products. In this sense, he was looking at the bigger picture. As Dr. Norris said, “we can have a net positive impact on the planet if the good that we do, the positive changes we purposefully bring about in our lives, are greater than our footprints.”

This net positive handprint is especially evident in what cloud computing can enable. Consider the cloud in all its manifestations: public, private, and hybrid. It connects us to sources of empowering knowledge and enables us to innovate, collaborate, and advance in entirely new ways.

Cloud also provides a platform for using computational power for things never before imagined. Think about the Internet of Things. Even if your exposure to the term is limited to the idea of Smart Appliances, like a refrigerator that tells you whether or not the milk has spoiled, you can begin to understand its connection to the world of sustainability. And this connection is enabled by the cloud – allowing all kinds of connected tools to collect, analyze and act on tremendous amounts of data. As the future-ready economy emerges, it’s forward-thinking technologies like this that will change the game.

But it’s not just through the Internet of Things. Cloud computing enables us to do the exceptional – the stuff that was previously unimaginable, economically infeasible, or simply impractical. Here are a few other examples of how cloud computing is creating net positive handprints:

  • Health. The cloud is enabling dramatic advances in the realm of personalized medicine. The Translational Genomics Institute (TGen) relies on cloud technology to analyze the genetic structure of children with cancer and enable their doctors to develop personalized treatment protocols as a result. Just imagine a transplant patient awaiting a heart. Drawing on the power of the cloud, that patient’s health is monitored and genetic data is securely stored while servers and software are deployed to find a perfect match. That, too, is happening now.
  • Education. One of the most impressive advances in this arena includes the widespread availability of massively open online courses (MOOCs). Now, anyone with access to the cloud has access to an extraordinary variety of learning resources – much of it free. The spectrum includes the Khan Academy serving up video tutorials at no charge as well as MIT’s edX, Coursera and Udacity – which offer advanced courses and certifications. Arizona State University has also greatly expanded its online catalog and has seen social, environmental and economic benefits. The world’s best thinking is now available to the world.
  • Environment. Recognizing the environmental footprint associated with the cloud, companies that promote cloud-computing are actively committing to renewable energy sources. Dell, for instance, has set an objective of obtaining 50 percent of its power from renewable sources. The company’s global electricity usage stands at 807.2 million kilowatt-hours per year and renewable electricity purchases and on-site solar generation already account for nearly 40 percent of that total.
  • Work/Life Balance. By enabling remote work, the cloud represents a path to enhanced work/life balance.  It connects distributed teams – enabling people to work from home and reduce (or eliminate) commutes. Telecommuting lets employees spend more time with their families and less time in traffic. This leads to a healthier work/life balance.  It also leads to environmental benefits. In its fiscal year 2015 Corporate Responsibility Report, Dell stated that it has reduced its greenhouse gas emissions by 9,800 metric tons as a result of its Connected Workplace program.

As these examples show, the cloud affords endless opportunities to create new handprints – or positive changes that offset or exceed footprints. By putting the cloud within a wider frame that includes both handprints and footprints, we get a clearer sense of its net impact – and ours.

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