ICT Sustainability, ICT for Sustainability, Green ICT, Sustainable ICT, Sustainable IT, Green IT, Green for IT, Green by IT, Green by Use, Inclusive IT, Sustainable HCI: No matter what you call it, we need to be talking about it.
Have you ever considered how much energy it takes to make a quick Google search or spend hours binge-watching your favourite series on Netflix? It turns out that our everyday digital habits can have a big impact.
In 2018, digital technologies were responsible worldwide for 4.2% of annual greenhouse gas emissions (GHG). In 2008, that number was 2%, and it is expected to continue growing. To put this in perspective, the civil aviation industry currently accounts for approximately 2% of GHG emissions. When lockdowns were enacted around the world to fight the Covid-19 pandemic, people started to look at the impact of reduced air travel on the environment. But what about our increasing use of digital technology?
Incorporating sustainability criteria into our technological habits and choices is a key step to reducing the environmental impact of all business activities.
To learn more about sustainability in information and communication technology (ICT), The Choice met Christophe Debuysscher, ICT Sustainability Manager for the European Patent Office (EPO), ESCP alumnus (MBA 19992) and founder of the hashtag ICTsustainability on LinkedIn.
Except for the Gen-Z trained ICT professionals, even todays’ many experienced professionals remain unaware of the footprint generated by ICT. Needless to say that the general public is not yet aware that, for example, “Just a few web searches generate enough energy equivalent to boil a cup of tea. Everything we do online has an environmental impact,” explains Christophe Debuysscher.
For Debuysscher, concern about the environmental impact of information and communication technology is now a part of his DNA. With 30 years of IT engineering experience, he has worked around the world, contributing along the way his deep values and awareness of ICT Sustainability in his role within businesses.
Today, he brings his experience to the C-level and strategic sustainability board at the EPO on ICT Sustainability initiatives for the Information Technology department.
“If we go digital, we must do so in a responsible way. When applied properly, the benefits of ICT outweigh the negative impact of ICT usage on the environment.”
Since the term “Green IT” first appeared in the IT department of an organisation, a lot has happened, explains Debuysscher. Green IT was initially mainly dealing with monitoring the energy consumption of IT assets (energy baselining and dashboarding of data centres, PCs, printers…). For a while, it was either considered to be rebarbative or at most – to use a more positive note – as the “cherry on top of a pie,” rather than something to be integrated into the business strategy. However, advancements in recent years have shown the huge potential of “Green by IT”, which applies information and communication technologies to the environmental impact of business.
With the application of sustainability across nearly all business functions, awareness of the relationship between sustainability and technology continues to accelerate and two new terms have found their place, Sustainable IT and ICT Sustainability, with a preference for the latter. From data centers and computer manufacturing to mobile networks and video streaming, ICT Sustainability seeks to reduce the environmental and social footprint of information and communication technology, and thanks to ICT technologies, thanks to digitalization, it is becoming an enabler for efficiency in other business processes.
“When businesses began to consider sustainability and IT, attention was primarily focused on energy consumption,” notes Debuysscher. While he acknowledges that electricity costs and energy efficiency are important concerns for both business operations and sustainability, Debuysscher argues that we must also remember that technology has a footprint at every stage, from extracting materials, designing, manufacturing to transport, use and disposal.
We should not consider the footprint only by the use phase. We must consider the whole lifecycle of the technology, and that’s the tricky equation.
For example, in order to avoid that a huge percentage of all end-of-life IT equipment finishes in landfills, “The next big thing is the need for each organisation to tackle its e-waste more efficiently and responsibly with tracked recycling and upcycling audited solutions. In a nutshell, we must do so in an increasingly responsible way.”
Among many actions to be initiated, one way this can be done is to start a virtuous cycle by integrating ICT Sustainability award and selection criteria into procurement and vendor management. Rather than selecting the provider with the lowest cost, the M.E.A.T.S. criterion could be applied (Most Economically Advantageous Tender + Sustainable), helping to ensure that the classical technical, ergonomic, cost, business, security needs are met with the least impact on the environment.
While the environmental impact of information and communication technology is growing, they also show vast potential to help reduce emissions across sectors, from agriculture to transportation, industry and more. According to the “Digital with Purpose” report by GeSI and Deloitte, digital technologies are key to reaching the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030.
