Sustainable ICT

To see a world in a grain of sand,
And a heaven in a wild flower,
Hold infinity in the palm of your hand,
And eternity in an hour.
William Blake – “Auguries
of Innocence”

Recently the Royal Swedish Academy of Engineering Sciences (IVA) published the report “Ambient Sweden” presenting a vision for how Sweden can maintain its position as a prominent IT country. One of the areas that were put forward as a future area was Green IT, focusing on how information technology can support organisations in becoming more environmentally-friendly. In recent years, “Green IT” has increased in popularity where Gartner was one of the earliest proponents. This week the EU Commission announced that it would promote ICT to improve energy efficiency throughout the economy, starting with buildings, lighting and the power grid as part of its effort to combat climate change.

From Green to Sustainable
This attention is truly great, but I would really like to see a somewhat wider perspective in several dimensions. First, the environmental aspect is just one of three if you take departure in the sustainable development definition, the other two being social and economical. So instead of Green IT, I would like to see more of a discussion concerning Sustainable IT. There are so many interesting examples such as the stunning graphics provided by Hans Rosling, making it possible to understand complex issues and increase incitements for changes in behaviour as displayed at Gapminder. Ericsson’s CEO Carl-Henrik Svanberg, who has taken part in the UN Global Compact, emphasises that their new base station technology makes it easier for developing countries to get access to the Internet. Swedish International Development Cooperation Agency recently held an international workshop called "Big Brother and Empowered Sisters - The role of new communication technologies in democratic processes" and there is a Swedish Program for Information and Communication Technology in Developing Regions. And so on.

From system and impact to process
The debate so far has also focused a lot on the technology (hard- and software) and its effects on the organisation, often in terms of energy and environmental impact. Which again is great and also a complex issue. For example, it is obvious that downloading a system from the Internet or using a service saves a lot in terms of packaging, production and transport although using the Internet also “costs” in terms of energy and equipment. This has inspired Google to invest in R&D into renewable energy.

However, we should also look at the process of developing and maintaining IT solutions. For example, how about a kind of Fair Trade marking for IT, ensuring that the system developers were not underpaid and overworked outsorced workers, that collaboration tools were used during the process keeping travels to a minimum, that efficient best practices kits were used to ensure that the wheel was not invented again and so on.

For example, it would be nice if models such as Inuse’s model for managing IT projects would be used for making decisions on a combination of the three sustainable aspects? Or if the Capability Maturity Model Integration also included recommendations regarding how IT developers step by step can become more sustainable?

As suggested in the Prism article “Sustainability within and beyond the ICT industry” sustainability provides the ICT industry with many opportunities, not only challenges. I would like to replace Green IT with Sustainable IT, putting more focus on the act of balancing environmental, economical and social aspects. Something that the companies behind the Global e-Sustainability Initiative already have recognised. It would also be nice if the debate is extended to encompass all the following dimensions:
  1. Impact: how using ICT can have a positive impact on individuals, organisations and society in terms of sustainable development.
  2. Technology: how systems in terms of both hard- and software can be designed in such a way that they support the development of a sustainable society.
  3. Process: how the process of designing, developing and maintaining information technology can be crafted in a sustainable way.

I also have the following concrete suggestions:

  • If Ambient Sweden becomes a program, widen the focus regarding Green IT to Sustainable IT.
  • Make sustainability a basic design criterion in ICT education, that is, teach all students how to consider sustainability in terms of impact, technology and process.
  • Start a discussion among the research funding agencies regarding how they can support Sustainable ICT R&D, for example by identifying how to better measure sustainability according the Global Reporting Initiative guidelines.

Today, 17 May, is the World Information Society Day, proclaimed by a United Nations General Assembly resolution to raise global awareness of society changes brought by the Internet and new technologies and to help reduce the Digital divide. Let’s make it a good day!

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