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Accelerating sustainability

Responding to the climate crisis with technology

 

The effects of climate change are accelerating and momentum is shifting. Significant climate-related disasters are occurring. Things are getting worse and faster than scientists previously predicted.

 

Despite the urgency, sustainability is not yet ‘business as usual’ for many organizations. Business remains unprepared to fully reckon with the impact of trends like carbon accounting and will soon be expected to hit targets that can no longer be pushed back because of the real global consequences. 

 

The good news is that organizations that were already taking action in response are doing more — and more organizations are at least doing something. Technology is emerging as a powerful accelerant and enabler of sustainability in two main ways: by reducing the direct carbon emissions from things like data centers and cloud servers, and by providing new tools and techniques to help organizations understand, categorize and optimize their emissions and progress towards environmental targets.  

 

Signals include:

 

Governments reacting to public opinion and their peers by increasing both ‘carrots’ and ‘sticks’ to encourage companies to act, such as funding for firms that invest in sustainable technology or tougher fines for polluters.

 

Geopolitical tensions are driving a short-term reliance on fossil fuels but are accelerating countries towards an overall shift to sustainable energy policies. In some cases, the policy goals include energy independence.

 

A surge in production of clean energy components such as lithium ion batteries, combined with concerns about the long-term financial health of traditional energy companies as they face a wave of divestment.

 

Sustainability metrics being factored into annual reports and executive targets, and in some cases tied to directly to bonuses.

 

Cloud providers improving their sustainability performance through strategies such as power purchase agreements, transparency of emissions data, adopting solid state storage or making compute instances more energy efficient — and helping their clients do the same.

 

Growing momentum in organizations such as the Green Software Foundation and the FinOps Foundation's Sustainability Working Group, to create standards, tooling and recommended practices

 

The opportunities

 

Enhance IT’s strategic role by driving sustainability improvement. Beyond simply looking at the carbon costs of its own operations, by making considered technology choices and applying practices like AI and decision science to better measure and understand a broader range of potential outcomes, IT can help the rest of the organization adopt a stronger sustainability stance, decrease their carbon footprint and directly boost the bottom line.

 

Decrease their carbon footprint and directly boost the bottom line. For example by using only the computing power necessary to conduct your business, the company will lower associated costs and be better prepared for more stringent regulations in future.

 

Better align with customer values. Increasingly, consumers have demonstrated that they are choosing vendors based on their environmental stance and actions. One study found consumers see reducing harm to the environment as important for businesses as meeting tax obligations and that a significant majority buy from brands that reflect their personal beliefs.

 

Stand out in the race for talent. Hiring will remain one of the biggest challenges for technology and other companies for years to come. With employees, and particularly younger workers, also gravitating to organizations that share their environmental principles, companies that can demonstrate real commitment to sustainability will have an edge to attract, retain and motivate skilled workers.


Gain competitive advantage. Organizations that chart real progress towards sustainability goals with credible data will differentiate themselves from those that spout vague principles or make unsubstantiated claims.

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What we’ve seen

We worked with one of the UK’s largest and oldest banks to help them identify how they can make real and lasting changes to the energy they use and the carbon they create. Like many financial institutions, they became a primarily digital business over the last couple of decades, and also like many other banks, their infrastructure is 95% on-premises. While they recognized that migrating to the cloud could be effective in reducing emissions, they needed help upskilling their software engineers to integrate green cloud fundamentals into their operations.

Trends to watch

 

Adopt

 

Green cloud. The shift to cloud computing is often seen as a ‘silver bullet’ for improving IT sustainability, since cloud providers are investing significant resources to improve their carbon footprints. Some providers even advertise that they are carbon neutral. But simply relying on cloud platforms to advance sustainability is too simplistic. It’s still important to avoid cloud sprawl and to understand the energy usage of cloud environments and services. Fortunately, large cloud platforms now provide detailed carbon accounting to help with this, and there is a growing set of “cloud management” companies that include sustainability in their offering.

