How to Make Digital Services More Sustainable

June 10, 2022

Pixel Pioneers, Bristol

Talk synopysis

Humanity is facing an unprecedented crisis from the effects of climate change. The science is clear: The world is warming, and the breakdown of our climate has begun. There’s no denying this is scary stuff and requires all industries to take action, including the tech sector.

Many people are still under the notion that digital is intrinsically green and even good for the environment. But if the internet was a country it would be the seventh biggest emitter of carbon in the world, and it’s thought to produce more carbon emissions than the aviation industry. The cloud isn’t as fluffy and harmless as we’re led to believe…

In this talk, we’ll discuss how:

  • digital technologies cause climate impacts
  • anyone – designers, developers, directors etc – can take meaningful action to improve the sustainability of the tech they build, manage, and use
  • to spot greenwashing in the sector.


Reflections and conversations

I really enjoyed my experience at Pixel Pioneers. It was my first time speaking at an in-person conference in over 2.5 years and I’ve got to admit I did feel nervous. But getting nerves is all part and parcel of giving a talk and keeps you sharp. And what better place to get back into the swing of things but in my beloved city of Bristol (I don’t live here anymore but I will always consider it the place that formed me most).

The talk went well, and there was no audience Q&A directly after which is super refreshing. It meant that people who wanted to chat some more came up to me at the end and we had meaningful convo, rather than me feeling I had to quick fire some clever answer in front of everyone, which I am not best at.

Where the tech industry is at when considering sustainability

About a third of the way into my talk I asked for some audience participation/feedback. I asked everyone to stand if they were willing and able.

Electricity sources

I asked the audience to sit down if they had never considered the source of electricity that powers the digital tech they use. My hunch was that the digital tech industry has become quite aware of this, one of my premises in my side project, Hardly anyone sat down, literally like maybe two people did. I was surprised. I had expected most people to remain standing not everyone. I found that a very hopeful sign. I think maybe two or three years ago we wouldn’t have seen that.

Raw materials in phones

I then asked the audience to sit down if they had never considered what goes into making their phone, specifically the rare raw materials like lithium, cobalt etc. I’d say 90% of people remained standing. Now this really surprised me. It seems that there is strong awareness of the environmental and social cost of building devices. It was absolutely brilliant to see.

Water use in data centers

The last question. I asked the audience to sit down if they have never considered the water use in data centers before. At this point the vast majority of the people remaining standing did sit down. I think maybe 10% of the room was left standing. This was a bit more like what I was expecting. I was really glad to be able to share with the attendees that data centers do indeed typically use a fuckload of water to stay cool.


Here’s a few of the conversations and questions that came up

Is my company sustainable by accident?

I really enjoyed this convo with Ben Seymour from Vercel. Ben came up to me at the end and said he thought his company was actually doing most of the things I had listed as probably being a part of creating a sustainable internet. But until that point, he snd his org hadn’t recognised that as sustainability. We talked about inclusive hiring policies, making all code open source, the work that has gone into performant delivery and much more. We agreed to chat some more and look creating a case study on how their business is sustainable.

Hope from young people

I had a lovely chat with another lady who runs her own publishing company. Stupidly, I didn’t write her name down which was a shame as we had a genuinely great conversation and I felt a real connection. We discussed sustainability broadly and one of the things she told me about was the GCSE in sustainability her son was currently studying for. She said a lot of the stuff I covered in my talk was covered in the GCSE, and that young people were way ahead of us in learning about this stuff. BOth of us found that really inspiring and gave us hope for the future. We got on to talking about 4 day weeks which her company had implemented a year or so ago, and what it is like to be in a leadership role as a woman.

Lithium mining in Chile

I got chatting to Laura who is from the north of Chile. She told me about a region in the north of Chile, close to where she is from, that has swapped a healthy river ecosystem for a lithium mine. SInce the mine has strated to operate the river is gone. This has affected local communities who used to live on and farm the land. These stories of the downsides of our need for raw materials are REAL. I’ve never been to Chile so I enjoyed hearing from Laura first hand about what she has witnessed.

What are the skills people need for the future?

I had a long and far-ranging chat with David Ringsell about topics like climate coaching, staying positive (see below), meditation and more. One question he asked me twas what skills do people need for the future, given the converging disasters happening or about to happen? eg climate change actually biting in the UK (lack of food, energy etc), the situation in the Ukraine and possible further geo-political disasters, growing inequality etc.

I’ve never really thought a lot about this question, but I think it’s a good one. The first thing that came to my mind was the biggest skill is that people need to relearn patience and the joy of slowing down, especially within the tech sector. We have so much stimulation from computers, being online and the speed with which our industry runs that we never take the time to pause. We seldom take the time to be grateful for what we have, and we certainly don’t value all the priviledges we have. I think the skill that we might most value in the future in being comfortable with being slower. Slower to respond, slower for others to respond, a slower rate of change.


Where do you get your hope from?

Another topic of conversation that came up from a few people I got chatting too was where does my hope come from? How do you stay optimistic?

It’s a good question and one I grapple with constantly. Staring down the barrel of societal and environmental breakdown is hard, especially when it is your job and you do it day in and day out.

I guess firstly I should say I actively work on my mental health and I see it is part of my role to stay optimistic. It doesn’t just happen that I am optimistic, I work to ensure that is the case. Specifically here’s some of my tactics:

  • I make sure I get plenty of time off, I’m taking 6 weeks off in total this summer for example
  • I try and give myself flexibility in my week and work to where my energy levels allow. So if the weather is nice during the week, I work outside where feasible. Or take a few hours off in the middle of the day to enjoy it and catch up later (meeting commitments not with standing of course!). I ensure my work does not stop me from doing the things I love most: spending time with my husband and dog, gardening, being out in nature, doing sports etc.
  • I look for the positives in people. My subscription to Positive News helps with this a great deal. People can be beautiful, wonderful, creative and above all else surprising. I seek this out every single day.
  • I work with people I like and enjoy being around.
  • And possibly the most important point: I’m taking action. I’m doing what I can to make a difference and to nudge things into a more constructive direction. I have aligned my work to fit this purpose and work with others that share the same goal. I don’t feel impotent or powerless. I feel empowered and like I am making a difference in the spaces I work in. Speaking to others about the problems we find ourselves in, and the potential solutions helps me keep going.