United Nations
Commission on Sustainable Development

Background Paper


Commission on Sustainable Development              Background Paper No. 20
Sixth Session
20 April - 1 May 1998


          The Transfer of ESTs : the role of information systems
                                     
  United Nations Environment Programme - Industry and Environment Centre


                             I.  INTRODUCTION

1.   This paper illustrates that although dissemination and access to
information have increased, there still remains persistent obstacles.
Proliferation of systems offering information on environmentally sound
technologies (ESTs) or related topics, varying terminology etc., often
leaves users confused and frustrated.  The  immense quantity of ESTs
available and the lack of knowledge about how to properly assess  them
also hinders users from making informed choices.  These problems are
compounded for developing countries.

                              II.  BACKGROUND

2.   Agenda 21 identified access to scientific and technical
information on ESTs  as an important issue as it facilitates the
transfer of technologies, and strengthens the recipient country's
technological capabilities.   As a result, the transfer of ESTs has
been an ongoing theme in the work of the UN Commission on Sustainable
Development (CSD) and related intersessional meetings.  The 1994
Workshop on the Promotion of Access to and Dissemination of
Information on Environmentally Sound Technologies in Seoul, Korea,
recommended that the United Nations Environment Programme (UNEP)
undertake a survey to identify sources of information on ESTs.  This
was further endorsed at the 1995 United Nations Industrial Development
Organization (UNIDO) Round Table on Technology Transfer, Cooperation
and Capacity Building for Sustainable Development in Vienna.  In
response, the interim report, Survey of Information Systems Related to
Environmentally Sound Technologies, was submitted in 1995 to the 3rd
session of CSD.  This initial work was welcomed by CSD and UNEP was
asked to continue the study and design a "consultative mechanism" to
improve communication between information providers and users.  

3.   Following  CSD■s recommendations, UNEP organized an expert
meeting on information systems related to ESTs, in Paris, October
1995.  This meeting addressed issues of information coverage of
current information systems, needs of users, and the possible design
of a consultative mechanism.  Results from this expert meeting were
presented to the 4th session of CSD which in turn invited UNEP to
continue its work on developing an EST information network.  The
finalized publication UNEP Survey of Information Systems Related to
Environmentally Sound Technologies was presented at the 5th session of
CSD in April, 1997.  At the same time, UNEP launched its new PC
software tool, maESTro.  This software manages a Searchable
Environmental Sound Technology Directory allowing information on ESTs
and associated institutions to be exchanged via a range of  electronic
formats.  UNEP also continued to operate and update its two
information clearinghouses on Cleaner Production (ICPIC) and ozone
replacement technologies (OAIC) and develop a directory of directories
on ESTs.

4.   As the next step in improving information dissemination on ESTs,
UNEP conducted a preliminary survey on user identification and
feedback mechanisms (March 1997) to ascertain how information
providers select their user group(s) and what methods are used to
respond to user  needs.  The results from this current survey served
as a basis for the second expert meeting on EST information systems,
held 26-28 May, 1997 in Paris, France.   Much of this paper is based
on the conclusions from this expert meeting as well as on-going
discussions via the UNEP consultative mechanism. 

          III.  EVOLUTION OF INFORMATION DISSEMINATION MECHANISMS

                  A. Hard copy and query response systems

5.   With the increasing ease and  availability of on-line
communication, both information systems and users have greater
flexibility to transmit and access information.  Earlier information 
systems depended on hard copy (paper), dial-up systems using a
computer and modem  as well as query response services as
dissemination mechanisms.  Improved formats and methods for presenting
electronic information have augmented these dissemination media as
well as making  many information systems more user-friendly. 

          B.  Electronic tools used for disseminating information

6.   Diskettes allow for information to be disseminated in a compact,
simple format with users needing relatively little computer equipment
and software.  Often they are used for searchable directories where
users can look for information by subject category, key word or
geographical location.  Both UNEP■s International Cleaner Production
Information Clearinghouse (ICPIC) and the OzonAction Information
Clearinghouse use diskettes to disseminate information on available
technologies, technical literature abstracts, policies, experts and
consultants. UNEP■s  YELLOW PAGES is a resource guide which provides
information on international directories and trade shows that describe
ESTs and associated services. 