 

Analyze

 

Decision science. Artificial intelligence tools and techniques previously used to assist in complex scientific and academic choices can now be applied to corporate decision making. Combining human expertise and insight with data-driven modeling and simulation can allow decision makers to sift through countless possible combinations of strategic choices and pick the best path forward with unprecedented speed and clarity. These practices could help organizations understand the bigger picture of their energy usage, and make important decisions at a level higher than simply improving the numbers.


Anticipate

 

Trustworthy data. To make sound decisions around sustainability, especially for complex organization-wide elements such as the impact of supply chains, complete and accurate data is a must. If a department or supplier provides inaccurate (or worse, outright fabricated) data, an organization can no longer be sure decisions will drive the desired results. Trustworthy data is an emerging set of techniques to certify the provenance of data and to govern its use across an organization that could prove transformative in the effort to track and enhance progress towards sustainability targets.

Trends to watch: the ones we're seeing now

Adopt
  • Connected homes
  • Digital carbon management
  • Distributed energy resources
  • Edge computing
  • Green cloud
  • Green software engineering
  • Smart systems and ecosystems
  • Tokenomics
Analyze
  • Autonomous robots
  • Platform business
  • Smart contracts
  • Smart energy management systems

 

Anticipate
  • Addictive tech
  • Increased regulation
  • Smart cities
  • Technology for environmental and social governance
  • X-Fi

Advice for adopters 



Foster ‘carbon awareness’ in your employees and customers. There is a huge potential for carbon savings by empowering your end-users with the information they need to make carbon-efficient decisions. Airlines now list flights with CO2 emission data, and GPS mapmakers flag routes as being the most carbon efficient. Consider an explicitly labeled ‘eco mode’ for your products and services, which will contribute towards your own goals and demonstrate your commitment to sustainability.

 

Get ahead of oncoming regulation. Accelerating sustainability is no longer just about doing the right thing — there are specific, mandatory targets coming in the decades ahead and more will likely emerge. With both scientific evidence and public opinion building momentum, there is a commercial imperative to understand your carbon footprint, and to get serious about making reductions. Organizations that are proactive and do more than the regulatory minimum will be the best positioned to meet future government and customer demands. 

 

Take advantage of the ‘carrots’ on offer, such as the clean energy tax incentives recently signed into law by US President Joe Biden. Unfortunately these sweeteners typically have a shelf life; subsidies today may become penalties tomorrow as governments adopt more aggressive tactics to get results.

 

Measure, don’t guess, and try to properly model all variables when targeting environmental improvements. As with any optimization, the interplay of components can make the journey very complex.

 

Ensure sustainability becomes a cultural trait for your organization. It’s hard to do sustainability without being sustainable. Some organizations are tying executive compensation to green outcomes, while others, including Thoughtworks, have signed up to achieve science-based targets. It’s only when sustainability is a clear priority at all levels of the organization and reflected in KPIs that it becomes truly embedded.  

 

‘Shift left’ on sustainability. Encourage teams to consider sustainable practices and goals earlier in the process of designing and building systems, rather than viewing them through a sustainability lens after most of the work has been done. As with security, you can achieve more significant outcomes and better respond to regulatory and market pressures if you ‘build sustainability in’ from the beginning, rather than trying to tack it on later.

 

Understand the tradeoffs and be prepared to make hard choices. For businesses and governments alike, sustainability inevitably involves sacrifice of one kind or another, whether time, resources, efficiency or even competitive edge. Doing the right thing typically costs more, and may not be the most convenient option — just think of electric vehicles, which can be very efficient when charged daily and driven shorter distances but offer reduced range and flexibility over their gas-powered counterparts. 

 

Efforts to be sustainable may have initial negative consequences — for example, cutting corporate travel will reduce carbon emissions but can also leave staff and customers feeling disconnected — and positive impacts may not be apparent for decades. However, the key is to be flexible, constantly pushing progress where possible while remaining realistic about what the organization (and its people) have the capacity to adopt and embrace.

While technology may not be the magic bullet that will solve climate change, it can make a powerful difference to the way organizations plan, set targets, execute, optimize, measure and report on sustainability initiatives.
Andy Nolan
Director of Emerging Technologies, Thoughtworks Australia

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