Eco-design, one lever against digital impacts

Why is the eco-design becoming a hot topic?

The digital world is far from being immaterial. The user devices, the datacentres and the physical network are enabling the whole digital system to operate. When talking about environmental impacts, we must consider the whole life cycle (schema on the right) of a product (that can fit for a service with slight adjustments) and we must take into consideration the indirect connected impacts.

For example, a company is developing a software that is so complex and heavy that no devices older than 4 years will be able to run that software. Considered alone, the software might have a light impact, but considering the impact the software has on the life cycle of the user device, this increases drastically the environmental impacts. All the equipment require raw material, energy, water all along their life cycle (from their production, to their use and their end-of-life). This leads the digital to generate more GreenHouse Gases (GHG) than the civil aviation (respectively 4% against 2.5%) and to consume 80 times more energy than the whole Belgium over the same period.

How to understand the Eco-design approach?

What if, before even starting a project, from the ideation, the design phase and all along the development and the life cycle of a project, we would consider the environmental aspects, at the same level of other aspects (economic, technical). It would require the stakeholders to be trained on these aspects and considerations, to set measurable indicators, to monitor them all along the life of the project and to assess the success of the project (partly) based on these environmental Key Performance Indicators (KPIs).

These are the basics of applying an Eco-design approach.

Eco-design is the systematic integration of environmental aspects from the definition design & development of a product (goods, services, systems) with the objective of reducing negative environmental impact throughout their life cycle […].

What are the challenges the Eco-design tackles?

As we discussed previously, the digital has tangible impacts on the environment, at different stages of its lifecycle. It is major to extend the life of our devices. On average, we change our smartphone every 18 to 24 month. Most of the time, we do not change it because it is broken but because of the psychological and/or technical obsolescence. Voluntarily or by neglect, companies may drastically shorter the life of a device by design (easily breakable, difficult to repair) or by technical features (slowdowns in use, incompatibilities between the operating system and applications/software).

Ideally, in order to amortize the manufacturing impact of our digital devices, we should use our smartphones for 5 years and our computers for 10 years and this is only achievable by implementing eco-design into the development of the digital products and services. Having solid & reparable terminals and promote circularity in our consumption, but also, produce digital services as universal as possible, that can be displayed on the existing devices, adopt architectures that ensure the maintainability of the tools over the time. 

Digital services do not only have an impact on the lifespan of a device but is a key factor in the energy consumption during the use phase. Having light codes may help in reducing this consumption.

Another issue in the digital is the exponential increase of our demand for data. Below, is a graph showing the annual evolution of worldwide data volumes and a projection to 2025.

These data must be stored in datacenters and are transiting through the physical network. This leads to an increase of physical infrastructure needs and thus an increase of the overall energy consumption of the digital. Here again, by developing lighter digital services, with architectures designed to have less requests transiting through the network, we might manage to slower our volumes of data.

Concretely, how to adopt an Eco-design approach?

We don’t have to be a developer to adopt an eco-design approach. Of course, many technical tricks have to be applied for lowering the impact of a digital service, such as:

  • reducing the number of queries made to databases
  • making transversal components that can be reused for other features
  • limiting the page reloads
  • paying attention to the hosting companies (and especially their use of renewable energies)
  • optimizing the calculation algorithms and reduce CPU and network load times for minimizing energy consumptions.

Among the less technical and more functional tricks, we can:

  • Simplifying the pages and the content by focusing on users’ needs and thus removing superfluous contents (carousels, unwanted redirections, animations, automatic video/sounds plays)
  • Using standard fonts
  • Limit the use of image, videos, heavy downloadable documents (at least make sure to compress and reduce resolution)

The Institute for Sustainable IT (ISIT) Belgium published a very comprehensive handbook (available via this link) compiling 491 recommendations covering 8 topics (backend, frontend, strategy, hosting…). This can be a support to assess how far the eco-design has been applied to a project and gives key guidelines on how to implement it.

In conclusion

Whether crazy or well thought out, these actions taken at the beginning of a project would have a significant impact without slowing down innovation. We must be conscious how the digital has an environmental impact, and as actors in this field, we should work towards the common goal of reducing these impacts.

Yes, digital technology does pollute, but it also allows the optimization of the major greenhouse gas emission sources (industry 40%, building use 20%, transport 15%…). It would be a shame not to seize the opportunity to reduce emissions in these sectors.

So let’s perpetuate this technology via eco-design to move as best we can towards digital sobriety while taking advantage of these benefits!

Adrien Panzer

ADEME (2020) Le numérique : aubaine ou fléau ? (Apr., 2020)

ADEME (Agence de la transition écologique) (2019) La face cachée du numérique : réduire les impacts du numérique sur l’environnement (nov., 2019)

ADEME (Agence de la transition écologique) (2019) Les impacts du smartphone : un téléphone pas si « smart » pour l’environnement (Dec., 2019)

ADEME (Agence de la transition écologique), Institute for Sustainable IT (2022) The guide of Sustainable IT good practices

F. Bordage, (nov. 2019) Environmental footprint of the digital world (2021) Impacts environnementaux du numérique en France : étude « iNum »

INR (Institut du numérique responsable) (2021) 2021 WENR : rapport public : état des lieux de l’impact des systèmes d’information des organisations européennes Reinsel D., Gantz J., Rydning J. (2018), The Digitization of the World from Edge to Core