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The time has come to give the paperless office another go

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'Today's typical office building generates a kilogram of waste paper per employee per day, meaning that paper accounts for half of all landfill'

Lately there has been a lot of talk about 'new financial architecture' in the global economy to prevent such things as rioting in Indonesia, listlessness in Japan, mayhem in Russia, raised eyebrows in Germany, and so on. Nothing has happened because things just aren't bad enough, but there have been calls for a change in the metaphor from architecture to something else.

'I think architecture is a bad word to apply to economic matters,' John Heimann, former chairman of Merrill Lynch Global Capital Markets is quoted as saying. 'What you need is more attention to the plumbing and electricity. That's not as dramatic, but it's the plumbing and electricity that make the house work.'

This rappel aux fundamentals on the part of a man more accustomed to grand planning is ominous. It seems like yet more evidence of the fragmentation of the nation state that increasingly plagues the post-Cold War world. According to some mad process of subsidiarity everyone is being urged to confine themselves to the smallest unit possible. Thus architects are urged to divest themselves of grand strategic ideas and revert to fixing the latch on the bathroom door instead. This is a bad thing. The consequence of not being able to see the wood for the trees is evident in every office building.

Once upon a time there was a grand strategic idea for offices based on a combination of new information technology and microcomputers. It was called paperlessness.

Why, its visionary proponents asked, should it any longer be necessary to have reams of paper around the place if there is not only a telephone on every desk but a computer that could communicate with every other computer in the world?

In the us some forward-looking companies jumped onto this idea. One famous American insurance company hit on the slogan 'Paper free by eighty-three' and began to work towards it with 'paperless days' and 'locked stationery cupboard days'. But it was no good, the staff were set against it. They even bought their own paper, smuggling it into the office. Just before the 1983 deadline the project was abandoned. Most people who knew about it just laughed. They didn't understand that the failure of paperlessness was a tragedy, not a farce. They thought it proved the truth of the Duke of Cambridge's maxim, that the time for change is when it can no longer be resisted and not before.

And the result? According to the United States Office of Waste Reduction Services, today's typical office building generates a kilogram of waste paper per employee per day, meaning that paper accounts for half of all landfill. In offices the average document is copied 19 times. One and a half trillion pages are printed each year and 200 million sheets of paper are filed every day. Recycling is not the answer - unless you fiddle the figures - for although every tonne of recycled paper saves 17 trees and 460 gallons of oil, no one has ever factored in the cost of transporting the paper to the recycling stations.

Modern offices are computer and paper based. It is a huge expense unthinkingly built into their design. Time to give paperlessness another go.

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