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Sustainable digital services matter – here’s why

We’re in the middle of a climate crisis, and the carbon dioxide that digital services generate is a major contributor. Adam Coles, who started as Opencast head of sustainable services in late 2023, explains how companies can meet their digital goals while minimising their impact.

It’s increasingly clear that the software industry, along with all other sectors, must take account of the environmental, social and economic impacts it has on the planet and humanity.

There are clear ecological harms in building more data centres to meet the growing demands of the software industry, as well as manufacturing the hardware devices that software runs on, including the carbon produced by fossil fuels and the waste and extraction of rare elements to produce them. When working with clients, we’re writing software that runs in data centres that also use millions of gallons of water. Sometimes that's drawing water away from sources that could be used for farming, human consumption or nature.

IT currently creates 3% of global carbon emissions and by 2040 that could rise to 14%, partly driven by the recent uptake of AI, which is often very energy intensive and could lead to runaway emissions from the sector unless we start making sustainable choices and sensible decisions right now.

We use a lot of power and resources to create and run any software. But we have choices in our implementation, in the types of language we use – and some are more efficient than others. We have choices in the architecture we design, and the features we prioritise at all stages. We can treat the planet itself as a stakeholder when designing software.We should also consider the effect the software we create has on society. That relates to both the direct users of the service we're designing, and other users affected by the impact of these services, as well as people involved in the value chain. For example, hardware required for data centres relies on the mining of minerals that make up its components. Mining is an industry with a strong correlation with human rights abuses and weakened democratic governance.

When moving from a non-digital service to a digital service, we've got to consider the needs of users who may be left behind such as people who live in poverty, people with low literacy and low digital literacy, and people who live in areas where access to digital technologies is liable to covert surveillance which may create risks for their safety.

Colour photo of man smiling at camera
Adam Coles: sustainable services

My experience

My focus as Opencast’s new head of sustainable services is about making the work that we do with clients more sustainable. ‘Sustainability’ can mean several things but includes the environmental impact of the software that we design, build and run for our clients – and the social impact of the resulting services.

When I started in tech 20 years ago, I would never have imagined the environmental impact of this industry. To me it was one of those clean service industries where all you were doing was pushing ones and zeros around – not like mining, or aviation. For most of my professional life, it was not something I really considered.

But at the same time, from a personal perspective, I was also becoming increasingly alarmed by the environmental effects of everything we do as humanity.

The environmental crisis has been on my mind for some time. But it's only in the last couple of years that I was able to join the dots. I saw a talk by Gerry McGovern, author of a book called World Wide Waste, who explained the impact of how we design and use software. I started to realise that there is an impact in every decision we make.

It was becoming clear to me that we needed to think long and hard about how we could improve the way we worked. I started having internal conversations and what clicked for me was that we're a small company at the end of a big lever – because we work with massive organisations in the public sector like government departments. We might only put 10 consultants on to a project – but they are creating products that are going to be used by millions. When you start to see the impacts of what we do at scale, that excited me – we don't have to have to be a huge company to make a real difference.

I’m fortunate in working for a company that shares an ambition to drive positive social and environmental change and where we believe that our consultants, and their work with clients, can act in the interests of people and planet alongside profit. We’ve submitted our application to become a B Corp and instituted programmes to create social and environmental good aligned with three pillars that are based on UN sustainable development goals. Opencast saw that we also needed to align our core client work with these goals – and the creation of my new role will help to embed these principles in all areas of our work.

Client response to sustainability agenda

All Opencast clients have their own targets for reducing their carbon emissions. If they count things correctly, they should be including the impact of all the software they offer.

85% of Opencast’s work is with government organisations who have binding net zero commitments. Their sustainability requirements are often set out in a sustainable procurement strategy. Different areas of the public sector are moving at different speeds. If we look at the NHS, they've spelled out exactly what their procurement expectations are the next 10 and 20 years. You can see a road map of their expectations of suppliers.

In other parts of government, we're seeing sustainability referred to indirectly in procurement frameworks – often not at the core of the requirements but referenced in terms of added value and social impact.