7.   CD ROMs  are quickly replacing diskettes as -free standing■
information packets.  They offer the advantage of holding more
information than a diskette, processing  information faster,  and
allowing for a higher degree of interaction.  Currently CD ROMs are
being used to disseminate information on available services, products,
technologies etc., as well as to teach people a particular skill i.e.
an education tool.   For example,  Environment Canada, Industry Canada
and the European Union have each produced a CD ROM on available ESTs
and related services in their region.  These products offer the user
the choice of searching for information either by products/services,
company name or environmental category e.g. air pollution, waste water
treatment etc.  All entries are indexed and cross-referenced although
they are not -on-line■.   The GREENTIE CD ROM, co-produced by the
International Energy Agency (IEA) and the Organisation for Economic
Cooperation and Development (OECD), was created to support  the
Framework Convention on Climate Change (FCCC).  It contains  profiles
and contact details of suppliers of greenhouse gas technology
expertise and equipment. 

8.   Internet is currently the most common form of on-line, electronic
dissemination. Here organisations, associations, governments, academic
and research institutions etc., produce a website to promote their
activities and products.  Some design their website to be an
electronic clearinghouse, i.e. disseminating information, documents,
responding to queries etc.  Other sites are used more as an electronic
brochure, describing activities and available resources in a
summarised format.  With increasing awareness of environmental issues,
the number of "environmental" websites has skyrocketed with sites
ranging from soft impact living philosophies to technologies on
pollution prevention. Sites also augment their information by 
"linking" to other related sites.  Some sites provide direct links to
the relevant, corresponding page of a new site instead of linking to
the home-page.  This avoids the user having to perform a new search
for the relevant information.

9.   The increase in websites has spawned what are called meta-sites
or "umbrella" sites. These initiatives are frequently sophisticated
pointer systems that provide overviews and contact information on
other websites or information systems providing assistance on a common
topic.  For example, Japan■s APEC Virtual Centre for Environmental
Technology Exchange is a pointer system which provides links to
websites offering information on issues, services, companies,
discussion forum and activities of local government in the Asia-
Pacific region, concerning environmental technologies.  UNEP■s maESTro
on-line database provides users with institutions, global regional and
national EST information systems as well as ESTs in urban and
freshwater management.  maESTro also allows for data exchange where
users can upload relevant information on ESTs which is then
incorporated into the database. 1/ Another  meta-site (US-AEP) offers
overviews of US associations, academic institutes and standards
institutes that work in the Asia-Pacific in the field of clean
technology, environmental management,  urban policy and related
issues.  Brief information about the various organisations and
corresponding hyperlinks to each organisation■s website are included.

10.  The US-AEP site can also be considered an electronic
intermediary.  Associated with the site are US Offices for Technology
Cooperation where representatives can help US technology manufacturers
identify market opportunities, and assist in making key contacts.  For
companies looking for solutions to environmental needs, the
representatives serve as matchmakers by facilitating contact between
manufacturers and potential users as well as acting as environmental
experts.  The European Union■s pilot project -  EDDY (Environmental
Data Directly to You) is another version of an electronic
intermediary.  Although there is no actual contact with a
representative, the system is designed to provide information to SMEs
on European programmes and opportunities for business contacts based
on parameters specified by the user. Companies design a profile of
their information needs and on the basis of this profile, EDDY sends 
information to the companies via E-mail messages and attached files at
the requested frequency.  The requirements for using this system is a
computer and modem.  Initial contact with EDDY is via the Internet. 

11.  Electronic networking is yet another medium for information
exchange.  Here, experts in a particular field exchange information
and ideas via an E-mail list service (listserv).  This  discussion
forum provides an opportunity to build cooperation and keep
participants abreast of new developments. Currently there are numerous
networks which focus on the various aspects of information
dissemination of ESTs.  For example, UNEP Industry and Environment
Centre established a listserv (EST Info) to continue the work the May
1997 Expert Meeting on Information Systems Related to Environmentally
Sound Technologies.  Here participants can correspond on matters
related to ESTs and provide feedback on projects and papers such as
this one.  However, unless the system is intensively managed, interest
and use often decline.

                         IV.  REMAINING CHALLENGES

12.  There is no question that the Internet and other electronic tools
like CD ROM allow for greater dissemination of information.  However
what is not clear is how well the information is targeted and its
usefulness.  With governments, conventions secretariats, private
companies etc., all involved in information brokering, it is
increasingly difficult to sift through the quantity of information
available.  For information to effect change it must respond to users■
needs (or be educative), reach the intended users and be usable by
users.  However, even with this information -boom■, feedback from
discussions and surveys indicate that there is still a noticeable gap
between the information available and the users■ knowledge of it. 
Moreover, many information systems are developed by the industrialised
countries for users in those regions meaning that information may have
little relevance to developing countries.  Below are five key issues
that need to be addressed if successful information transfer is to
occur.

