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.
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Date last posted: 8 December 1999 15:15:30