FEATURE – Not many people know that digital technology and the IT industry are rife with environmental waste. Discovering it and eliminating early can have beneficial effects on both the business world and the planet.
Words: Kelly Singer, Director, Lean Green Institute and board member of Institut Lean France
Millions of pounds of CO2 are pumped into the air every minute, most of them a result of unnecessary work or, in other words, waste. Not only are we abetting the planet to overheat at an accelerating pace – exacerbating social inequality, threatening the world's species and habitats, and depleting our natural resources – but we are doing so without creating any value to counterbalance our negative effects.
This transgression is quite easy to recognize in industries that produce tangible goods we encounter in our day-to-day lives. But in digital technology, environmental waste (business actions or outputs that bring no value to the environment) like CO2 pollution represents a much more opaque phenomenon that largely remains invisible – but not less dangerous. In addition to server farms, cable highways, and massive network centers none of us would be able to point at, airy nomenclature such as “the cloud” and “wireless” services aid the perception of digital technology being a carbon-light industry.
Unfortunately, this is an inaccurate assumption: the IT industry is often rife with waste, both operational and environmental. Digital technology now accounts for as much carbon release as all air travel. According to Greenpeace, if the electricity used by digital technology was compiled, it would rank sixth among all nations, and it’s getting bigger. What is scarier is that, compared to manufacturing, digital technology is an industry still in its infancy: the 2015 State of Connectivity Report reveals that four billion people around the world are not connected, yet. The more digital technology expands, the further it will deepen its level of interconnectedness within the environment, placing greater pressure on our physical infrastructure and planet.
What’s more is that, ironically, the likelihood of IT errors and defects is on the rise, as demand for non-stop innovation to remain competitive has placed speed on a pedestal above quality, with defects and overproduction being tolerated, or even expected. This idea has also permeated tech culture, as demonstrated by the long-standing “Move fast and break things” mantra, widely used at Facebook and across Silicon Valley. The world is moving fast, and we’re leaving a lot of waste in our wake.
The problem is not software that requires a lot of CPU resources and therefore energy. It’s the software pieces that waste a lot of CPU resources because muda has been allowed to survive in the code. Let’s look at one of the biggest trends of this decade: the migration of data from data centers to the cloud. Cloud technology provides unparalleled value in some instances (streamlining processes, for example), but the move is primarily cost driven. In this post, the former CIO of Dow Jones recounts the company’s migration in 2013: “[The migration to the cloud] led to a business case to save or reallocate more than $100 million in costs across all of News Corp (our parent company) by migrating 75% of our applications to the cloud as we consolidated 56 data centers into 6.”
Indeed, the cloud offers incredible cost-saving potential for large companies, but it can quickly become an accomplice to waste. In Economics 101 we learn the connection between price and value and that, when the cost of not-wasting is greater than the cost of wasting (both financially and effort required) relative to profits or income, there is more incentive to waste. Food waste is a perfect example of this behaviour: the low cost of food in high-income countries results in 95-115 kg of food wasted per individual each year, while consumers in Sub-Saharan Africa and South/Southeast Asia waste only 6-11 kg per year according to the Food and Agriculture Organization of the United Nations.
In the same way, storing data on the cloud is so inexpensive (compared to managing a data center) that it’s cheaper to leave dead code in the system than finding it, deleting it and testing. That dead code, however, will continue to use CPU resources, slowing performance and wasting energy. It will also begin to turn software brittle, forcing programmers to constantly build around and on top of ancient code, which greatly impairs their ability to revise and improve. In Improving Software Quality to Drive Business Agility, Melinda-Carol Ballou explains that over 60% of companies reported that their code base is more complex today than ever before. What’s worse, without incentives for quality, organizations often prevent their IT departments from providing the best solution through more productive and efficient coding, forcing them to deliver the product that Operations has specified.
Agile drew a lot of inspiration from lean, especially with regards to Just-in-Time (the right pillar of the Toyota Production System house). Alas, it is largely void of the left pillar, Jidoka, which strives to stop waste at the earliest sign and deepen our technical mastery. As a deadly disease, environmental waste is no exception – prevention and early detection are paramount.
Learning to see environmental waste, finding its root cause, and eliminating the problem as early as possible in our operations is what will help us meet targets like the Paris Climate Agreement and the Sustainable Development Goals. It will also make us more productive, and nowhere is this more true than in digital technology. Fixing defects that result in wasted resources in the earliest stages will save 10 times the cost, time, and energy required to fix the same defect post-release.
Thankfully, a cultural shift from the ground up is taking place: software engineers, who have seen the quality link for years, have organized a global movement around more energy efficient and productive computer engineering. For instance, Frederic Bordage, the founder of GreenIT.fr, is building a community of learning and advocacy that has inspired thousands to optimize their own technical mastery and learn to see waste in digital technology. His goal is to help stop defects at the earliest point possible, while they are still in the programmer’s head.
Customers and institutions are catching on as well. Demand for green tech is on the rise from consumers and public institutions who want greater insights into the emissions produced by their digital services. Bruno Thomas of classe.io discovered this niche early on and provides green webmail for professional services in France. Even the Facebook mantra changed a few years ago.
One day soon, we can be sure that digital technology will be powered by renewable energy. However, there is an important lesson to be learned here: when carbon emissions become the great gaffe of our past (which they will), there is a risk that the environmental waste we struggle to see remains in our work. “The most dangerous kind of waste is the waste we do not recognize,” Shigeo Shingo once said. Indeed, waste is the greatest threat to achieving a high quality of life on a healthy planet.
Lean is about developing a culture of detecting harm early on and creating value across the entire system for everyone involved – people, planet, and businesses. Even though our world is becoming greener and greener, lean learning will continue to help us strive for an ever-better planet and, who knows, accelerate its improvement.
A theme of Lean Green Day is Lean and Green Tech. Learn first hand from Frederic Bordage of GreenIT.fr and Bruno Thomas, founder of Classe.io, among other leading experts, how they are leveraging lean to build more productive systems that generate value for people and planet, while creating profits.