18 July 2013

Jorge Marx Gómez: Putting environmental performance into practice

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A network solution enables business users to share environmental information across supply chains, albeit at the cost of considerable effort to gather it all into a single information space.

Jorge Marx Gómez is professor and chair of business information systems at the Carl von Ossietzky University Oldenburg, Germany. He was the scientific manager of the EU-funded project OEPI, completed in 2012. The project aimed at making the environmental performance of a company visible with respect to products, processes and organisational structure. To do so, the project developed a network-based solution involving so-called environmental performance indicators (EPIs). Here, Marx Gómez and his research assistant Daniel Meyerholt talk about the challenge of bringing together business users in a shared information space—dubbed Single Information Space in Europe (SISE)—as a means to make their companies more environmentally sustainable.

What are Environmental Performance Indicators and why do they matter?
If a business user has, for example, an enterprise resource planning (ERP) system, environmental information regarding purchase, production, sales and logistics can be extracted. If this information is placed into a context, you can derive an environmental effect. The EPIs summarise various pieces of information. The CO2 footprint, for example, is such an indicator. It encompasses not only CO2 but also other parameters or other greenhouse gases that are converted to CO2 equivalents.

This [system] thus enables to feature product properties alongside an EPI, for example. This could for instance be the amount of CO2 emission resulting from the production of a given product. Such indicators have become more and more relevant to society. Customers would like to know exactly what [kind of substances] products contain; particularly toxic substances, rare earths and so on.

What are the potentials of the single environmental information space you built?
The dimension that SISE may reach in Europe is not yet visible. The platform itself is a single information space where users can share information about their environmental performance. The platform is designed to be accessed from a computer, but other front ends are possible, such as mobile phones. We have thus created an example of how to bring to life environmental performance within a network. And how to incorporate it into the daily business of companies using it. Specifically, the EPIs are available throughout the network and can be compared with each other. This enables companies to choose their business partners depending on their environmental performance.  

Could you provide concrete examples of useful applications of this SISE concept?
One aspect of the project has been sustainable procurement. For example, suppliers enter their environmental performance data into the platform. Purchasers can choose their suppliers via the platform. If you have to choose a supplier using environmental performance and sustainability as criteria, the number of suppliers decreases because not all of them may have an environmental management system. Another example is environmentally friendly design. The platform can assists in developing a product that is recyclable at the end of its life cycle. It is important to think about this already during the design phase.

What were the challenges in implementing it?
A problem that the network faces is that the various actors compete with each other. Therefore you have to make sure that there is a certain degree of anonymity while keeping an open structure for the network.

What demanded a huge effort, was the so-called ontology we developed for environmental information. The environmental information used for the platform derives from business software, Excel spreadsheets or even was entered manually. Each person has a different method, uses different units or reference values. The ontology enables to organise the data and provides a reference framework for the indicators. This approach is the key to bringing together the information. The ontology is freely available. Everyone can download it and extend it for his own data sources.  We had a project coordinator at database company SAP, who knew how to communicate complicated issues in a simple manner. Otherwise, we would not have had such good results. The software we created really works.

How did the project contribute in bringing environmental sustainability to business users?
The case studies of the project included specific scenarios from the participating companies. We developed and validated the software on the basis of the issues raised in these case studies. For example, the lift company Kone, dealt with environmentally friendly design. Siemens dealt with an environmentally sustainable reconstruction and construction of buildings in line with industry related regulations and customer requirements. The project results influenced the decision-making processes in these companies. That also showed that the software actually works. There was definitely an environmental benefit.

Where do you see the next step? Has the EU funded further research in this direction, since the completion of the OEPI project?
There is a sister project called IT-for-Green. The EU and the German federal state of Lower Saxony fund it in equal parts. The idea is to develop a platform that enables small and medium-sized enterprises to re-organise their business according to environmental aspects.

The original project has been deliberately limited to environmental aspects of sustainability. However, I think it is essential to equally embrace social and business aspects. It is a major goal to bring together these three pillars. This would be a meaningful extension of the original project.

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