A recent NHS and BCS event, hosted by Immediate Past President John Higgins FBCS and Sonia Patel, System CIO (and Director of Levelling Up) NHS England, saw experts from across industries share knowledge and experiences about sustainable IT best practice, ITNOW reports.
The need for action to curb greenhouse emissions is now well beyond debate. So, there’s no need to ask ‘why?’ Rather, we should focus on advancing the conversation – on exploring ‘what’ and ‘how’.
What are different industries and sectors doing to drive emissions down? How are they approaching the problem? What opportunities have they discovered? What are the best practices? How are different organisations deploying technology? How can we all help, share and learn from each other?
Hoping to answer these questions and more, a recent BCS-hosted session brought together over 30 professionals from many different digitally-enabled industries, professions and perspectives and provided a forum for discovery and exchange. The event was co-created with the NHS.
Foreword by John Higgins: the need for practical thinking and light bulb moments
Data, digital and the information technology industry as a whole have unique potential when it comes to meeting the challenges of global warming.
Unique, because digital’s potential runs two-fold: it can help organisations to find efficiency through digitalising legacy processes; by moving old, paper-based operations to the cloud, IT systems can deliver huge and measurable savings across more than just balance sheets.
The IT industry itself is also focusing on being more energy efficient. Hardware and infrastructure are being designed and deployed with energy frugality engineered in, right from the requirements stage. Similarly, software and services are coded with efficiency at their heart.
With 60,000 digital professional members, BCS is uniquely placed to help organisations grow and enhance their sustainability programmes. Our collective breadth of knowledge, coupled with our stance as an experienced, independent and apolitical organisation, means that our contributions are only ever driven by our mission to make IT good for society.
The NHS is the perfect partner for an event focused on sharing ideas, knowledge and experiences; its Delivering a ‘Net Zero’ National Health Service report sets out a clear view of the challenges of the NHS and also lays out clear objectives.
Speaking at the event, Sonia Patel, System CIO (and Director of Levelling Up) for NHS England, summed up our intention for the session: ‘We’re keen to learn from everyone and to create lightbulb moments – ideas and insights which we can all take back to our organisations and act on.’
When it comes to meeting the challenges of climate change and unlocking opportunities, she said: ‘We have intent, commitment and momentum.’
Patel also outlined practical steps and thinking that the NHS is developing. She spoke of the need for creating baselines and measurements – data which will let us understand our starting point and progress in the decarbonising journey.
Addressing and hopefully solving climate change is very much a journey and one which no single organisation should attempt alone. The most potent opportunities will be found through collaboration; through sharing those ‘lightbulb’ ideas.
As you read on, you’ll see that we explored our collective ideas and shared experiences. Many can be compressed into key questions which organisations can and should be asking. Where possible, we’ve captured our experts’ ideas faithfully. But we’ve not named them directly. Encouraging the free and fluid exchange ideas, we felt, was more valuable than attribution.
I hope this report will ignite lightbulb moments in your digital, data and climate change thinking.
John Higgins CBE FBCS – BCS Immediate Past President
How do we define sustainability?
Sustainability has many definitions: it’s not just about driving out carbon. Borrowing from economics, the triple bottom line suggests that companies should broaden their focus from just profit to measuring their impact on people and the planet, too.
Elsewhere, the United Nations agreed a set of Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). There are 17 SDGs and these, according to the UN, are ‘an urgent call for action by all countries – developed and developing – in a global partnership.
They recognise that ending poverty and other deprivations must go hand-in-hand with strategies that improve health and education, reduce inequality, and spur economic growth – all while tackling climate change and working to preserve our oceans and forests.’
Our panellists felt that the first step in any journey towards a workable sustainability strategy, is to define what sustainability actually means within the context of an organisation. What’s important, what’s necessary and what’s achievable?
It’s also important, speakers emphasised, that sustainability shouldn’t be thought of as existing in a silo. When we design and engineer products, we capture requirements from many different stakeholders. Products often need to answer to specific operational necessities – confidentiality, integrity, availability and the like – we can’t undermine these at the expense of carbon.
Finally, we need to consider managing risk. Industrialisation has been changing and damaging the climate cumulatively for many decades. These changes might well prove irreversible and, as such, we’ll need to plan and design around climate and weather events.
In short, sustainability needs to be thought of holistically.
The need for measurement and baselines
To paraphrase – or even possibly misquote – the eminent 19th century scientist, Lord Kelvin: ‘If you can’t measure something, you can’t improve it.’
After agreeing how to define sustainability, our experts were emphatic: organisations need to think about measurement. Measure and benchmark your current performance, agree your goals and measure performance constantly against those.
Looking specifically at measurement, what are the key variables we should be looking to benchmark? There are, of course, many options but these are good starting points:
- Ask, are we looking at measuring digitally-enabled benefits and ICT hardware sustainability ‘costs’ – i.e., net gain?
- Explore issues around measuring/sourcing data at different scales – e.g., application vs programme vs organisation.
- Consider materiality assessment. What should we be spending our time on refining and improving?
