The Role of Design in Reducing Technology's Carbon Footprint
The Covid-19 pandemic has driven a swift global transition towards remote working. Reliant on our devices for jobs, social interaction and entertainment, digital consumption has drastically increased, one study estimating by up to 75%.
As a result, whilst overall energy usage in western countries fell on average by 15-20% for each month of lockdown, domestic electricity demand soared by up to 40% as people embraced the obligatory home working life.
Elsewhere, the perpetual hype around crypto currency and NFTs has seen a wave of enthusiasts around the world setting up Bitcoin mining rigs to benefit from its persistent popularity and promised utopian value. The enormous nation-equivalent power incurred by this intensive computational process is quite rightly now being highlighted by mainstream advocates and cynics alike.
We are in a state of constant and exciting technological innovation but with such a rapid rate of progress it’s easy to lose sight of how the digital services we use, and the devices we rarely turn off, are actually fuelled.
If the internet was a country, it would be the world’s sixth biggest polluter...
The internet consumes a vast amount of electricity—416.2 TWh each year to be exact. To put that into context, the United Kingdom’s total annual consumption is around 300 TWh. In fact, it's estimated that the communication industry “could use 20% of all the world’s electricity by 2025”.
If you take a moment to consider the data centres, transmission networks, raw materials and charging that feed into the personal devices we hold day in, day out, that prediction isn’t exactly far-fetched. Factor in the resulting 1.6Bn annual tonnes of greenhouse gas emissions, and the wider issue becomes abundantly clear.
Looking beyond Covid-19, the climate crisis is likely to be the defining news story of ours and our childrens’ lives, with nations around the world committing to ambitious, and vital, carbon neutrality targets. The proliferation of digital products and their associated carbon footprint ensures that these two topics are inherently intertwined.
What’s this got to do with design?
Awareness of our environmental impact as a global community has never been greater and, regardless of industry, consumers expect the brands they interact with to be conscientious about the climate. That consideration involves each and every brand touchpoint, including websites and apps.
So the question is, if continual digital transformation is imperative for commercial innovation and progress...
How can we as designers ensure the digital products we create are as energy efficient and environmentally considerate as possible?
If you were looking to isolate a single cause of a high digital carbon footprint, it’s data. It takes energy to download, store, share and retrieve it. More data equals more energy, with the server farms underpinning the entire system needing 24/7 power and air conditioning.
In a world that is increasingly obsessed with data collection, addressing this may seem like an impossible task. However, what this means is that to reduce energy wastage we simply need to cut excess kilobytes swamping our pages. Or to put it another way, incorporating sustainable design principles into your digital strategy isn’t just good for the planet, it’s also much better for your users’ experience.
By improving your UX design, you naturally improve your website’s sustainability
A fundamental aspect of a considered UX process involves the auditing and refinement of components that distract the users’ focus from the task they’re looking to complete. This process improves the quality of the interaction with a system and thus reduces the volume of data generated.
Sustainable design can, and should, be considered as an extension of accessibility principles, with maximum efficiency of journeys for all users being the ultimate goal. The World Wide Web Consortium’s ‘Web Content Accessibility Guidelines (WCAG 2.0)’ are the main international standards steering digital products to be more accessible for people with disabilities. However, championing their four content pillars of perceivable, operable, understandable and robust also in turn provides a better experience for everyone by facilitating task completion with minimal friction.
A couple of examples of how these could be interpreted for environmental considerations are:
More page loads means more energy used, and so helping users find what they're looking for with minimal effort is vital. A well structured navigation with clearly labelled menus, logically categorised information architecture and an easily accessed search function represent some easy wins.
Optimising loading speed
Improving speed and usability will have the added benefit of compatibility with Google’s increasingly tight requirements for user experience, most recently manifested in their Core Web Vitals update.
What immediate action can brands take to improve their online eco-credentials?
Obviously a complete overhaul of your digital properties isn't an immediate or inexpensive endeavour, and so here are three steps that a business can take straight away to begin moving the needle in the right direction:
Understand your digital carbon footprint
Organisations likely assess the environmental impact of their physical properties, products and supply chains, but auditing digital properties in the same fashion is rare. Digital footprints grow as websites & apps are launched, content is produced, marketing updates are shared, virtual workshops are hosted and so on. A deep-dive of these touchpoints may well reveal areas for subtle but significant sustainability improvements. A great starting point is to use a website carbon calculator like this one, to see how your site’s planetary impact compares to the average.
Scrutinize your web hosting
Challenge your web host to answer a few important questions such as whether the server is running on the latest and most efficient tech stack, and whether the system is powered by 100% renewable sources. If this isn’t the case, then switching to a green host is a fast and effective step in the right direction.
Be transparent with your customers
The subject of taking sustainability beyond the physical and into the digital is still in its infancy, with different businesses needing myriad approaches depending on their online requirements. For instance, luxury brand sites are typically visual and rich format heavy thus requiring a distinct strategy versus, say, a more subtle B2B portal. By actioning environmental considerations such as these and being candid about digital sustainability as an educational journey, there’s a fantastic opportunity to display a brand’s ethical credentials and lead from the front.
What does the future hold?
With global climate agreements increasing consumer awareness and driving industrial legislation, it’s safe to say that the concept of a brand’s ‘digital footprint’ will gradually demand a higher profile.
We’ve seen accreditations such as B-Corp become a common means for companies to proudly display their commitment to a cause. In a similar fashion some websites have begun implementing CO2 footer tickers to confidently place their efficiency front and centre.
It’s hard to say what specific certifications may arise when it comes to designing and building low-carbon digital products but, with principles so closely aligned to an elegant and considered user experience, at MOF our commitment to the issue for ourselves and our clients will remain paramount.