           A.  Enhancing the quality of information disseminated

13.  The nature and quality of information on ESTs disseminated is
driven by various factors:

     (a)   Vendors of ESTs and governments, wishing to promote
           technologies developed in their own countries, have been the
           primary drivers in setting up information databases.  As a
           result, the information provided is not always objective and
           complete.  Furthermore, these databases  focus predominately
           on end-of-pipe technologies.  

     (b)   Lack of consensus on what defines an ESTs compounds the
           problem.  Some technologies considered "environmentally
           sound" several years ago are not seen as such today e.g.
           waste incineration.  In  addition, the majority of
           information on ESTs is actually information on end-of-pipe
           technologies. While these technologies do play a role in
           pollution control, they do not address the key issues of
           pollution prevention and the efficient use of raw materials. 
           There is also a general difficulty in identifying "clean" or
           "cleaner" technologies as their environmental impact varies
           on how they are employed.

     (c)   Increased use of the Internet as a dissemination mechanism
           affects the quality of information on ESTs.  Using 2 of the
           14 major search engines, a preliminary search on the
           Internet using the phrase "environmentally sound
           technologies" yielded over 2,000 hits. A sampling of these
           hits illustrated a wide range of sites, most of them
           offering general environmental information with little
           substance on ESTs as defined in Agenda 21. 2/  Therefore,
           although there appears to be comprehensive information on
           ESTs, much of the information is duplicated, peripherally
           related or collected under the EST heading because it
           contains references to "environment" and/or "technologies". 

14.  The use of different terminology by information systems to
describe ESTs (even if the technologies themselves perform the same
function) further compounds the problem.   As a result, a search using
only one of the various terminologies does not provide a comprehensive
listing of available sites.  One example is the concept of pollution
prevention.  In order to obtain  an appropriate sampling of available
sites on this subject the following search words have to be used:
pollution prevention, cleaner production, ecoefficiency, waste
minimization, sustainable industrial development, and  industrial
ecology.  The majority of users are not aware of the extent of multi-
terminology and therefore are not able to access fully the available
information.  This gives the appearance of "gaps" in the information 
"net".  The tendency is to create new websites to fill the perceived 
"gap", resulting in an increase in websites and redundancies in the
information.

         B.  Providing an integrated approach for evaluating ESTs

15.  Information systems have been, and are currently being developed
to respond to government officials■ and industry managers■ need for
information on specific environmental issues e.g. waste treatment,
water treatment or to implement the various international conventions 3/ 
etc.  As a result, information systems are often one dimensional in
their description of a technology i.e. the description does not
include considerations of broader environmental issues such as
emission of greenhouse gases, raw resource and energy consumption, 
production of hazardous waste etc.  Therefore, the impact of a
specific technology on the environment as a whole is rarely addressed. 
One example is the replacement of ODS refrigerant by a non-ODS ammonia
based refrigerant. While this replacement meets the requirements of
Montreal Protocol, poorly designed systems that use ammonia increases
the chance  of worker exposure to ammonia leaks.  Similarly, some
substitutes of ozone depleting substances contribute to the greenhouse
effect.

             C.  Identifying users and clarifying their needs
 
16.  In preparation for its 2nd meeting of Experts on Information
Systems Related to Environmentally Sound Technology, UNEP conducted a
preliminary survey on user identification and feedback mechanisms. 
Given the wide range of user groups identified in the survey 4/,
information systems only have a general idea of who their user groups
are.   This hetrogenity of  user groups poses an interesting question:
does serving a large number of user groups undermine the quality of
information that a system provides?  A system with a wide range of
users must present the information in a form that is accessible to all
its users.  While maximizing access means that more people can use the
information, often the information is too general to be used
effectively by users with sector-specific needs.  A common consequence
of this "broad outreach" approach is that the focus of an information
system becomes diffuse.