This approach, they felt, should be built into how products and processes are made and deployed. They warned against taking a ‘technical sweet shop’ approach to design, where the newest and latest technologies are picked merely because of their novelty. Rather, when interrogating a technology against a product’s requirements, architects should also look at its sustainability credentials.
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Along with the product or process itself, architects need also to think about the resources it will need to function. Data storage, movement and data processing all require power. As such, there’s a need for data and data gathering about how a whole IT estate is performing.
Our experts felt that this was something established global giants like Apple, Microsoft, Alphabet and Meta will likely be expert at. For smaller companies, however, modelling a whole IT estate’s carbon footprint might be much more of a challenge. As such, our panel called on companies with knowledge and experience to share what they know.
The digital, data and technology playbook is a good source of further reading.
What is the CIO’s role?
Ensuring that an organisation endures and flourishes is at the heart of any business strategy. Sustainable business practices and the circular economy need to be prime considerations when making short and long-term plans.
With this in mind, our panellists argued that it is critically important that sustainability becomes hardwired into an organisation’s values and its culture. For this to happen, they felt that an organisation’s most senior leaders need to make sustainability a priority: one that they champion and live.
Mckinsey’s recent report – Buying into a more sustainable value chain – shows that ‘two-thirds of an average company’s environmental, social and governance footprint lies with suppliers. Procurement leaders who take bold action can make a decisive difference in sustainability.’
It’s tempting to think, or hope, that the greenhouse gasses your suppliers produce don’t figure in your product’s final auditable footprint. But this is, of course, wrong.
It’s essential then, our experts felt, to work closely with suppliers. Indeed, some felt it was more beneficial to form partnerships rather than to approach supply chains as purely transactional, ‘best value for money’ processes.
Organisations who have thought, documented and strategised about their own sustainability will be much better placed to communicate these measurable expectations to their partners.
It’s also worth considering sustainability in its broadest sense. Sustainable procurement policies should be written so that they protect human rights and encourage positives such as diversity, inclusion, employee wellbeing and health and safety. Our policies should also guard against child and compulsory labour.
Indeed, when procurement is involved, a buyer’s reputation is tied inexorably to the seller’s.
Sustainable procurement needs to be embedded into a buyer’s processes. The buyer needs to lead by example. The NHS, for example, is undergoing a major Carbon Disclosure Project and supplier engagement around carbon. There are also published Procurement policy notes (PPNs) which provide guidance on best practice for the public sector.
Designing for efficiency not performance
There is a risk of a conceptual disconnect between a system’s speed and complexity and that solution’s final carbon footprint.
In a way, this is understandable. Moore’s Law suggests that the number of transistors on a microprocessor will double every two years, though the actual cost of computing is halved. Historically speaking, architects have subsequently expected every new generation of processor to be faster, cheaper and more powerful than the retiring one.
The problem is, when huge amounts of computing power is accessible, designers don’t always worry about making efficient use of it.
This challenge was explored in the BCS ITNOW magazine article, Decarbonising compute: a moral (and technological) imperative:
‘Being conscious of where compute happens, relative to data, can be just as important as being conscious of what compute is being done. Moving data uses energy, with about four orders of magnitude difference in the energy required to store a bit in a local memory versus sending it off-chip by radio. In a study at Google, around 5% of datacentre energy usage was basically copying memory from one location to another. That’s why making memory copy energy-efficient is a key component of CPU design.’
Along with considering where data is stored and the carbon cost of moving data, architects and users should consider using storage more efficiently. Economical compression algorithms could reduce the storage needs, so could architecting solutions to store only what is necessary – as opposed to what’s possible.
There is the need for a wider appreciation of our choices around climate costs. Certainly, driverless cars and trains might be very safe, but all the resulting computing equipment and infrastructure has a carbon cost. We need to be aware of these costs and have conversations about the impact as we gather requirements. We need ‘a systems mindset’.
This was further illustrated by an observation about data centres. It might be better to build a data centre in a cold and remote corner of the world, as the natural coldness of the place can help the centre run more cheaply. But this geographic remoteness might add system level complexity and increase overheads.
The cost / benefit analysis of such decisions is complex, multifaceted and evolving. The data centre industry is well aware of these challenges and is, in many cases, turning them into opportunities. We have, for example, seen cases where data centres effectively donate unwanted heat to local communities who use it to keep warm.
The drive to upgrade hardware was also a source of focus among our speakers. New kit might be faster and it may well consume less electricity – but it was felt that procurement policies need to consider embedded carbon, which includes the total cost of building new kit.
It might be more beneficial to lengthen upgrade and redundancy cycles within business. Summing up the point, a speaker said: ‘The most efficient servers and hardware is most likely the stuff you have now. Move to longer upgrade cycles.’
Summarising the call for system thinking, one speaker said that, when designing, there is a tendency for our focus to be ‘on the Alligator closest to the boat. We need to think about sustainability holistically and as part of a much bigger system. All the moving parts all have benefits and risks.’
AWS’s Architecture blog on sustainability is a good source of further reading.
With electricity costs sky rocketing, our speakers felt organisations should have a conversation about their electricity supplies and suppliers.
The NHS trust that runs Southampton General and Princess Anne hospitals is expecting a £10.3m bill for this year – up from £6.8m – after a hike in costs and a growth in its activity. To offset this increase, the Trust moved to add more solar panels and smart meters.
