Light side of the Ark

It’s time to Do Something! about paper usage by harnessing technology. Planet Ark founder, Jon Dee on technology and the environment.

What was your first job?

I actually created my own job. I was 17 [1981], at school and I got to know the rocker band ‘Yes’. They needed someone to run their fan club which was a semi-commercial operation, and so I agreed to do that. I ended up becoming totally hopeless at school because I was spending all my time organising their magazines and handling all the fan enquiries and everything else.

The benefit was, as a 17-year-old, that I got to meet Pink Floyd, Queen, Led Zeppelin and everyone else, so for the geeky kid in the class it was kind of a promotion. As soon as I left school I carried on in this position to pay the rent — the only thing is I flunked my major exams! But since then I’ve either worked for myself or set up my own organisation, so it was a very useful experience. It was my first entrepreneurial activity.

While everyone was listening to Human League, I was listening to Pink Floyd and nothing’s changed!

What was the inspiration behind the Do Something! campaign?

Pat Cash and I first met back in 1990. I had set up an organisation called ‘Rock Aid Armenia’ to try and raise money for people who had been affected by the Armenian earthquake. I was living in London at the time so I called David Gilmore from Pink Floyd and said, “I’m going to do a remake of Smoke on The Water. Will you be on it?” He said yes, so I ended up with this line up of Queen, Pink Floyd, Deep Purple, Black Sabbath — all on the one record.

Actually, in October I’m re-releasing the album globally on iTunes for the 20th anniversary, and I’m getting some of them back together to launch it in Armenia in October.

The record was a Top 40 hit in the UK and I ended up doing a remake of Rock and Roll by Led Zeppelin with Pat Cash, so I got Iron Maiden and Roger Daltry from The Who all involved. Straight after that Pat and I got very drunk one night and we decided to set up Planet Ark. About a year and a half ago Pat and I felt that we had really achieved what we wanted to achieve with Planet Ark. It’s a tremendous success and continues to be so, but we wanted to back to doing what we were doing when we first met. We started talking about the 20th anniversary of Rock Aid Armenia and thought we should celebrate it in some way. Then we started talking about all the other social issues; Pat is very concerned about depression and mental illness and poverty is a real issue for me. I just wanted to do something about it.

‘Do Something!’ struck me as a great name for an organisation about getting people to go out there and do something. Listen to people’s conversations in pubs, around the dinner table, around the work environment — so often we ask, “Who’s gonna do something about it?” and I thought, “What a great name for an organisation that covers a variety of issues”. So Pat and I decided that we would leave Planet Ark, kind of reluctantly because it was our baby. But we thought it was time to try something fresh and new, where we do our social campaigning — as well as carry on with the environmental stuff — and work a lot more closely with the business community. We’ve raised close to $1 million since October [2008]. In terms of campaigning, we’ve gotten off to a great start. It’s been a very exciting ride over the last year.

How can we better use technology to save the environment?

The potential to significantly reduce our paper use is finally here. We’ve reached the sweet spot. The cost of the equipment, the ability to scan documents and recognise what characters are on the paper, the backup and storage is now so much cheaper and the bandwidth has increased. The Paper-Less Alliance is something which I’ve dreamed up for years and I’ve followed the progress of the hardware, the software and the whole infrastructure behind it. We are at a tipping point, where there are plenty of examples of companies that have put in place systems that have not just reduced the usage of paper but have made them more efficient and a lot more productive.

What I decided to do in embarking on this Paper-Less Alliance was to seek out the very best case studies, to show off the companies that are achieving success and get them to share that with people. That way, rather than start from scratch, companies could look to others for inspiration and case studies that they could use in their own organisation. We wanted to show that saving paper was about saving money, but more importantly improving your company’s productivity, efficiency and improving the bottom line in the process. The campaign itself is not primarily driven on environmental issues; we are driving it on efficiency and productivity and decreasing your bottom line issues, and then pointing out that all of this also has a great benefit to the environment.

What’s your preferred method of communication?

I’m really into electronic media. I’m addicted to Facebook. I’m a ‘Facebook-a-holic’! I’m also a big fan of Evernote. If I had to look at the way I structure my life, I have a portable USB-powered scanner and any paper I do get, I instantly scan it and the characters are recognised on the page. If I end up writing something down on a napkin while I’m at a restaurant, I can take a picture of it with my phone and email it to my Evernote account, which syncs to my Evernote software on my home computer and will read my handwriting. It’s about looking at how we access information.