“Of the 169 SDG targets, 103 are directly influenced by these technologies,” they conclude. According to their report, ICT have four “impact functions” that contribute to achieving the SDGs: “communicating and connecting people to each other and to critical information; analysing, optimising and predicting with data; monitoring and tracking of natural and man-made systems; augmenting our human abilities and automating systems, providing a bridge between the digital and physical.”
“ICT can contribute positively to both business objectives and sustainability goals,” confirms Debuysscher. “On the business level, for example, choosing to prioritise refurbished equipment can support the UN’s SDG 12 ‘To ensure sustainable consumption and production patterns’.”
In fact, “when applied properly, the benefits of ICT must outweigh the negative impact of ICT usage on the environment,” explains Debuysscher.
With the right incentives in place and increased awareness among citizens and decision makers, ICT Sustainability shows great promise.
At the European and national levels, policies to promote sustainable IT are starting to emerge, and in the next years to come, a “tsunami of legislation” is ahead of us. Better to tackle the issue immediately. As a small concrete example in France, from January 1st, 2021, all computers must include a repairability score. These measures are intended to increase the transparency of product durability and help consumers select more long-lasting products.
And “almost 60% of organisations in Europe included sustainability objectives in procurement,” Debuysscher recently shared with his LinkedIn community, highlighting the growing importance of sustainability and circular economy principles as a business differentiator.
Where to get started
As Debuysscher understands, implementing ICT Sustainability can often be easier said than done. And in his experience, it relies significantly on the principles of change management.
You need to make sure that you are going ‘green’ at the right granularity and at the right maturity within an organisation. Working first to build awareness about the issue then providing an opportunity for action, rather than through force.
Creating awareness in a responsible way is a key step to integrating ICT Sustainability. Debuysscher also refers to this stage as “visioning”. Starting at the top, you will want to get the CEO and Chief Information Officer (CIO) on board, explains Debuysscher. Once you have their commitment, the next step is to publish an ICT Sustainability policy to support your environmental policy and the strategy of your business. Needless to say that if not yet done, knowing and monitoring the baselined energy consumption of your key ICT assets is a compulsory stage.
For a quick win on the path to ICT Sustainability, Debuysscher recommends nominating ASAP a specific person to tackle the issue. “You want someone, preferably Gen-Y, who believes in it, in the true inner value of the act.” As a winning combination for the appointed ‘suitably empowered’ ICT Sustainability Manager, with clear support from the CIO, he or she could team up with a senior IT director or CIO advisor or CIO deputy, more experienced with the internal and corporate communication aspects. That said, “ICT Sustainability is a long-term journey that will ultimately require engagement from everyone from the IT department,” concludes Debuysscher.
“ICT Sustainability is not a problem to be solved, but a future to be created by each of us.”
Christophe Debuysscher will be continuing the discussion on this topic during a general awareness webinar organised by the ESCP Alumni Association on Wednesday, 31st March, at 12:30pm (UTC+1). Register here.
Meanwhile, you may check the ICTsustainability hashtag on LinkedIn for more on the subject.
 (Definition from Wikipedia): Information and communications technology (ICT) is an extensional term for information technology (IT) that stresses the role of unified communications and the integration of telecommunications (telephone lines and wireless signals) and computers, as well as necessary enterprise software, middleware, storage and audio-visual systems, that enable users to access, store, transmit, and manipulate information.
The term ICT is also used to refer to the convergence of audio-visual and telephone networks with computer networks through a single cabling or link system. There are large economic incentives to merge the telephone network with the computer network system using a single unified system of cabling, signal distribution, and management. ICT is an umbrella term that includes any communication device, encompassing radio, television, cell phones, computer and network hardware, satellite systems and so on, as well as the various services and appliances with them such as video conferencing and distance learning.
ICT is a broad subject and the concepts are evolving. It covers any product that will store, retrieve, manipulate, transmit, or receive information electronically in a digital form (e.g., personal computers, digital television, email, or robots). Theoretical differences between interpersonal-communication technologies and mass-communication technologies have been identified by the philosopher Piyush Mathur. Skills Framework for the Information Age is one of many models for describing and managing competencies for ICT professionals for the 21st century.
 Christophe Debuysscher has been the delegate of the “Netherlands” group of the ESCP Alumni Association since 2013.