Suzanne Maxted MBCS CITP CBAP, a business architect at Methods and a member of the BCS Green IT SG, talks about IT being one of the great enablers in society, net zero and the importance of COP26, to Johanna Hamilton AMBCS.
‘I think a fair majority of people are thinking, how is my job relevant to the climate crisis? In my world, in the digital world, where I'm at the front of government projects, I think about how to architect something for good. How do we make our jobs relevant to protecting nature and tackling the climate crisis?’
‘I don't want our jobs to become non-essential because the planet is burning. I want our jobs in IT to help stop the planet burning. And I think in most cases, for most people, for most jobs, that could be true. But, it's about a shift in thinking. How can we shift every single piece of work from having a negative impact to having a positive impact?’
What are the objectives of COP26?
‘COP26 goals are very straightforward and expected. We need to reach net zero soon, we need to preferably keep global warming under 1.5 degrees and we need to protect nature and we need the investment to do that. I don't think that's ambitious enough. For me there's still a mind-shift. We need to shift our perspective from one of imagined hardship to prosperity.
Again, it comes back to the communications and the stories that are told to people. People don't necessarily want to act, partly because it's so difficult to act positively, but also because they think they'll be worse off, that their quality of life will go down. And until that switches I don't think anything can change rapidly and at the scale that we need.
‘We can have and we will have a better quality of life if we act sustainably and environmentally responsibly. If we restore nature, we will have a better quality of life. We will prosper. And that perspective can only be changed by frequent narrative and story, like it has been for the pandemic. If you think of the TV adverts of a beautiful man with a beautiful new car and it all looks smashing and aspirational - that has to change.
'There has to be a different story that makes us feel proud of protecting and restoring nature and that again, comes back to how digital can help. The cost of negative impact is millions of times more than the cost of the technology to put those stories in front of everyone and to help people take part, including businesses and local authorities. I really want to say that COP26 needs to be about cultural shift in society and about putting a stop to work that does not have a positive impact on the SDGs.’
The climate change conferences started in 1994 - COP26 is the 26th of those. We've had the Kyoto Protocol, we've had the Paris Accord... Is anything actually going to change with COP26?
‘I am feeling positive because, all of a sudden, in the last couple of years there's been the IPCC report, Professor Sir Partha Dasgupta's report ‘the Dasgupta Review’, Sir David Attenborough, Greta Thunberg, the school strikes - it's all happened at once and so it's at the forefront of people's minds. Before, it was a taboo subject for politicians to talk about. I have written about this for years and nobody took any notice because they thought that IT was not relevant! Now I feel like it's the opposite.
‘We've almost reached a critical mass with the countries who are doing good things and coming to the party. Will anything change? The danger is with these meetings is there's ‘commitment inflation’ as George Monbiot calls it, where governments just commit to higher and higher, more ambitious targets but nothing's ever done. I think the only way to start to solve that is to be transparent in every single piece of work - whether that’s HS2 or a new digital service or projects led by government - it’s important that every piece of work has its impact measured, and that that information is made publicly available.’ That is a job that IT people can help with.
Has COVID-19 been a catalyst for changing the mindset on climate change?
‘I do in some ways. I think the most important thing for me, at this point in time right before we get to COP26 is this: it has proven that governments can shift people's behaviour, everybody's behaviour very, very quickly. And the way that governments did that was to have a culture shift in their communications, including digital.
‘It’s the responsibility of all governments, everywhere in order to shift perception that we won't be worse off, we will be better off, we will have a better quality of life. And we've experienced that, we know that if we spend more time at home, if we slow down, if we listen to the bird song, and be involved in little urban farm projects - we learn that these things fill us with joy - and we didn't necessarily know they would fill us with joy until we had the time to go for a morning walk.’
COP26 can feel like it’s unrelated to our day to day lives, so how can we get involved, as individuals?
‘Firstly, individuals can be at the COP26 event in Glasgow. I recommend going on Saturday 6 November which is when big players like the Soil Association and thousands of people will be rallying in the streets and lobbying. Secondly, ask your employer to send you as their delegate. Thirdly, you can lobby your MP. You can write letters and ask others to write letters. What happens is that MPs stand up in Parliament and talk about their constituents’ concerns. If we don’t write to them, they can’t do that.
‘Changes aren’t going to be made quickly enough if we don’t speak out now. Write to your MP about the ecological and climate crises. Write today. And IT people, let’s get our heads together with the Government Digital Service, the BCS and other organisations to set the highest standards and put the tools in place to protect nature, our home and our children’s future.’
Will climate change and COP26 make us rethink our course of action?
