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November 22, 2023

Digital can't save the world, a very personal account of the GreenTech Forum 2023

As I write these lines, the GreenTech Forum 2023 is just drawing to a close, and I was keen to give you a quick, personal summary. The effervescence was palpable, and it's clear that "this is the year of Responsible Digital Business". 

The GreenTech Forum, what is it?

  • Simply put, it's the trade event focused on digital and the environment.
  • This is the 3rd edition in 2023.
  • There were over 2,000 visitors.
  • Finally, on a more subjective note, I found that the program oscillated between GreenIT (which is more internally oriented) and Digital Services, this time including the external.
With this context in mind, let's take a look at what leads me to believe that digital isn't going to save the world... but it will keep us busy in the years to come ;)

Without action to limit the growth in the environmental impact of digital technology, its carbon footprint could triple between 2020 and 2050.

This very strong projection comes from the ARCEP Ademe 2022, systematically praised during these two days of conference. It contains a wealth of fascinating information. The study, carried out using the LCA method I'll talk about below, answers many questions about the impact of digital technology.
The graph below shows the expected progression of the various indicators of digital technology's environmental impact in the "business as usual" scenario, i.e. if we do neither better nor worse.
Let's highlight these different indicators, because the debate is polluted by the carbon vision alone ;). Indeed, working on the carbon aspect without touching the other indicators can lead to transfers of externalities or neutral or negative side-effects on a global scale, all the while greenwashing.

L'empreinte carbone pourrait presque tripler en 2050, la conso d'énergie doubler

Before you get all depressed, you should know that there are other modelled scenarios that are detailed and make it possible to envisage a better tomorrow:

4 scénarios de l'impact environnement du numérique en 2030

Life Cycle Assessment: to go beyond the carbon vision, long live the LCA method

So you already found it difficult to measure your carbon footprint? Were you, like me, very proud of conducting carbon audits and building your action plan to reduce your impact? Obviously, integrating other indicators complicates matters, but let's face it, that's to be expected, especially if you've taken part in a Digital Collage or Climate Fresk (more than a million already!)
The solution does exist. On the scale of a product or service, it is possible to understand the overall environmental impact, and this is the Life Cycle Assessment, whose key points are as follows:
  • Start with why, LCA can be used for 3 purposes: diagnosis, eco-design or communication.

  • A robust method, it has long been used in sectors such as construction. However, it is much more recent in the digital sector.

  • It assesses the environmental impact of a product or service throughout its life cycle, including end-of-life.

  • Once again, multi-indicators beyond carbon.

  • Several levels of detail can be envisaged to balance the time spent vs. the gain in precision, and a simple Excel sheet may suffice to get you started.

  • Ademe provides databases for calculations, as well as free online software Base Empreinte.
  • As we all know, the social dimension is still missing from all this. Europe would like to integrate it into the PEF or Product Environmental Footprint method, which is the equivalent of LCA.

If you liked the RGAA, you'll love the RGESN or Référentiel Général d'Éco-conception des Services Numériques.

In France, the Référentiel Général d’Eco-conception des Services Numériques, the general eco-design framework for digital services or RGESN, complements the existing GDPR, RGAA and other regulations.

As I write, it's undergoing consultation - you could almost call it user testing - and the official version should be up and running by Jan. 1, 2024. In the meantime, you can already consult it online.

The framework will behave like the RGAA, with 79 criteria to evaluate, from strategy to hosting to UX/UI. One of the results will be a percentage of eco-design compliance for your digital service.

It may not sound like much, but it's a real revolution! We've had almost 15 years to comply with the RGAA and accessibility. Eco-design is going to go a lot faster!

Re-inventing imaginary worlds to win people over

Today, digital technology - software and hardware - feeds our imaginations of success, happiness and achievement. It is part of a paradigm of acceleration which, while highly efficient, is also a major contributor to the deterioration of our planet. In this section, I'll give you my notes from the conferences, as I don't feel expert enough, but I've found plenty to shake up our ideas. In his book "Acceleration and Alienation", Hartmut Rosa expresses the fact that technology alienates us:
  • Are we happier to receive a parcel in a few days from the other side of the world? Because the ecological impact is significant.
  • Unfortunately, this "speed" is becoming a social norm and calls for us to go even faster. Otherwise, it's hard to be "successful" and live "slowly".
  • Other impacts include burn-out, dependence on notifications and smartphones. Having deceleration bubbles, like yoga or pilates, is not enough to change the paradigm.
  • Technology gives us the illusion that we can avoid changing our lifestyle. lifestyle. E.g.: hydrogen could save aviation, but if we look coldly at the hydrogen production required, we're talking about 20 new nuclear reactors for the French civil fleet alone.
How do we get out of this? By changing the way we think. Remember the book "Sapiens"? Man is an animal of fiction. How can fiction create a collective desire to move in a new, more sustainable direction? We've talked about series on Netflix to enhance these imaginary worlds, and the same goes for influencers. We don't cultivate the imaginary of renunciation there, but it's possible to learn it. Meanwhile, business models need to be reworked in depth. Take Renault Trucks, for example, where, in recognition of the fact that there will be fewer trucks on the roads tomorrow, we're investing in cargo bikes.

Tomorrow's IT for Green?

Over the past two days, we've talked a lot about the environmental - and to a much lesser extent social - impact of digital technology. There's also a mirror of this green IT: IT for Green. In other words, what role does digital technology play in the ecological transition?
During several of the conferences, we sensed this desire to look at how digital can reduce the negative externalities of other sectors. For example, can we use AI to optimize routes and limit the number of trucks on the road?
As it's already complex to measure the impact of digital technology "on itself", you can imagine that these communicating vessels between sectors, both positive and negative, are even more in their infancy.
What's the GreenTech Forum 2024 all about? To see if we can save the world in spite of everything? See you next year, and in the meantime, tell us about your projects :)

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Thibault Geenen

Thibault Geenen

Thibault is fascinated by the power of UX, especially user research and nowadays the UX for Good principles. As an entrepreneur, he's a huge fan of liberated company principles, where teammates give the best through creativity without constraints. A science-fiction lover, he remains the only human being believing that Andy Weir's 'The Martian' is a how-to guide for entrepreneurs.

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