Digital Sustainability

The Brundtland Report defines sustainability as a 'balance between satisfying current needs and not compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs'.

Generally speaking, sustainability in an area ideally results from the intersection of the following three elements: Economic sustainability: defined as the ability to generate income and work to sustain the population. Social sustainability: defined as the ability to ensure a level of human wellbeing (health, safety, democracy, education, civil responsibility, justice) that is equally distributed among classes and genders. Environmental sustainability: defined as the ability to maintain the quality and the replenishment of natural resources.
These are simple concepts to understand and identify in the physical world.


But what exactly do we mean when we talk about digital sustainability?


There are two main elements:

The first element is Digital Preservation, in other words the ability to preserve digital information over longer periods of time. This can be seen as a combination of the processes and procedures that ensure continued access to digital versions of information and all manner of records and scientific cultural heritages. This includes safeguarding these materials from 'digital reformatting', in particular safeguarding materials which were only ever recorded in digital format and have no paper counterparts. When it comes to digital images and electronic resources, safeguarding will not happen simply by being the product of a program, it will have to be a process that changes constantly. In this sense, digital information needs to be actively preserved up until the point that its continued existence is ensured. Long-term preservation of digital information is facilitated by including conservation metadata. Hard disks have a short life span, and even if one manages to keep the bits and bytes, the risk that current hard- and software is unable to process the old data is very real. Archives, museums and libraries are acutely aware of these problems, yet they cannot find solutions on their own.

To give a practical example, let's say you were given a Floppy Disk from the 1990s, would you be able to read it? And even if you found a Floppy Disk reader, would you have the software that the files were original made with so that you could actually open them?


The second element of digital sustainability is environmental sustainability.

Every click contributes to environmental pollution. It may seem stupid, but every move you make on the Internet is an action which makes the situation worse in one way or another. Internet pollution, yes, even the Internet pollutes a lot more than most people think it does.
Electrical energy is the main cause of Internet pollution: it is estimated that ICT energy consumption corresponds to emissions of 830 million tons of CO2 per year, making up 2% of the total global emissions. This percentage is set to double by 2020, the same year set by the EU as the cutoff to reduce emissions by 20%.

Data centres are advanced technological infrastructure which has allowed individuals and businesses to benefit from services which are now seen as almost essential to daily life (the Internet, cloud, etc.). It is well known that in order to run properly this infrastructure needs an enormous amount of energy: from the hardware itself to refrigeration and security systems, everything uses up energy.

These huge rooms full of computers, are one of the fastest growing sectors of our economy, and correspondingly, one of the fastest growing users of energy.

Digital leaders such as Facebook, Google, and Apple are helping create a more sustainable future for the Internet and the growing sector of government, companies and people whose data resides in the cloud.

One recent example is WindData’s plans to build a data center in Pflugerville, TX which is to be supported by the wind farms of West Texas. Another is Apple’s proposed solar farm at their Maiden, NC data center.

Digital realty is committed to sustainably managing our environmental impact and optimising our use of energy and natural resources. We recognise that it’s our responsibility to create green, energy-efficient data centres that improve environmental performance.


Greenpeace has done an analysis of the measures that the largest internet companies have put in place thus far to reduce the environmental impact of their 300 data centres. The environmental organisation rated energy usage choices made by 19 multinationals, some of which have been working to reach the goal of using 100% renewable energy for all their operations. Apple was placed in the lead in Greenpeace's ratings, as they became the first firm to reach the objective of 100% renewable energy sources. Based in Cupertino, not only does Apple use the largest private solar cell power plant in the USA to generate electricity at their own North Carolina data centres, but they also use renewable energy for all the energy needed for services such as iCloud and iTunes. Facebook and Google were also highly rated, Facebook due to significant investments made in Iowa in order to power their own data centres with wind energy, and Google due to using 34% renewable energy.


Sustainability is a key aspect of Digital, there needs to be a concerted effort to share knowledge and data on the preservation and environmental impacts that occur across the digital ecosystem. We need to tap into new digital ways of thinking to look at these problems in new and different way.


Who wants to differentiate themselves, who wants to sustain the revolution?