17.  One reason many information systems are supply-driven is because
users themselves frequently have poorly defined needs and therefore
cannot articulate them.  This is compounded by users■ unrealistic
expectations about what information systems can provide.  While 
systems can offer a range of information, the majority of them are not
designed to generate answers to specific user questions.  Some
information systems with better resources and a certain commitment to
this "user-tailored" approach have attempted to provide such a
function in the form of a query response  service.  However, the
majority of systems provide a resource-based service where the
collected information provides guidance to defining and solving a
problem.  Therefore users■ expectations must also change if the gap
between information dissemination and its use is to be narrowed.  
More efforts should be spent on educating users about the types of
questions to ask rather than on designing additional information
systems to answer the expanding  range of needs. 

  D. Improving information access for Small and Medium Sized Enterprises
     (SMEs)

18.  Although the Internet allows for increased, rapid access to
information, it does not necessarily mean an increase in information
dissemination.  In fact dependence on the Internet for reaching
certain users could result in a decrease in information transfer.  A
study conducted by the European Union and UNEP 5/ on SMEs revealed
that due to their small size and lack of resources, information
dissemination was most effective via one-on-one contact, group
presentations and hardcopy.  Therefore, dependence on electronic
dissemination for reaching SMEs will unlikely have an impact.  Given
the fact that SMEs account for a large percentage of economic
activity, and hence an environmental impact, it is important that
information reaches them in a usable format. 

19.  While there are a number of Internet sites that provide
information targeted at SMEs, in general SMEs do not consult the Web
for information. For information to reach these important users,
intermediaries such as  suppliers, business organisations, municipal
authorities, social groups e.g. Rotary club, are necessary. 
Information also flows horizontally between SMEs meaning that
businesses  trust information coming from other businesses over that
from "un-tested" information systems.  Information on how changes will
affect their bottom line is also important in influencing SMEs to
change their behaviour.

                  E.  Developing good feedback mechanisms

20.  Although many systems try to communicate with their users to
assess user needs, the feedback mechanisms are usually labour
intensive, expensive and do not permit direction interaction with
users e.g. newsletter, annual reports, bulletins etc.  The result is
that the information systems do not have a real understanding of their
users■ need.  The fact that users are not clearly identified also
encumbers the feedback process.  

                      V.  RECOMMENDATIONS FOR ACTION

21.  The following recommendations are based on the analysis above.

Information providers need to understand the on-going needs of the
target audience

22.  A target audience can generally be divided into general and
specialized users.  General users e.g. government, environmental,
labour, community groups, educational institutions, usually require
information that conveys broad characteristics or trends as opposed to
technical specifics.  Often they are looking for ideas and options.  
Language should be simple and it is best to use existing delivery
channels such as the Internet, newsletters, etc.  For specialized
users e.g. intermediaries or consultants, information and delivery
mechanisms must be customized.  This requires information systems to
have identified, at the outset, the needs of the users and any
dissemination barriers.   Specialized users want greater detail,
quantitative information and costs.
  
23.  Regardless of the target audience, the delivery mechanism should
allow for two-way communication between provider and user.  A feedback
mechanism will help systems  be more user- rather then supply-driven. 
Ideally, the delivery mechanism should also have an educational
component.  For example, some users are unsure about what their needs
are, or do not know how to incorporate the information into the
decision making process.  Thus, information systems should be able to
help users further identify their needs and indicate where, or how the
information can be used in the decision-making process.

Information providers should work with intermediaries  to identify
users needs and to improve information dissemination

24.  Identification of users needs can be best done through the use of
intermediaries that are in direct contact with the final users of
information.  Here intermediaries can be national technology centres,
consulting firms, industry associations etc.  The value of these
intermediaries is their ability to search, collect, select and
interpret the information for a particular audience.  The direct
interaction between intermediary and user is also valuable.  The
intermediary helps the user define his/her needs as well as acting as
a feedback channel back to information systems.  As intermediaries are 
one solution to narrowing the communication gap between suppliers and
users, efforts should be spent on strengthening their role in the
information exchange process.

25.  Intermediaries are especially important in reaching SMEs as the
most effective way to reach and change their behaviour is through
personal contact.  Personal contact made through existing, trusted
routes of information dissemination are the best path to follow. 
However, the routes of dissemination or sources of information will
differ depending on the culture and nature of the geographical
location and type of industry sector.  More importantly, the need or
demand within SMEs for the information must be established or it is
difficult to obtain and maintain SME interest. 