Many of our clients and stakeholders are early in their sustainability journey. They have their own net zero targets, but often don't realise that software and data can have a real impact on those targets. We sometimes find it helps to do some education around the key concepts so that stakeholders understand the benefit to them.

At the same time, we also work with renewables company Swarm Energy – who are already aligned with our goals on sustainability. They're excited by the idea that they can bring sustainability not just to their product, but also to the way that product is built.

One of the challenges in this area is that environmental impact is often hard to measure. It has often been assumed that moving to digital is sustainable because it uses less paper. You often will be more sustainable – but if you don't design your digital service well, and design inclusively, you can leave many people still needing to be supported by call centres or paper processes. In that case, you're likely not going to realise the benefit.

It’s also said by big cloud providers that when you take an existing digital service running on your own data centres and move it to the cloud, it is going to automatically become greener. But unless you make good design decisions, there's no guarantee that you will see those benefits. It’s actually possible to make things worse by bad lift-and-shift approaches to cloud migration.

What clients really need is for public cloud providers to provide better data. so that they can make good decisions based on accurate information. Some providers are better in this regard than others.

Creating sustainable software services is relatively new and it's an exciting time to be in the space. It'll probably take years to really mature but we hope that eventually it’ll become part of how everybody works.

A lot of companies are on similar journeys to us, maybe, like us, moving towards B Corp certification. Or they're just they're aware that, to attract employees or outside investment, they need to need to be progressing in the sustainability space.

The entire industry is moving this way. If you look at organisations like the Green Software Foundation, or the techUK trade body, we’re now seeing a lot of alignment and people wanting to push this agenda. So even if government isn't going as fast as it could, as an industry we are still trying to push this.

Illustration of wind turbine made of leaves on circuit board

What success looks like

What's really important to me is that Opencast is known as a company that is strong in this area and really pushing this agenda. The last thing we want to do is greenwash.

We want to be credible and have genuine offerings. This approach aligns with our company values and our overall commitment to social impact, fairness and environmental responsibility.

We want to be sustainable by default – which can often have the added benefit of reducing operational costs. On top of that, we want to build services that add more value and are what our clients want – and that needs the conversations we have with clients to include sustainability goals.

Internally we need all of our consultants to be able to work in a sustainable way, no matter what their role is on a team. Over 50% of our consultants have already been trained in concepts of green software delivery and we’ll be expanding this and training in planet-centric design over the rest of the year.

We've been identifying areas for sustainable decision making and opportunities for prioritising and delivering some of these outcomes. Over the next 12 months we will have many more conversations with clients, explaining where we're coming from.

There's an opportunity to expand knowledge in this area. People who work in this space are quite collaborative and are willing to set aside the fact that we often work in competition. We're a small company, but we have the opportunity to be an example and contribute practically to developing practices and patterns to share with the whole industry.

I have no personal interest in Opencast being a shining beacon of green software if nobody else is doing this and carbon emissions keep going up. I want the whole industry to be on the same page.

And it’s great to see clients making real movement in this area, for instance by appointing people as heads of digital sustainability. I’m really looking forward to starting the conversation with these people to try and understand how we can help them deliver more sustainable digital services that will be a net good for people and planet.

Illustration of four people holding a circular jigsaw of the planet

How we can all act now to create better sustainable outcomes

  1. If you don’t need it, don’t build it. That’s the most sustainable option.

  2. Think about everyone affected by building and running your service, not just the direct users.

  3. Write simpler, more efficient code to reduce the amount of energy your software uses.

  4. Keep only essential data, reducing the energy needed to store and manage it.

  5. Implement planet-centred design principles, focusing on sustainability throughout the software development lifecycle.

  6. Reduce the impact of hardware creation and disposal by choosing good cloud providers and supporting older user devices.

  7. Ask your cloud providers awkward questions about their sustainability.

  8. Measure your impact. Measure energy use, water use and carbon emissions.

  9. Measure your impact on society. What you can’t measure, you can’t improve.

 

Published: 1 February 2024

Authors

Adam Coles

Head of sustainable services

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