Digitalization and Sustainability

Sustainability of IT. Sustainability by IT.

Last week I wrote about the inherent connection of Sustainability and IT and why digitalization should be at the heart of every Sustainability effort.
Today I want to go into more detail of the two dimensions of

  1. Sustainability of IT.
  2. Sustainability by IT.

Sustainability of IT.

You may have heard of the term „Green-IT“ which origins somewhere from the 90s. IT all started with the ’92 established Energy-Star label, introduced by the U.S. Environmental Protection Agency. The label promoted and made energy efficient monitors and other hardware more recognizable. For example, the sometimes better or worse working „Sleep-Mode“ was adopted by more and more hardware producers and OS developers as a prerequisite to get the label. Today you may have seen the Swedish TCO label on the back of your monitor which stands for low magnetic and electric emissions.
Whilst these labels cover the hardware side of Green IT, on the software side we don’t have any certifications or labels yet.
On that side though lies significant high leverage, as there is an analogy to your driving style:

  • the hardware is your car – you want to have that working efficiently
  • the software is your driving style: your car might consume 3l at 80km/h – if you take it to 200km/h it will consume exponentially more.

Besides having no label, there though are several initiatives and principles on how to write and operate efficient software. For example using hashed or indexed algorithms for search is much more efficient than using linear ones.

Another high, but rarely recognized leverage, lies in the retirement of software. As a study by the German Bundesamt for Environment in 2019 laid out, about 30% of software installed in datacenters is not being used. All tough latest studies show, that the effectiveness of datacenters during recent years improved drastically due to high effective coolings and more and more switching to green energy, we are talking an estimated total co2 emission of roughly 900 billion kilograms here (2018 Pearce) which is about the global aviation industry (pre Corona, Air Transport Action Group 2020). Reducing that by 30% is a lot.

As sustainability is not only about emissions and energy consumption but about decent work and economic growth, reducing risks of software-hacks and data-loss is a further essential goal to be achieved by software retirement.

Sustainability by IT

There are a lot of examples in which IT helps Sustainability efforts of organizations:

  1. Reducing emissions for business travel through virtual meetings
  2. Proving a transparent supply chain by using blockchain technology
  3. Reducing poverty by enabling internet access in 3rd world countries and teaching development skills

Though IT and digitalization can add a lot to reach SDG goals and are a key driver, one has to be aware of the drawbacks:

  1. Digital platforms can lead to alienation and loneliness
  2. Training Algorithms can be tricky and lead to faulty, discriminating results
  3. IT for itself is not sufficient: business-processes have to have people in their focus, have to serve the people with purpose

In this article I tried to lay out the two different aspects of IT and Sustainability. I hope you liked it and I am happy to find out about your opinion to IT, Digitalization and Sustainability.

References
Pearce, F. (2018). “Energy Hogs: Can World’s Huge Data Centers Be Made More Efficient?” Yale Environment 360, April 3rd, Https://E360.Yale.edu/Features/Energy-Hogs-Can-Huge-Data-Centers-Be-Made-More-Efficient
Air Transport Action Group (2020). Facts And Figures. Https://Www.atag.org/Facts-Figures.html

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