‘Absolutely, for example, in my world we have to use policy and work with government actors to achieve their environmental aspirations; to help them embed environmental responsibility. There's a continuum of thought: the more technical end that some of my colleagues are providing some thought leadership on, such as looking at the carbon footprint of tech and so on. And from the very technical end of the spectrum right up to the policy end to engage in sustainability, there are ways that we can use our digital work to design-positive impacts into initiatives of work.
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‘So, for example, in my research article Governments everywhere have declared a climate emergency, it's high time pandemic-like efforts were used to tackle it, I talk about what I call stories and signposts, aimed at the government to help individuals through digital services. I'll come on to other responsibility in government and business later. But for individuals it's the government's role, as I see it, to make it easy for individuals to act - so easy in fact, that it would be difficult to do nothing or to do otherwise.
‘In my job I notice that government services online have information on Brexit or coronavirus. There are lots of instructions and some people-nudging happening about the pandemic. I think we need the same on screen, apps, television, on computers, on the internet, for the climate crisis. If we can shift people's behaviour so quickly with the pandemic then we can do the same for the climate crisis.’
How can the government achieve COP26 targets?
‘Government webpages (gov.uk) are where people have to apply for benefits, renew their car tax, register to vote etc. Technology can give us a way to provide narrative and story and ‘signposts to act’ in a way that makes it really easy for individuals.
‘Let's say, for example, there’s a new mum and she's exhausted. She goes to apply for child benefit. She might already have an idea in her head that she wants to meet up with a mother and toddler group and get involved in the local community, but she's too exhausted and too busy to even think about that. But, if the child benefit webpage reads: “by the way, would you be interested in meeting up with other new mums, because at the end of your road is a mini-farm run by your neighbours with a mother and toddler group? You can go along, have a cup of tea and cake. If you fancy it, you can also get involved in restoring the natural habitat there along with all the other children and parents.” (This is actually true where I live; there are so many local community projects that are absolutely wonderful.)
‘Searching out that information is too hard when you're an exhausted new mum. We make it hard for people to get involved and frankly, we need everybody to act now. We've run out of time. So that's one part of government's role and how government digital services play such a massive part. We need to help people imagine what is possible, inform them through stories and then provide signposts to action. In my new mum scenario, the only burden is for her to decide “yes or no”. Making it easy is the key principle for embedding environmental responsibility into society at all levels, and I see this as the government’s task.’
COP26 is highlighting the world’s worst emitters of greenhouse gases. The UK isn’t one of them. Shouldn’t everybody else catch up with us?
‘So, it's not about everybody else. It's about everybody. When those uncomfortable truths are exposed at the beginning of a piece of work, all of a sudden there's peer pressure and the negative impacts are exposed and it's not possible anymore to continue in that way. We must measure impact - positive and negative - and look at the impacts we're really having, because those are generally not measured at the moment.
‘When we can see what our proposed impact is, we can put our heads together and tweak our scope to eliminate negative impact and design positive impact into the initiative of work. For example, collecting an extra bit of data from certain business might be all that is needed to inform policy makers who can then incentivise business to, for instance, eliminate deforestation from their supply chains.
Will personal responsibility make enough of a difference?
‘If we look at society, there are many different layers. Let’s start with me as an individual and my teenage children, my household and then my neighbours in my road and my local community and businesses. And then we reach local government, and then national government and then the G20 leaders, so there's all these layers of society and once again it's not about everybody else, it's about everybody. Everybody in the role they play. But equally, it’s not just individual responsibility that will make the difference.
‘If we extend the idea of making it easy, from individuals to local authorities, for instance there are ways IT can help. IT can bring about better data collection, and better decision making tools for local authorities to analyse all true costs - costs to humans, costs to society and costs to nature.
Where does the responsibility lie, for change?
‘For me, responsibility lies with the government at every level and governments together. So, John Kerry, the US Special Presidential Envoy for Climate. He talks about governments working together and the biggest leaders and the biggest emitters must work together to make this work. He said of fossil fuels, "If you want a definition of insanity, it's subsidising the very problem you're trying to solve".
‘So, he's talking at the highest level but he also says, and this is for governments, this is where government environmental responsibility must be embedded. You can't put all the burden on individuals or on businesses. The government has to create the markets for those businesses. The government has to provide incentive and for them to shift their impact from negative to positive.
Responsibility lies with all levels of society - government, local government, household, individual, and with the G20 leaders as a group. So, environmental responsibility has to be embedded at every level.
We have to have all people in all jobs in all roles acting now. We need to measure every project, every programme of work so that we can make visible the impact that we're having. And there's already a framework against which we can measure: the sustainable development goals (SDGs). I believe everything - building new houses, building new roads, digital services, everything has to be measured against that.