Print 20% less, save the environment: San Francisco's new tech zeitgeist

An environmentally friendly IT approach, but will employees embrace the change?

San Francisco wants to cut its paper use in offices by 20% as part of its new environmental strategy for the city. So how do you get employees to print less?

Answer: Take away their desktop printers.

That approach worked personally for Chris Vein, CIO for the city of San Francisco. He was old-school in his office habits, printing out his e-mails -- until he removed his desktop printer. That forced him to start using a network printer down the hall. The walk was inconvenient enough to discourage him from printing.

In total, San Francisco uses about 215 million sheets of paper per year, spending about $946,000 on paper. That doesn't account for some of the other expenses involved with printing, such as the ink and the hardware.

But the city wants to become more environmentally responsible. A broad set of information and communication technology goals (download PDF) was outlined earlier this year by the mayor, Gavin Newsom, and the IT staff is now at work on meeting them. This city and county operates on a $6.2 billion annual budget and 30,000 employees and has some 60 departments -- most with a history of IT independence.

The mayor wants the city to cut its greenhouse gas emissions by 24% by 2012. The city's IT and engineering staff is now calculating energy usage, so it can measure the impact of changes; the paper reduction project is just one aspect of what's planned.

A recently started pilot program examines how the shift away from paper affects IT systems, as well as what's needed to make this change possible. Vein is hoping that the wide deployment of network printers, the availability of tools that make it easy to fax without paper and create PDFs, and the development of a centralized document management system will all help the city meet that goal.

But the hardest part of any IT project, said Vein, is getting people to accept changes.

"My goal job as CIO is not really about technology, it's about organizational change," said Vein, who is consolidating multiple data centers and server rooms into two facilities as part of the effort to improve San Francisco's IT. He is the city's first CIO, appointed about two years ago, and is leading the effort to modernize, standardize and consolidate the city's technology.

"You really have to be creative in your marketing and selling of these concepts," said Vein. "And once you get people to consider and actually try it, you have won most of the battle because they will see that it's not so bad and they are able to meet their business needs while meeting the broader objective."

Other immediate, environmentally focused goals set by the city include ensuring that all its PCs, laptops and servers meet the highest level of energy efficiency and have a minimal number of toxic components. It is planning centralized power management on its PCs, as well as extending the life of PCs from three years to four years to keep them out of the landfills for as long as possible.

Richard Phillips, an adjunct professor and executive in residence in the department of wood and paper science at North Carolina State University in Raleigh, said that city's paper reduction goal is possible, and that he has seen it work in some businesses that have reduced the number of copiers of printers to perhaps one per floor.

San Francisco can put controls on how its workers use paper, but Phillips points out that even those workers who believe they don't print much may still be using a lot of paper. "If you printed out 1% of all e-mails, that would be a tremendous amount of paper," he said.

This push for more energy efficiency on governments is being urged by the National Association of State Chief Information Officers, which recently released a report detailing an array of actions it believes states should be taking to reduce their carbon emissions. State CIOs "have the ability to enable practices that are more sustainable, more environmentally friendly," said Oregon CIO Dugan Petty, who chaired the study.

Copyright © 2008 IDG Communications, Inc.

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