How green can a digital transformation be?

The race to adopt tech such as AI and the cloud is a concern for firms with net-zero commitments. Raconteur asked four experts in the field to explain the key issues 

Two Business Colleagues At Meeting In Modern Office Interior

Organisations worldwide are grappling with the challenge of ensuring that their digital transformations are sustainable. There are compelling ethical and commercial reasons why their leaders must understand the ESG implications of cloud data storage.

With these issues in mind, Raconteur hosted a roundtable discussion on how companies can best approach them, inviting four expert contributors: Jacqueline Tejeda Carnot, IT director for Roche in western Europe; Chris Taylor, sustainability lead at Philips UKI; Karin Svensson, chief sustainability officer at Volvo Group and Julio Guijarro, field CTO for Red Hat in EMEA.

JG: One of our current challenges in our industry is to understand and measure what and how we are consuming energy, because IT is a big energy user. Upcoming regulations mean that we’ll need to report on not only our company’s consumption but also that of its surrounding ecosystem. With this information there is a lot we can do to improve.
JTC: You need to consider whether the intention to measure your company’s carbon footprint is part of its strategy or not. People will start caring about the carbon footprint of their company if that’s baked into their objectives.
KS: In applying AI to all the data our vehicles generate, we are making transportation much more efficient. Yet the emissions from this tech, while small at present, are a growing proportion of our total. Like other companies, the challenge here is that our awareness of our IT carbon emissions remains limited because there’s no standardised measurement method.
CT: We’re seeing from our work with the NHS that the health industry is moving into digital data faster than any other sector. We already have archives storing medical Information in petabytes of data. That adds to the complexity when managing carbon footprints.

Q: What are some of the key challenges concerning physical infrastructure and energy requirements?

CT: As a leading health technology company, Philips knows that hospitals often look at two years’ worth of data on an ongoing basis, so that’s where dedicated servers are helpful. However, technological developments – notably, in AI – should help address these issues.
JTC: The growing volume of data that’s moving into the cloud poses a sustainability challenge. New tech such as federated architecture and AI can help with this, but it uses lots of energy. So, while you get the benefits on the business side, it’s a challenge on the environmental side.
JG: People forget that there’s a limit on physical infrastructure such as cabling and cooling, and this sets the boundaries for how much compute and storage we can deploy in a location. With the advent of AI it’s more important than ever to understand the impact of those workloads in terms of extra energy usage.

Q: Whose responsibility is it to find a more sustainable solution to the data storage problem?

KS: It is the responsibility of all of us. This must be incorporated into every company’s sustainability and business strategy. We need cross-company cooperation, but we must also collaborate with other organisations to agree on a standardised approach.
JTC: Leaders need to be aware of sustainability to lead towards a sustainability objective. At Roche, people at all levels are creating such objectives in how they work. They’re asking how to bring sustainability into the design process. So, if we’re creating an application, we’re asking questions such as: “How and where will this be stored? How accessible is it? Will it be sustainable?”
CT: Philips is advanced when it comes to sustainability. We know it’s a team game. Nobody wins unless we all win. I’d encourage people to cooperate and learn from those who are further along the sustainability journey.

Q: What part should IT architects play in advancing the sustainability agenda?

JTC: The architects have a key role in the infrastructure choices a firm makes and a part to play in guiding the whole organisation to incorporate sustainability in its technology choices. But they’re not the only ones who need to play their part in optimising models and operations – leaders need to be conscious of this, too.
KS: Things are already moving in the right direction, but sustainability has historically been widely viewed as an afterthought to any given process, not just in IT. It needs to be more integrated than that. In the IT sector, sustainability must be built into processes and systems from the start.
JG: As IT leaders, we know how much data is being consumed but it can still be hard to optimise a data centre when you don’t know what’s inside. We need to start optimising with the use of automation and AI, and identifying the best way of running our business processes, considering their sustainability impact, the same way we consider security or resilience. We also need to identify the best way of running servers. Leaders spend a lot of time considering the security of data centres, but we need to start considering sustainability. I don’t think we have that mentality yet in IT.

JTC: AI is no panacea. It needs lots of data to make accurate forecasts. In the case of sustainability, the execution must happen on the human side, but I look forward to seeing an AI tool that can assess a given situation, predict what might happen and offer some potential solutions.
CT: Our digital technology innovations do just this, such as using AI to process MRI patient images - the quicker you can get through that procedure, the less energy you consume and technology like this can help track emissions.
KS: Volvo Group has realised that data can be used to optimise things such as battery performance, ultimately leading to more sustainable transportation. We are using AI in the development of various digital tools to help users understand how to reduce their carbon footprint.

Q: It’s clear that this is a huge challenge. Can an organisation ever become truly digitally sustainable?

CT: Our focus is to deliver digital innovations with sustainable impact. People see this as a massive subject, but you need to start somewhere. Unless you start acting and measuring, nothing will change.
JG: To be digitally sustainable is to be aware of everything you could be doing and measuring it from an initial understanding. Saying “we’re going to improve sustainability by 50%” means little if you don’t know your baseline.
KS: To become truly sustainable, we must report on it – both internally, so we can discuss it, and externally, so we can benchmark ourselves against other firms and sectors. That’s at least a sign that a company is really trying, but more than that it is increasingly essential to our climate goals.

Francesca Cassidy, Raconteur’s deputy editor, chaired the roundtable.