I just got back from Copenhagen, where I participated in the Organization for Economic Cooperation and Development (OECD) conference on Information and Communication Technology (ICT), Climate Change and the Environment. Last year I had been the only US government representative, and that had been a little scary, somewhat disappointing, and very cool – when they called on me for questions and comments they called on “United States” and before opening my mouth I reflected on what I was about to say :-). This year there were representatives from the State and Commerce Departments, and my (big) boss and I from NSF. I’m not revealing any secrets here – last year’s and this year’s are on the Web (http://www.oecd.org/sti/ieconomy/ictstheenvironmentandclimatechange.htm) -- more on this later and elsewhere.
I took the redeye from Dulles to Copenhagen late Monday afternoon, arriving Tuesday morning Copenhagen time. I was on Scandinavian Airlines (SAS) and I like it – every seat its own little screen with on demand video and music, a salmon dinner with not-quite-spaetzle pasta and lima beans (!?) to die for, power outlets for laptops, and stuff I’m forgetting. I watched two movies, "The Curious Case of Benjamin Button" (on the way out) and "The Reader" on the way back, both of which I'd balked at when they were in theaters, but I liked them each, particularly Benjamin Button, which was especially moving.
I took the train from Copenhagen airport to downtown, stowed my big backpack in a locker, only keeping my government laptop around my shoulder for safekeeping. Last year I happened upon the National Gallery of Art just before having to return, and wanted to see it especially this trip, but in no rush, and in fact exhausted but with really no option but to stay awake for many more hours, so I walked.
After a full morning, I took the train down to Helsingor, a beach town where the conference was held, did some brief walking around, talked to the tourist center, then a public bus to my hotel, a spartan place a couple of miles inland. I really wanted to sleep, but there was a conference reception that I thought I should attend for professional reasons, I wanted to stay up as long as I could for a better adjustment to the time zone, and frankly I felt isolated and knew connecting would help, and it did help.
The conference, in a nutshell, was focused on using information and communication technology (ICT) to reduce greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions due to humankind, and most notably what governments should do about promoting and supporting these efforts. There is great optimism that much can be done through virtualization (e.g., telework and conferencing with Web-based computer tools instead of the barbaric practice of flying cross country – yes, I recognize the irony :-), smart embedded systems (e.g., smart cars, smart buildings), which save energy through a large variety of computer-controlled mechanisms, and intelligent decision-making and planning systems that combine climate, economic and other social models. There is a lot of pushback though in implementing so much of this – for example, there are innumerable organizations that require that you keep your computer running 24/7 for reasons of “pushing” software and security upgrades, but my gosh, fixes to this should be 20 years old by now and the stupidity of designing such an energy-inefficient system is stunning -- it offends the engineer in me. I could go on and on with other forms of pushback and lack of awareness, and frankly, among other reactions, our failure to solve even simple, gross technological inefficiencies like the 24/7 computer-on policy has given me a certain sympathy for the disfunction that seems apparent in those trying to solve the planet's truly hard problems. I expect to be writing more on the topic of the conference. Generally, there is a lot that computer scientists and engineers can offer, both in terms of the products that they produce and in the ways that they think – my (big) boss Jeannette Wing has termed the latter “computational thinking”.
It would have been fun having Pat with me to share the simple excitements and anticipations of a plane ride, train ride, castles, gardens, museums, and I hope that for next year as we are a good travel team, but next year I might be participating over the Web! So many decisions coming up, and even the “easy” ones can give me angst.