Sustainability through technology: what works?
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Along with the product or process itself, architects also need to think about the resources it will need to function. Data storage, movement and data processing all require power. As such, there’s a need for data and data gathering about how a whole IT estate is performing.
Our experts felt that this was something established global giants like Apple, Microsoft, Alphabet and Meta will likely be expert at. For smaller companies, however, modeling a whole IT estate’s carbon footprint might be much more of a challenge. As such, our panel called on companies with knowledge and experience to share what they know.
The digital, data and technology playbook is a good source of further reading.
What is the CIO’s role?
Ensuring that an organization endures and flourishes is at the heart of any business strategy. Sustainable business practices and the circular economy need to be prime considerations when making short and long-term plans.
With this in mind, our panellists argued that it is critically important that sustainability becomes hardwired into an organization’s values and its culture. For this to happen, they felt that an organization’s most senior leaders need to make sustainability a priority: one that they champion and live.
Mckinsey’s recent report – Buying into a more sustainable value chain – shows that ‘two-thirds of an average company’s environmental, social and governance footprint lies with suppliers. Procurement leaders who take bold action can make a decisive difference in sustainability.’
It’s tempting to think, or hope, that the greenhouse gasses your suppliers produce don’t figure in your product’s final auditable footprint. But this is, of course, wrong.
It’s essential then, our experts felt, to work closely with suppliers. Indeed, some felt it was more beneficial to form partnerships rather than to approach supply chains as purely transactional, ‘best value for money’ processes.
Organizations who have thought, documented and strategized about their own sustainability will be much better placed to communicate these measurable expectations to their partners.
It’s also worth considering sustainability in its broadest sense. Sustainable procurement policies should be written so that they protect human rights and encourage positives such as diversity, inclusion, employee wellbeing and health and safety. Our policies should also guard against child and compulsory labour.
Indeed, when procurement is involved, a buyer’s reputation is tied inexorably to the seller’s.
Sustainable procurement needs to be embedded into a buyer’s processes. The buyer needs to lead by example. The NHS, for example, is undergoing a major Carbon Disclosure Project and supplier engagement around carbon. There are also published Procurement policy notes (PPNs) which provide guidance on best practice for the public sector.
Designing for efficiency not performance
There is a risk of a conceptual disconnect between a system’s speed and complexity and that solution’s final carbon footprint.
Anyway, this is understandable. Moore’s Law suggests that the number of transistors on a microprocessor will double every two years, though the actual cost of computing is halved. Historically speaking, architects have subsequently expected every new generation of processor to be faster, cheaper and more powerful than the retiring one.
The problem is, when huge amounts of computing power is accessible, designers don’t always worry about making efficient use of it.
This challenge was explored in the BCS ITNOW magazine article, Decarbonising compute: a moral (and technological) imperative:
‘Being conscious of where compute happens, relative to data, can be just as important as being conscious of what compute is being done. Moving data uses energy, with about four orders of magnitude difference in the energy required to store a bit in a local memory versus sending it off-chip by radio. In a study at Google, around 5% of data center energy usage was basically copying memory from one location to another. That’s why making memory copy energy-efficient is a key component of CPU design.’
Along with considering where data is stored and the carbon cost of moving data, architects and users should consider using storage more efficiently. Economical compression algorithms could reduce the storage needs, so could architecting solutions to store only what is necessary – as opposed to what’s possible.
There is the need for a wider appreciation of our choices around climate costs. Certainly, driverless cars and trains might be very safe, but all the resulting computing equipment and infrastructure has a carbon cost. We need to be aware of these costs and have conversations about the impact as we gather requirements. We need ‘a systems mindset’.
This was further illustrated by an observation about data centers. It might be better to build a data center in a cold and remote corner of the world, as the natural coldness of the place can help the center run more cheaply. But this geographic remoteness might add system level complexity and increase overheads.
The cost/benefit analysis of such decisions is complex, multifaceted and evolving. The data center industry is well aware of these challenges and is, in many cases, turning them into opportunities. We have, for example, seen cases where data centers effectively donate unwanted heat to local communities who use it to keep warm.
