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IT Sustainability Think Tank: How to bake green thinking into IT projects in 2024

Richard Barnes-Webb

By Richard Barnes-Webb

Computer Weekly

15 December 2023

The next year is going to be the year that sustainability becomes commonplace in IT projects. Cop28 has had many media headlines in the last few weeks and although the coverage has been accompanied by cynicism there is an upside: it has pushed sustainability further into the daily conversation. And I have two hopes for the year ahead, outlined below.

On the expectation that sustainability does become run of the mill, I’d like to promote the notion of ‘Green Tech Debt’. This would be one of the simplest ways of identifying the impact your services have on the climate – and then making time each day to do something about it.

For example, the practice of DevOps – creating tools and processes to deliver software – is a trade older than Fortran (probably). However, by giving something a name (acknowledged to be a difficult task in itself) gives it focus, and its harsh syllables create a sense of immediacy.

My proposal is to bring about ‘Green Tech Debt’ as a standard project term, in the same way that phrases such as ‘best practice’ and ‘pipeline’ are applied in meetings as everyday business terms. The intention is that most projects will by default have a parallel stream of work running alongside the standard functional delivery and non-functional requirements.

As a part of ‘typical’ tech debt, it will have a two-birds-with-one-stone benefit of functional remediation and bringing about sustainable change, contributing to an organisation’s overall emission targets.

During my own journey in sustainability, I’ve found selling sustainability as a stand-alone IT endeavour is not easy. There are few departments that will budget for a greener re-architecture, for example, or refactoring that does not provide any additional business benefit. Therefore, my challenge for the new year is to give all your IT projects a green tinge.

And one way to do this is by instituting Green Tech Debt. That is, taking the trouble to add tickets to your Jira backlog (or whichever issue-tracking platform you use) that have a sustainable outcome. This almost trojan horse approach will bring sustainability to just about any project without the need to set up a separate endeavour.

What gets measured gets managed, and measurement gives your sustainability endeavour substance. Green Tech Debt should either be added to your sustainability reporting and/or even better: you should be able to see an impact on your existing dashboards.

Now, a somewhat more general hope for the forthcoming year is not just cutting the impact of IT itself, but also to have IT contributing to the overall reduction of greenhouse gas emissions generally.

The stand-out candidate here is artificial intelligence (AI). What better problem than a Gaia-sized problem that’s too complex for any given mind, combined with the momentous volumes of data available that AI models depend on? AI has clearly matured from a solution looking for a problem into an applicable and practical tool. And there is no doubt that AI will be the prominent part of the sustainability conversation next year.

Of course, I’m aware that AI has already been put to task in this arena, and also the environmental cost of training those models is considerable. But simply cutting the emissions of all those traveling salesmen must result in a net benefit to the climate. Optimising shipping routes or resource extraction, for example, would undeniably demonstrate emission reductions for non-technology sectors.

Finally, I hope that next year will include a conscious looking-back exercise. By that I mean, looking at how far we’ve traveled down the sustainability path – and sustainability in IT specifically. It’s quite clear that as a planet, we have a long way to go to meet the ‘1.5 to stay alive’ goal. But we need to celebrate the small successes and increments – so that we collectively sense progress and achievement in our effort to green IT.

This article was first published in Computer Weekly

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