Life sustaining

December 2015

Bluetit birdBob Crooks MBCS, MBE, Chair of the BCS Green IT Specialist Group, reflects on the impacts of our increasing dependency on ICT and digital services in our daily lives.

Our dependency on ICT is driven by pressures on us to do things more efficiently, to be ‘online’, to shop, to meet our regulatory and legal obligations cost-efficiently, and / or to have the latest ‘gizmo’ to keep up with our peers.

This dependency is also increasing pressure on the underlying storage capacity, networks, power supplies and data centres required to support those services, and many of us in the UK, let alone the rest of the world, have still to connect.

With basic functionality being delivered by all access devices, the focus of industry is now on adding value and keeping or extending market share through more cosmetic enhancements, such as colour, shape or different ways of wearing devices.

Perhaps, given the huge gains made in helping those with physical limb disabilities to manipulate and control artificial limbs and implants sometimes with processors embedded in the brain, we could ultimately be moving from Google glasses to Matrix implants?

We should not underestimate the social pressures to be online stirred up by the media, celebrities and our own peers on the playground or at work. Witness the huge crowds seeking to acquire the next version of the iPad or iPhone, versions which may only offer an additional minor function or two or a new shape / style.

This commoditisation has led to devices being thrown away for seemingly frivolous reasons, such as not being right for the fashion or style of the times or not having the latest gizmo function button. If we are to stop generating ever-increasing amounts of e-waste, we need take-back schemes such as that regulated for batteries and close the loop by returning stuff to the original manufacturer who is then under pressure to reuse, recycle.

Can that dependency continue to grow?

Certainly the UK Government thinks so, and is looking at policies and strategies that promote the digital information economy and digital-by-default government services. And manufacturers and service providers continue to lure us into more digital investments with the latest devices and services that are increasingly taking advantage of the internet of things and sensors to enable, for example, control of household appliances from wherever you are.

We need fast, reliable, secure and increasingly comprehensive and integrated digital services, but these come at a cost, often hidden and not clearly understood at the point of purchase or use. Everything that these services require, from cables to switches to servers, from mobile to smartphones, from PCs to tablets, has to grow in capacity and functionality to deliver the insatiable appetite we have for digital services.

These hardware components have an intrinsic value reflecting the consumption of resources that goes into their production and operation, and finally into their safe recycling and disposal. So recognising that we need them, we should make sure we exploit them fully to harvest the return they promise us and which we need to get if this take of resources and natural capital over their life cycle is to be more than matched by the savings we are able to derive from their use in all aspects of our lives.

So how are we doing?

Our consumption of energy to power the assets that provide our digital services is growing in spite of the greater efficiency of the assets themselves. In 2013 research published on The Register1 indicated that ICT was globally now taking some 10 per cent of the world’s electricity supply.

According to DCDi Census figures for 2013, the UK data centre industry used about 3.1GW of power and this was expected to rise to 3.68GW in 2016. Data centres accounted for 1.2 per cent of UK power consumed in 20132.

UK Government is waking up to the unique challenges and opportunities provided by our information economy and the data centre contribution to that.

Business Green reported3 that data centres, whilst already contributing around five per cent of the value of UK goods and services, have a turnover that is growing at around 15 per cent a year. Part of the growth is driven by the rise of cloud services, which subsequently increases the sector’s already hefty energy demand.

With the UK being one of the top global locations for data centres, this has led to the government in 2014 removing large data centre operators from the Carbon Reduction Commitments (CRC) energy efficiency scheme. Instead they are now being covered by the Climate Change Agreement regime, a regime originally brought in for energy demanding industries.

In return for meeting the targets set in those agreements, operators are able to make savings on their climate change levies. For example, the agreement reached between the industry, as represented by TechUK and the Department for Energy and Climate Change (DECC) requires improved cooling4.

It is believed that the National Grid, in coping with a reduction in spare capacity from 17 per cent in 2011 to four per cent this year, is in discussion with the larger data centre operators for help with keeping the power flowing at times of peak demand, for example, by having local back-up generators switched on and grid power switched off.

Alongside the increasing power demands of the industry, our ICT assets consume other resources just as voraciously, including oil for plastics, rare metals for the electrics and displays, and water in production processes. Whilst there have been enormous increases in the efficiency of extraction, it is the pure volumes that remain of concern with known reserves of metals expected to fall below levels of demand in the coming years.

What can we do?

However, there are other stories to balance this rather gloomy picture. These are not based on the ‘take’ of the ICT industry but on the ‘give back’ that ICT can and does bring to our lives, organisations and services.

We need to invest to meet the resources demanded by a growing ICT sector, rather than seek to limit that demand or leave demand management to market forces, as ICT now provides critical services that are and will increasingly sustain our lives and reduce our dependency on harvesting fresh resources from the planet’s reserves.

So what does this mean for us as digital leaders in our organisations? It means that we need to:

  • know where our energy and resources consumptions occur;
  • look at life cycle impacts from cradle to grave and resurrection;
  • know the risks we take when adopting cloud services.

In BCS, the Green Specialist Group is seeking to widen the debate and awareness of these issues through the coming year, by focusing on three key themes:

  • internet of things;
  • energy and ICT;
  • education, training and awareness.

Watch the web page5 for more details on events, lessons learnt and best practices. Join us and give us your views and experience in tackling these issues.


Image: iStockPhoto/154321250

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