The drive to upgrade hardware was also a source of focus among our speakers. New kit might be faster and it may well consume less electricity – but it was felt that procurement policies need to consider embedded carbon, which includes the total cost of building new kit. It might be more beneficial to lengthen upgrade and redundancy cycles within business. Summing up the point, a speaker said: ‘The most efficient servers and hardware is most likely the stuff you have now. Move to longer upgrade cycles.’
Summarizing the call for system thinking, one speaker said that, when designing, there is a tendency for our focus to be ‘on the Alligator closest to the boat. We need to think about sustainability holistically and as part of a much bigger system. All the moving parts all have benefits and risks.’
AWS’s Architecture blog on sustainability is a good source of further reading.
With electricity costs sky rocketing, our speakers felt organizations should have a conversation about their electricity supplies and suppliers. The NHS trust that runs Southampton General and Princess Anne hospitals is expecting a £10.3m bill for this year – up from £6.8m – after a hike in costs and a growth in its activity. To offset this increase, the Trust moved to add more solar panels and smart meters.
New Cross Hospital in Wolverhampton, for example, is set to become the first NHS hospital in the UK to be powered entirely by renewable energy. That’s after planners approved a solar farm on a nearby unused piece of land.
It’s also worth noting the good work of hyperscale cloud providers here. Many, including Microsoft and Google, are really pushing renewable energy markets.
What is working right now?
Undoubtedly, when looking at the NHS, the COVID-19 pandemic created a great deal of change. The shift to home working, for example, created great ‘carbon advantages’. Thanks to the swift, timely and secure deployment of IT infrastructure, clinicians were able to hold clinics online – reducing the need for NHS staff and patients to travel, often by car.
Taking a broader view, however, home working’s carbon benefits aren’t entirely clear cut. A report from the IEA, for example, explores how carbon savings were only achieved when employees commuted longer distances. Shorter commutes and those made by public transport, when stopped due to home working, didn’t make a real climate positive change. Consider offices too, many of which stood fallow but lit and air conditioned, while workers toileted from their homes – places which also needed heating, cooling and lighting.
Elsewhere in the NHS, the idea of smart hospitals is gathering momentum. These allow for much more efficient use of buildings, with patients navigated around using Wi-Fi-based systems. Virtual wards are being considered, coupled with IoT technology used to further enhance efficiency. ‘We need to think about what is possible,’ a speaker explained.
Our experts expressed a need for all organizations to take time to reflect. They urged leaders to ‘understand what’s working and to keep the good things that the pandemic created.’
This is particularly relevant right now, as organizations are grappling with how – and indeed, why – they should ask employees to return to work.
Beginning with education
To build a sustainable future, we need the next generation of IT experts to focus on sustainability. This means starting the discussion about technology’s potential for both climate good and harm as early as possible.
Education-focused bodies like Computing at School and Barefoot Computing play a critical role here, supporting teachers with resources. But, there is a role for industry to play. It can and should involve itself in showing, telling and inspiring the next generation of technologists.
Further reading includes: ITIL sustainability modules and The digital, data and technology playbook. BCS’ Green IT Specialist Group is also very active in the green tech leadership space.
Following with training and CPD
Moving to the working business world, there is a need for an acceleration in digital skills delivery. How those skills are defined also needs to be constantly evolving.
We need to empower users and consumers of digital technology to make informed decisions about the products they choose and how they elect to use them. This might start as simply as choosing to configure PCs and office equipment to use power saving and progress right up to people feeling empowered to question business processes and decisions through the prism of sustainability.
In short, we need training and development for everyone – not just experts. Everybody should have a view on how the technology they use impacts climate change and hopefully be equipped to question, refine and adapt their approaches.
There must also be an evolving and dynamic focus on constantly training and upskilling people. Skills development doesn’t stop when somebody leaves university, rather they leave hopefully equipped for lifelong learning; lifelong learning is essential because technology is an ever-evolving force.
For IT professionals, there’s a specific need for career and educational pathways which will facilitate their growth and development and an increased understanding of sustainable IT.
Additional insights and perspectives
The event began with two video presentations from expert speakers.
From Deloitte, Mary Mitchell and Peter Sparrow explored both the challenges and opportunities which address the climate change affords IT professionals.
Watch the video