New Cross Hospital in Wolverhampton, for example, is set to become the first NHS hospital in the UK to be powered entirely by renewable energy. That’s after planners approved a solar farm on a nearby unused piece of land.
It’s also worth noting the good work of hyperscale cloud providers here. Many, including Microsoft and Google, are really pushing renewable energy markets.
What is working right now?
Undoubtedly, when looking at the NHS, the COVID-19 pandemic created a great deal of change. The shift to home working, for example, created great ‘carbon advantages’. Thanks to the swift, timely and secure deployment of IT infrastructure, clinicians were able to hold clinics online – reducing the need for NHS staff and patients to travel, often by car.
Taking a broader view, however, home working’s carbon benefits aren’t entirely clear cut. A report from the IEA, for example, explores how carbon savings were only achieved when employees commuted longer distances.
Shorter commutes and those made by public transport, when stopped due to home working, didn’t make a real climate positive change. Consider offices too, many of which stood fallow but lit and air conditioned, while workers toiled from their homes – places which also needed heating, cooling and lighting.
Elsewhere in the NHS, the idea of smart hospitals is gathering momentum. These allow for much more efficient use of buildings, with patients navigated around using Wi-Fi-based systems. Virtual wards are being considered, coupled with IoT technology used to further enhance efficiency. ‘We need to think about what is possible,’ a speaker explained.
Our experts expressed a need for all organisations to take time to reflect. They urged leaders to ‘understand what’s working and to keep the good things that the pandemic created.’
This is particularly relevant right now, as organisations are grappling with how – and indeed, why – they should ask employees to return to work.
Beginning with education
To build a sustainable future, we need the next generation of IT experts to focus on sustainability. This means starting the discussion about technology’s potential for both climate good and harm as early as possible.
Education-focused bodies like Computing at School and Barefoot Computing play a critical role here, supporting teachers with resources. But, there is a role for industry to play. It can and should involve itself in showing, telling and inspiring the next generation of technologists.
Following with training and CPD
Moving to the working business world, there is a need for an acceleration in digital skills delivery. How those skills are defined also needs to be constantly evolving.
We need to empower users and consumers of digital technology to make informed decisions about the products they choose and how they elect to use them. This might start as simply as choosing to configure PCs and office equipment to use power saving and progress right up to people feeling empowered to question business processes and decisions through the prism of sustainability.
In short, we need training and development for everyone – not just experts. Everybody should have a view on how the technology they use impacts climate change and hopefully be equipped to question, refine and adapt their approaches.
There must also be an evolving and dynamic focus on constantly training and upskilling people. Skills development doesn’t stop when somebody leaves university, rather they leave hopefully equipped for lifelong learning; lifelong learning is essential because technology is an ever-evolving force.
For IT professionals, there’s a specific need for career and educational pathways which will facilitate their growth and development and an increased understanding of sustainable IT.
Extra insights and perspectives
The event began with two video presentations from expert speakers.
From Deloitte, Mary Mitchell and Peter Sparrow explored both the challenges and opportunities which address the climate change affords IT professionals.
Watch the video
- Enhancing efficiency will not solve the problem
- It is important to distinguish between the need to decarbonise IT and the role that IT can play in supporting climate change adaptation and mitigation
- In health care specifically, there is a need for care pathways that reduce travel emissions
- We need sustainability training tailored to digital professionals
- Sharing best practice and innovation in this space is key to unlocking co-benefits
- IT could be the first industry to decarbonise
Alex Bardell, Founder SDAdvocate and Chair of the BCS Green IT Specialist Group explored the changing nature of ICT projects in the NHS.
Watch the video
Summary: the power of collaboration and an end to silos
Given how the IT industry has a larger carbon footprint that the aviation industry, it’s encouraging to see that the journey to net zero in technology is promising and inspiring.
While it is inspiring to see so many professionals dedicated to finding a solution through technology, there’s still space for more action and focus. Digital, it should be remembered, isn’t just about technology. It is about people, culture and the processes of the internet era. Digital requires us to reimagine things from the ground up.
This means there’s a need for a greater emphasis on education – not just with colleagues across business – but with young people coming through schools and higher education. How we all choose to behave will impact our collective future.
We also need to be aware of unintended consequences. IT is not an end in itself, but a conduit through which we can significantly contribute to the global mission to combat the climate crisis.
If used deliberately, professionally designed solutions can bring about huge levels of change. In order to ensure that technology is used as a force for good in this valiant mission, we must place at the core of everything we do competent, ethical and accountable professionals.
Finally, we need to share insight about what works. There’s little point in trumpeting a website with a minimal carbon footprint. What we need to share is information, facts and learnings about the systems behind those savings.
Sonia Patel offered a conclusion: ‘The reason why this is so incredibly important is, we all hold a personal responsibility to ensure a better future for generations to come. I can’t take responsibility for it but, I like the phrase “Data equals power and power equals carbon dioxide.” That’s a great summary: measure what you know, convert that into the changes you can make and then seek out support from other industries – they might have applicability in terms of actions and interventions you can make.’