From education to employment

Let’s make digital sustainability in education a norm, not just a nice to have 

Cal Innes Exclusive

Are you aware of how the use of technology can impact the carbon footprint of your institution? The latest blog from Cal Innes, Jisc’s sustainability specialist, outlines the challenges and opportunities of digital sustainability, and provides support and guidance to make positive, long-lasting change. 

In my role as sustainability subject specialist at Jisc, I am increasingly speaking to members looking for guidance on addressing the environmental impact of their information and communication technology (ICT) infrastructure and digital activities.  

We’ve just launched our first digital sustainability in tertiary education report which provides a deep dive into the challenges and opportunities of digital sustainability facing almost one hundred respondents from practitioner, senior manager, organisational lead and executive leadership level roles across UK further and higher education (FE and HE).  

Our survey found that respondents identified staff and student use of IT as the top perceived challenge to digital sustainability within their institution, highlighting a need for greater knowledge around sustainable practices.  

They also outlined sustainable policies for key stages of the IT product lifecycle as the top actions being taken to ensure digital environmental sustainability. 

While there is no one-size-fits-all solution to improving digital sustainability, with challenges and opportunities varying by institution, my advice typically centres on a fundamental principle: ensuring clear alignment between digital sustainability leadership and strategy.  

This may sound fairly intuitive, but without this synergy institutions may struggle to implement a comprehensive approach to digital environmental sustainability across the whole of the organisation – leaving room for mistakes and uncertainty. 

The environmental impact of ICT 

When it comes to reducing the environmental footprint of ICT within organisations, we need to go beyond simple changes like switching off light bulbs or recycling paper. Substantial, meaningful change first requires a deeper understanding of how entrenched digital systems have become in nearly every aspect of our lives – both individual and organisational.  

The use of digital often comes with overlooked environmental consequences. When purchasing a new mobile phone, do we consider how many of the materials that make up that device are recyclable? When we share a video via social media, how many of us consider the carbon emissions generated by the data centres hosting that content?  

Each click, tap or upload contributes to a complex web of environmental impacts, which may appear small at an individual level, but on a global scale are increasingly concerning.  

But there are things we can do to minimise this impact… 

Manage what you measure 

First and foremost, it’s important to assess the situation.  

Measuring environmental impact is crucial for effective management. Understanding digital usage and subsequent carbon emissions can help us to not only set reasonable and realistic targets but also identify simple solutions and increase the speed and effectiveness of those all-important “quick wins.” 

Evaluating energy consumption, managing hardware lifecycles, improving software efficiency, and implementing sustainable data storage practices are all great first steps. 

Although not exclusively aimed at capturing digital carbon emissions, the EAUC’s streamlined energy and carbon reporting (SECR) tool highlights how digital technology can help to measure, and therefore manage, environmental outputs in FE institutions

Make procurement and disposal of IT greener 

One of the most effective ways in which an organisation can reduce its environmental impact is through the responsible purchase and disposal of goods.  

Consider this: around 80% of a laptop’s carbon footprint comes from its manufacture alone. By prioritising sustainable procurement practices and policies, institutions can use their purchasing power to drive demand for more eco-friendly products, whilst also setting a very clear message to suppliers that they should adopt greener manufacturing practices.  

Another crucial aspect is the disposal or recycling of electronic waste. Many educational institutions overlook the environmental impact of improperly disposing of outdated hardware and electronic devices. By partnering with certified e-waste recyclers or refurbishers, we can ensure that our electronic waste is properly repurposed or recycled, thereby minimising environmental harm. 

Address energy usage  

There are many ways in which organisations can reduce the energy consumption associated with their digital activities and infrastructure. Introducing energy management systems that can control energy usage in real-time, promoting remote work over on-campus activities, encouraging the use of power management tools, and embracing cloud computing over on-premises servers all present a real opportunity to make a difference.  

Integrating these types of initiatives into a comprehensive digital strategy and taking a whole-institution approach to ensure buy-in across departments can help senior leaders make positive sustainable gains. 

Encourage cultural changes 

It is important to recognise, though, that digital sustainability goes beyond procurement, energy efficiency and waste management. It’s also about fostering a culture of responsible usage among students, faculty and staff.  

Educating users on the environmental impact of their digital footprint and empowering them to make conscious choices can have a positive impact on sustainable behaviour change – which can, in turn, benefit the individual, the institution and the wider environment. 

Prioritise high impact/low cost solutions 

With the ever-present constraints of shrinking budgets and rising costs, it is important to note that prioritising sustainability doesn’t always require significant financial investment.  

Some of the most impactful interventions are often low cost or even cost-saving initiatives. As a starting point, my best advice is usually to take a step back and try to identify digital sustainability interventions which are “high impact/low cost,” such as:  

  • Optimising the number of devices: Instead of assigning individual devices to each student or staff member, consider implementing shared device programs or adopting a bring-your-own-device (BYOD) policy. By optimising device usage, educational institutions can minimise resource consumption and lower overall costs. 
  • Extending device lifespans: Encouraging responsible device usage and implementing maintenance and upgrade programs can extend the lifespan of ICT equipment. Simple measures such as regular cleaning, installing software updates, and upgrading components like memory or storage can prolong device usability, reducing the need for frequent replacements. 
  • Moving to cloud storage solutions: Transitioning from on-premises data storage to cloud-based solutions not only streamlines IT operations but also reduces the need for physical infrastructure and energy consumption. Cloud storage providers often employ energy-efficient data centres and utilise resources more efficiently, leading to lower environmental impact and operational costs. 

By focusing on these high impact, low cost interventions, educational institutions can effectively reduce their environmental footprint while also realising cost savings in the long run. Moreover, these initiatives contribute to a culture of sustainability within organisations, fostering a sense of responsibility and stewardship among students, faculty and staff. 

Inspire positive, long-lasting change 

Ultimately, improving sustainability in our digital activities requires a multifaceted approach that encompasses technological, behavioural and systemic change. To ensure success, senior leaders must work to ingrain sustainability into the fabric of their institution through the development of sustainable strategy, focusing on the design of digital systems and the mindsets of the individuals who interact with them.  

By adopting this comprehensive approach, we can not only reduce the environmental impact of our ICT estate and digital activities but also use our position as educators and influencers to inspire positive, long-lasting change.  

By Cal Innes, sustainability subject specialist at Jisc 

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