IT Sustainability Think Tank: How enterprises can push sustainable innovation in 2024

As 2023 draws to a close, it is time to look ahead at what enterprise leaders should be focusing their IT sustainability efforts on next year

In my last column, I explored some of the great steps that the UK technology sector has taken towards sustainability over the past 12 months. This included progress in the realm of quantum computing, achieving symbiosis with datacentres, and recognising an increase in businesses reducing and recycling their e-waste.

At Digital Catapult, we continue to evaluate how emerging tech and new solutions can be leveraged to help industries and hard-to-abate sectors meet their net-zero ambitions, and great progress in this field is being made. 

As we move into 2024, there are a number of new areas where IT leaders should manage their sustainability resolutions, including transforming their datacentres, giving the environment a seat at the table, and leading the circular economy.

Given that the commercial landscape will further prioritise sustainability next year, these areas of innovation should be immediately addressed by business leaders to improve their companies’ credibility and appeal to the growing number of environmentally conscious customers and commercial partners. 

New year, new datacentres

In 2024, I expect to see a record number of datacentres moving to 100% renewable energy. Research found that the energy demand for traditional datacentres stood at 97.6 terawatt hours in 2015, and that demand was expected to fall to 33 terawatt hours by 2021. 

While, research is yet to determine whether this has been the case, based on the initial findings, datacentres required roughly the equivalent to the annual electricity consumed by a small-to-medium-sized country. This is testament to the sheer energy demand that datacentres have, and demonstrates why the move to 100% renewable energy is so significant for businesses of all sizes. 

The move to 100% renewable energy represents a real seismic shift towards net zero computing and significantly reduces not only the carbon footprint of the datacentre, but also the scope 3 emissions of the datacentres’ customers too.

IT leaders should be speaking to their cloud providers to understand what their roadmaps look like, to understand how they can ensure their data is stored in a facility with renewable power. This in turn will improve their sustainability credentials and play a key role in enacting business change, and encouraging the adoption of sustainable innovation. 

Implementing the right digital infrastructure to support a net zero transition is crucial to ensure speed, but also to avoid unexpected budgetary pressure in the future and ensure that a business has the right foundations to make incremental innovations and improvements over the next 20 years.

Incorporating green decision making

By the end of next year, every IT leader should be considering the degree of carbon emissions that are associated with their data management and storage. This includes both internal and external digital infrastructure. 

Understanding the environmental consequences of your infrastructure should be driving decision making on where to manage data and who to work with in this space. The next twelve months will see a huge amount of innovation that will develop to help every company measure and reduce carbon emissions through the effective use of cloud services. This is similar to the tools that have been developed to help businesses to optimise infrastructure costs. 

Through Digital Catapult’s work with our Ecometer tool, we have been able to measure the environmental impacts of infrastructure, to baseline carbon intensity, and to better understand which actions that a business takes will effectively mitigate environmental damage.

This type of sustainable solution has a variety of different applications, even possibly being used by advanced media production studios, to measure the carbon footprint of specific media productions.

By embracing these new technologies and prioritising the environment, business and IT leaders have more tools available to them, allowing them to make more informed decisions that can appease and appeal to key stakeholders. 

Leading the circular economy

An area of sustainable innovation that is already high on the agenda of business leaders and is already practised by many companies is also something that we should be talking about more. What happens to our electronics when we don’t need them anymore and where do they end up? As supply chain programmes focus more on end of life and how products can be reused, repaired or remanufactured, we can continue to improve the traceability of laptops, phones, server racks or other items that we use. This may be in returning them to the manufacturers or donating them to local schools and community groups.

At the forefront of our efforts in this area is the Digital Supply Chain Hub, a national programme that spearheads the integration of digital technology into UK supply chains. By fostering collaboration among key stakeholders, including government, large enterprises, SME manufacturers, and industry leaders, the Hub aims to create a globally competitive, digital innovation ecosystem. 

Through the Hub, we are working to make supply chains more efficient, resilient, and sustainable, addressing critical challenges facing UK manufacturing. The Digital Supply Chain Hub is a cornerstone in our journey towards reducing emissions and achieving a greener future, and I expect to see the technology we leverage on the Hub including artificial intelligence (AI), distributed ledger technology (DLT) and the internet of things (IoT), play a key role in contributing towards the circular economy next year. 

As a growing number of regulators, customers, and key stakeholders expect to see progress amongst businesses in the realm of sustainability next year, it is in IT leaders’ best interest to start prioritising new technologies now.

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