Breaking a Vicious Cycle

Why We Need to Escape the Upgrade “Treadmill”

Setting up my first IT consulting business over twenty five years ago a competitor asked me “why are you starting a new business based on legacy technology?” Somewhat confused I asked which technology he was referring to and he replied “Windows – it’s obsolete, because everything will be in a browser in five years time.”

Like many predictions for the IT industry this one proved almost 100% incorrect. Windows persists (and we’re even back to discussing mass-upgrades) and the browser became just another set of applications that needed to be managed and updated.

In the 90’s and early 21st century, however, upgrades were just an ICT problem – a necessary complexity that introduced risk and consumed time and budget. Of course the whole industry was based on consumption, with “line of business” software driving operating system and hardware sales and both requiring maintenance, support and managed services.

In 2022 most organisations are becoming aware that this “consumption” model has wider environmental implications and that the business as usual model of mass upgrades every four years is not compatible with ambitions to achieve Net Zero.

The ICT Emissions Issue

Most sustainability compliance and reporting is currently focussed on Scope 1 and 2 emissions – broadly the generation of power and heat, the use of company vehicles and the operational use of energy by the organisation.

Research (*J. Sutton-Parker. 2020, ‘Determining end user computing device Scope 2 GHG emissions with accurate use phase energy consumption measurement.’ For the 10th International Conference on Sustainable Energy Information Technology, Leuven, Belgium. Elsevier B.V., Science Direct. © Justin Sutton-Parker 2020) has shown that ICT is a significant contributor to emissions, with end user computing (EUC) devices alone generating 1% of all global GHG emissions through the manufacturing of 460 million devices p.a. and the associated energy consumed by 4.2bn active users.

Finding accurate information on energy-efficiency is challenging enough, but Scope 3 emissions (supply chain and commuting) is a much broader and complex topic to address. This is a particular issue for EUC devices, where the calculation of “embodied” emissions is not consistent between vendors and not available at all from many.

As the requirement to tackle the climate emergency becomes a higher priority and more immediate concern, organisations need to take a serious look at how to reduce both Scope 2 and 3 emissions and that means breaking the business as usual upgrade cycle. Below I’ve set out some actions and options that can help.

Action Point 1: Get Better Informed About Where You Are Today & Your Options for Tomorrow

Effective plans require a starting point, defined stages and an end-goal, so baselining your current estate to understand its profile, age and emissions is an important first step. With this information available you can start to look at options for the future.

As a starting point, consider the points set out in Action 2 below to determine how to make the most of what you already have. When it is finally time for a replacement device, make sure you factor total carbon footprint (Scope 2 and 3) into your decision-making criteria, alongside functionality and cost.

In order to identify the company’s actual emissions, you need to dig in to the details of your scope 3 contributions, and IT-equipment and electronics are a surprisingly large part of those. The report from Px3 has really helped us get a more detailed understanding of that data and put it into context.”
Kari Anna Fiskvik, Vice President Technology, Nordic Choice Hospitality Group

Px3 provides a range of analytical and benchmarking services including our Dynamic Carbon Footprint tool (available free of charge to public and third sector organisations) which can help you to evaluate the choices available.

Action Point 2: Ensure Devices “Live” Longer

Reducing the consumption (and therefore manufacture) of new devices and disposal (and resulting e-waste) of unwanted ones is an important way to improve IT sustainability and reduce the use of energy and resources. There are now lots of ways to extend the useful life of devices and these range from the simple to the highly complex depending on your circumstances, but broadly summarised (non-exclusive and in no particular order!) they are:

  • Re-deploy: use the device elsewhere / for someone else in the same organisation
  • Re-provision: switch O/S to low-resource, low-energy alternatives such as Igel OS or Chrome OS Flex
  • Move to Cloud Services: remove dependency on local software if you can switch to 100% SaaS apps
  • Use Virtual Workspaces, Apps and Desktops: move existing workloads to virtual environments
  • Invest in Upgradeable Devices: choose to buy devices that make future upgrades simple
  • Invest in Recycled & Upgraded Devices: choose to buy pre-owned, refurbished devices
  • Re-Purpose externally: when no longer usable, re-deploy the device for social value

Which combination of these is right for your organisation requires discussion and consideration of the potential costs and benefits from a financial and operational benefits perspective as well as an environmental one.

Focussing on sustainable IT, however, is ultimately likely to be worthwhile as recent published research by Justin Sutton-Parker indicates these actions can deliver Scope 2 energy savings of between 18% and 43% per annum and achieve Scope 3 emissions savings of 60%.

The research contains a wealth of information about the options, methodology, facts and the science behind the headlines and is recommended reading. It is the detail behind this research data, combined with the baseline data identified in Action Point 1, that we use to model “before and after” in our reports.

Action Point 3: Make “Reduce” the Key Strategy for 2022 and Beyond

One question I get asked regularly is “does all this really matter in terms of the big picture?”. The answer is emphatically “yes”. We need successes. We need exemplars. We have multiple examples where organisations have reduced their annual emissions significantly using one or more of the above measures because that is how we build momentum for change. Every kWh not being consumed is a kWh that does not need to be generated and does not create emissions. Every resource left in the ground is one that has not been extracted, has not been processed, has not been transported and will not be disposed of.

Starting today every organisation needs to adopt a strategy based around eliminating unnecessary energy and resource consumption and waste – and this includes ICT as a priority.

Setting the Net Zero targets we need to adopt to tackle climate change will require ICT to support new ways of working, productivity and innovation, but that must not give it “carte blanche” to be part of the problem. In the words of our CEO and research director, “Great IT can be green IT and green IT can be great IT”.

Conclusion

With sustainability rising in importance at board level in most organisations this is the time when IT can step out of the backroom and become an enabler of the new “green” era, but to do so it has to mature from a model based on consumption to one of conservation.

By arming themselves with information and options, customers have the power to demand that every IT company, from device manufacturers to resellers to cloud providers, make sustainability a priority and make access to the the sustainability data for their products and services simple and transparent.

That way IT becomes a bigger part of the solution and a smaller part of the problem.

If you’re interested in finding out more, simply contact us to discuss.

About the Author: Ewen Anderson BSc, MMS (Dip), CIO @ Px3

Ewen is CIO of Px3, a company on a mission to help organisations balance people, planet and productivity by promoting sustainable IT strategies.  Px3 has set itself the goal of removing the CO2 emissions equivalent of 100,000 cars from our atmosphere by 2050. With a background in psychology, management services, consultancy and enterprise IT, Ewen is a passionate believer that the right technology used in the right way can significantly reduce environmental impacts, engage users and improve productivity.

Ewen (LinkedIn Profile) can be contacted at ewen@px3.org.uk

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