I did have a tablet PC but then I found that Vista was too clunky and just kept falling over. I did too many presentations where Vista just crashed and I just thought, “That’s it! I’m gonna use Mac”.

What type of computer are you using now?

I’m using the MacBook Pro which I bought recently but I’m really hanging out for the Mac tablet which is supposed to come out this year. I’m looking forward to that because what I did enjoy about my Windows tablet PCs was the interaction with the pen and hands. What we’ve seen with the iPhone is what I believe is going to be the way we interact in the future. Bringing out a tablet PC that has something akin to the iPhone where you can use your fingers. And that’s when we’ll see the death of the modern computer as we know it because it will then become a more natural interface of how we are used to handling documentation. The high-end monitors that allow you to use your fingers to move things around are so much more intuitive than the way we operate at the moment.

I’ve always been fascinated by tablet computing. I had the first Panasonic tablet PC many, many years ago and I believe that’s the future of computing. Once you’re able to hand-write notes effectively and easily onto a screen where you can then manipulate your handwriting and search — that is when I believe we’ll have the ability to change the way we use our computers. And I think we’re already seeing at the moment, all of the companies within the Paper-Less Alliance campaign really understand that they can save a lot of money and they’re starting to put a lot of processes in place, for example, using electronic forms to replace paper. It’s a no-brainer from an efficiency, productivity, and costs point of view. Electronic storage is replacing paper-based storage. For example, the Australian National Audits Office, who contributed to the new Web site, is saving $1.3 million per year by storing stuff electronically.

The Sydney office chairman of Deakins law firm, Nick Abrahams, has written an opinion piece on our Web site saying that it’s not just about money saving and accessing old files more quickly, it’s also about more cost effective compliance.

And then there’s the issue of posting. Australia Post delivers 4.2 billion business related items every year. Now, a lot of that can now be done electronically, so we’re calling on business as part of this campaign. Of those 4.2 billion items, most of that can be sent electronically. The financial savings for business and the savings to the environment from that would be enormous. You’re talking, many, many hundreds of dollars, and you’re talking millions of tones of greenhouse gases that we can eradicate. I’m really passionate about this dynamic electronic alternative where you can search through every word on the document. You can search through your hand-written notes on restaurant napkins using free software now. Technology has changed dramatically. The good thing is that rather than it just being me as a ranting ‘greenie’ with a theory, now we’re seeing many companies saving millions of dollars by going down this route. With this campaign, I’m being an evangelist for the paper-free approach by getting together the best case studies and the best role models, and share that information with other companies so that they don’t have to learn from scratch.

Over the years, what’s been your most memorable tech moment?

I remember the first time I got my Panasonic Toughbook, I had a pen, and I was able to handwrite notes on the screen and send an email to somebody. I remember that whole thing of people ringing me up going “How did you do that?” It was expensive — it cost me $10,000 — but what I liked was that you could handwrite a note to somebody, and it was so much more personal than just emailing them text. That to me was a special moment. But the thing that was really the ‘eureka moment’ for me was seeing the World Wide Web for the very first time. I launched the Planet Ark Web site back in 1996 and it was so far advanced for its time. We had QuickTime videos of all the television ads I had made with Tom Cruise, Nicole Kidman, Dustin Hoffman and the like. We had a weekly podcast, but it wasn’t called a podcast then, it was a weekly world environment news update, playing in the earliest versions of the Real Player.

Before I set that up, I had been shown the Web and I thought, “This is where it’s heading”, where you’re going to have this interface of multimedia, and whoever has the content, if they do it in the right way, can really influence change. I find that very exciting.

What’s your focus then for the next 12 months?

Making sure that we build on the huge successes we’ve had in out first year of Do Something! to get the maximum results possible. The Paper-Less Alliance campaign really excites me. When I’m 65 and I look back, the one thing I hope I can say then is that I helped contribute to the switch from the old business approach of using paper, and to drive the shift to a more paperless office. It has a lot of benefits for businesses in terms of efficiency, productivity, compliance, and improving the bottom line. It also will bring about a massive environmental difference. So it’s one of those win/win projects. If you’re a financial director and you don’t implement paper reduction methods, your organisation needs a new financial director because you’re not taking your responsibilities properly to maximise your business’ bottom line.

This article originally appeared in Computerworld Australia's August/September print edition. To subscribe please email Computerworld or go to our subscription page. You can also follow @computerworldau on Twitter and let us know.

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