The energy subsystems of digital systems. Based on Mulrow, J., Gali, M., & Grubert, E. (2021). The cyber-consciousness of environmental assessment: How environmental assessments evaluate the impacts of smart, connected, and digital technology. Environmental Research Letters, 17(1), 013001.

The Internet is large enough when we think of all the information available. But many of us don't think often about how many single computers or devices make it work. Thinking about it feels like one of those stories about sending messages in a bottle, thrown to the vast ocean and found many years later (like this one that took about 100 years). But untangling and identifying what makes our digital systems work is important as we match our decisions as professionals into each of them.

Energy systems[edit | edit source]

All digital systems use electricity which is produced by fuels and other energy carriers. We need to consider how much energy is directly used in the business model, as well as its sources, so we can reduce its footprint. Some of the items to consider are:

  • Energy sources of digital services — Cloud computing, web hosting and other services provided by third parties use energy sources. These are sometimes traceable (see, for example, the awesome Green Web Check service by the Green Web Foundation.
  • Energy sources for business model operations — Such as the energy used by infrastructure.
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  • Does the organization use renewable energy sources to power its business infrastructure (offices, stores, etc.)?
  • Do the organization's web servers use green hosting? You can check using the Green Web Check service.
  • Is the hardware given to users (e.g. Internet of Things devices) powered with solar energy or other renewable sources? Examples of this are the inclusion of solar panels for sensors, wireless systems or phone accessories.

Digital equipment[edit | edit source]

These are the digital devices necessary for the system to function, such as computers, local servers, cameras, sensors, computer chips, etc. Consider the following questions:

  • Is the service associated with developing or purchasing equipment? Examples of this are an engineering team that designs and builds devices, or contracting organizations to manufacture service-specific devices (such as a Fitbit or a smart watch) associated with the service.
  • What kind of hardware does the service require? Some services can work on any device (including old computers or any type of phone), whereas others are meant to be used by specific products. The requirement of specific hardware and software can improve the demand for manufacturing and software development, thus increasing its carbon footprint.
  • Does the service account for older systems or does it extend the life of older hardware? Organizations make decisions about how much support to provide for old devices, which drives equipment to obsolescense.
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Digital equipment
  • Does the organization have a hardware development team that works on electronic devices or hires hardware developers to produce and sell digital equipment as part of its business model?
  • Does the organization reuse open hardware designs?
  • Does the organization's business model include transportation logistics for electronics, such as buying and transporting digital equipment and accessories for sale, including devices, batteries, cables, adapters, etc.?
  • Does the organization have a backward compatibility policy to extend the life of electronic devices?

Non-digital equipment[edit | edit source]

Digital devices often come with packaging, boxes, manuals and other non-digital materials that can be associated with a digital footprint.

Many digital organizations produce or use non-digital equipment as part of their business model, which has an associated footprint in its production and logistics. Some of the things to consider in this regard are:

  • Buildings — The construction and maintenance of buildings for offices or stores. In other words, all infrastructure that is used as part of the business model.
  • Packaging — The use of packaging in logistics for transportation overseas, as well as the use of packaging for sales.
  • Accessories — The production and sale of accessories as part of the business model. For example the inclusion of printed materials in the product or service.
  • Marketing — Whether the organization invest in promotional materials regularly.
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Non-digital equipment
  • Does the organization invest in buildings for stores and offices?
  • Do products require packaging for sales and transportation?
  • Are there accessories for digital devices being sold, such as straps, adapters or protective cases?
  • Are printed materials such as user manuals or books included in the product or service?
  • Does the organization invest in promotional materials as part of its business model?

Automation and management[edit | edit source]

Digital systems require the production and maintenance of the business model logic. This footprint includes most of the items we reviewed when you reviewed your personal footprint, alongside the footprint of similar individuals who work under your contracting model and adds up the footprint required for planning, organizing, monitoring and evaluating:

  • Software development — Consider all the work expended by your development team. In the case of remote work, and most importantly, for gig contractors, some of this footprint is moved from the organization's grid to yours and other gig developers' personal grid—which we already estimated. This might include maintaining digital systems and developing firmware for devices, smartphone apps and web services.
  • Human capital logistics — This can include travel and in-person activities included as part of management activities.
  • Management — Resources devoted to team follow-up, performed by management teams. In the case of remote teams, these activities are mostly done using digital services.
  • Data management — This includes obtaining, storing, processing and reporting data from and to users as part of the business model. Some business models such as artificial intelligence, large internet platforms and blockchain-based systems will require vast amounts of resources to manage their data during operations.
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Automation and management
  • Is most of the software development for the organization's products done in-house?
  • Does the organization hire on-demand workers from services like Amazon Mechanical Turk or Upwork for most of its development?
  • Does the organization reuse open source software?
  • Is regular travel part of the organization's requirements for digital development workers?
  • Does the business model rely on obtaining, storing, analyzing or delivering large amounts of data to its users?

Network infrastructure[edit | edit source]

LibreRouter, by AlterMundi, is an example of last-mile network infrastructure as a digital service for communities.

These components support networked communication and storage functions, e.g., data centers, server farms, transmission and routing infrastructure. In other words, this comprises all the equipment used for transferring data. Given that the Internet can be configured in different ways to transfer information, some considerations to be taken are:

  • Whether the business model includes the implementation of last-mile connectivity — Examples of this are implementing community networks, which requires wired or wireless infrastructure, especially for sparsely populated areas.[1]
  • The data transfer rate requirements associated to the business models — Some services such as fintech or cryptocurrencies might require more dedicated infrastructure locally or abroad.
  • Data transfer protocols and possible limitations — Limitations may be imposed by the type of data packets to be transferred if local laws do not enforce net neutrality. Examples of this might be the introduction of data limitations by ISPs for transferring video packets or the limitation of upload speeds compared to download speeds.
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Network infrastructure
  • Does the organization focus on installing wired or wireless network connectivity as part of its business model?
  • Do the business activities require dedicated cloud services for its operation?
  • Does the organization serve areas with low network connectivity in a way that it requires extra infrastructure?
  • Are there local data transfer limitations for the type of data your organization requires?

References[edit | edit source]

  1. Ruiz, D., San Miguel, G., Rojo, J., Teriús-Padrón, J. G., Gaeta, E., Arredondo, M. T., Hernández, J. F., & Pérez, J. (2022). Life cycle inventory and carbon footprint assessment of wireless ICT networks for six demographic areas. Resources, Conservation and Recycling, 176, 105951.
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