26.  The challenge is to identify the existing mechanisms that have
access to SMEs  and to use them to deliver a simple, clear, message
that highlights economic benefits, easy-to-do actions and where to go
for more assistance.  This means that information (electronic or
otherwise) has to be targeted at the intermediaries, not the SMEs
themselves. These intermediaries will vary greatly and therefore
information systems must have a good understanding of who they are and
how best to target them.

A network of integrated clearinghouses to provide information on ESTs
should be developed

27.  In order to make environmentally sound decisions, decision makers
in government and industry need consistent, unbiased information which
outlines the various environmental implications  of  their choice. 
This need can be addressed by the development of a clearinghouse
network built on already existing information systems. This network
should develop standardised technology descriptors to help decision
makers compare technologies and associated environmental implications.
The information disseminated by these clearinghouses should also
provide information to governments and industry to help with the
implementation of UN Conventions e.g. information on whether a
technologies produce greenhouse gases (Framework Convention on Climate
Change), or hazardous wastes (Basel Convention) etc. Health and safety
criteria should also be addressed as the replacement of one technology
by other can have negative implications for worker health and safety.  

Strengthen the international consultative mechanism set up by CSD to
improve and link existing information systems

28.  To improve the quality of information on the Internet,
information systems need to focus on their areas of strength and
augment their services by linking with other information systems that
have complementary information.  This is particularly true of
information systems that use the Internet as their primary
dissemination mechanism.  Systems should focus on what is not
available and provide direct links to corresponding pages of existing
systems that provide supporting information.  This will minimise
redundancies.  However, the increase in the number of links per
website means that the information search process can quickly become
confusing and overwhelming.  Meta-systems (-umbrella■ systems) can
play a role here by gathering websites together that focuses on a
common theme e.g. Cleaner Production, energy, mining etc. These meta-
sites can then provide a road map for the linked sites and a brief
synopsis of each one. While the ease of use and efficacy of such a
system depends on the structure and selection criteria, this is one
way to improve the efficiency of existing information sources and
strengthen their complementarity.  The addition of an -electronic
research assistant■ can help the multi-terminology issue mentioned
earlier.  This electronic tool guides the user helping him/her refine
and narrow down his/her query.  The ability of engine to recognise
different terminology for the same subject matter would also improve
the quality of the search.

                              VI.  CONCLUSION

29.  Although information dissemination of ESTs is increasing, there
continue to be  barriers to its application.  The issue is not the
lack of, or difficulty in accessing information but rather a
disjuncture between the information supplied and its demand.  There is
also a need to improve the links between information systems as well
as to develop better complementarity in the information provided.  In
addition to improving the information flow, users must be better
educated in how to find, understand and apply information so as to
make the best choice given their specific needs and environs.  This is
particularly the case with developing countries.  It is knowing how to
apply the information rather than the information itself that is key
to the transfer of ESTs. Finally, needs for information are evolving. 
Several years ago the demand for information was not focused.  Today,
governments and industry managers are asking for information not only
about generic ESTs, but also about comparative costs and performance
of specific ESTs, necessary management and maintenance systems etc. 
This continually evolving demand for information reinforces the need
to strengthen the consultative mechanism on information systems,
initiated by UNEP at the request of CSD.


                                Notes

1/  This database is also available on CD ROM or in hard copy

2/  According to Agenda 21, environmentally sound technologies (ESTs) "protect
the environment, are less polluting, use all resources in a more efficient
manner, recycle more of their wastes and products, and handle
residual wastes in a more acceptable manner than the technologies for which
they are substitutes".   ESTs include not only the hardware, but the know-how,
services, and managerial skills to make them work.  

3/  For example, the Montreal Protocol for the Protection of the Ozone Layer,
Convention on Marine Protection, Basel Convention on Hazardous Waste,
Framework Convention on Climate Change etc.

4/  Out of the 33 returned questionnaires (total distribution =  52), over 50%
of the systems serve 8 or more major groups.  At least 30% of information
systems serve 12 or more user groups.  The 12 major users groups
identified by the surveyed information systems  were: academia, industry,
government, non-governmental, large business, small and medium businesses,
research institutes, consultants, regulatory agencies, UN, towns and city
administrations.
  
5/  The report is titled Developing Better Systems for Communication
Environmental Best Practises in Business and is available from UNEP IE.

This document has been posted online by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (DESA). Reproduction and dissemination of the document - in electronic and/or printed format - is encouraged, provided acknowledgement is made of the role of the United Nations in making it available.

Date last posted: 8 December 1999 15:15:30
Comments and suggestions: DESA/DSD