Sustainability workshop: Is it really sustainable?
Workshop report of ‘Is it really sustainable?’, lead by Anneke van Woerden, Ilaria Zonda and Mick Jongeling at the Digital Society School on the 6th of April 2020.
The Digital Society School is a new education format that invites you to direct your interests, knowledge and effort towards building a digital society. Because we believe that it can -and should- be inclusive, intelligent, and involve us all.
One of the major factors to create this society is by linking local industry challenges to the global goals of the United Nations. These goals, adopted by all United Nations Member States in 2015, are called the Sustainable Development Goals.
During the Digital Transformation Programme, a varied group of professionals are learning by doing on real industry challenges. This process educates these professionals in the field of design, engineering, anthropology and sociology. And obviously, all the projects are linked by their mutual strategy to impact the SDGs through sustainable innovation.
A New Frontier: The Digital Transformation of Sustainability
A quick look through (y)our office can unveil the working culture of the Digital Economy. People are sending calendar invites to each other, 3 meters apart. Communication goes mostly over messaging platforms, instead of having structured meetings. And the most dreaded, emails are ignored, resulting in an overflowing virtual mailbox that contains around 9,999 emails.
In education, papers are not printed anymore, rather corrected via cloud networks. Finding resources has become impossible without spending hours searching online. It has become impossible to see the difference between somebody wasting time watching cat videos or somebody focused on delivering a prototype. Keeping material online promises accessibility, transparency and most of all, immateriality.
Even though this is mostly enabled by the working culture of today, it is told to us as the right (or better) thing to do. Think about it. How many people in your office have a “Please consider the environment before printing.” email signature?
A small exercise! How many emails do you have? A normal email emits almost 4g of CO2e. The emissions for an email with (large) attachments can emit as much as 50g CO2e. Office workers sent and receive an average of 126 emails a day! How polluting is your mailbox?
With my previous research centred about the emissions of Cloud-Based Computing, Anneke, Ilaria and I got together to design a workshop that would put digital sustainability on equal footing as her big sister. What assignment can we give designers to value reducing the emissions of the Internet in their design, instead of the visually appealing work? In other words, what would a website look like if we try to make it as sustainable as possible?
Small disclaimer: Due to the outbreak of the Coronavirus, this 6-hour workshop was done via Zoom and Mural. It is ironic to deliver a workshop on sustainable internet by using the internet but at the same time, the process opened up energized discussion and reflection in the group about the dependence of the Internet in our society.
Introducing the Theme
To start the workshop, we asked participants to draw their best interpretation of the Cloud or Internet in just 30 seconds. Clearly, a system you use daily can be explained in such a short time? If you like, you can try this now as well! Take 30 seconds and draw how you think the Internet looks like.
There is a repetitive pattern in the four years I have asked this question. People draw clouds, some people draw a few computer stacks, others draw the topology of a network. None of the answers are wrong! Different disciplines bring different methods. For marketing professionals (and consumers), the cloud symbol is a metaphor that evokes connectivity, accessibility and comfort. For engineers, a topology explains the bigger network in a systematic approach. The answer that we don’t know might exactly be the real issue. The bigger the impact of technology is on our daily lives, the more we should investigate the inner workings of this technology.
After acknowledging our collective ignorance, we explored the infrastructure that makes up the Internet. Millions of kilometres of cable, thousands of data centres and of course, Zettabytes of data. A Zettabyte, or 1 ZB = 1 billion Terabytes (TB). 1 TB = 1,000,000 Megabyte (MB). (One good quality picture weighs around 1MB). The internet is a massive, physical infrastructure that encompasses the globe.
The internet processes all this information the same way the information is uploaded: through computers. Imagine your computer needed to process 1 billion Terabytes to load this page. It would probably become warm and you will start to hear the fan inside the computer. The same is happening with the computers that power the internet highway. They require a staggering amount of electricity, predicted to need 280 TWh by 2021. To put it into context, that is around 50% more than the aviation industry. And although we are questioning our flight network due to its sustainable efforts, we do not do the same as with our email network. The Cloud is predicted to emit around 320 million tonnes of CO2e by the end of this year!
The growth of the internet’s electricity demands and its corresponding emissions should not be ignored, especially not by digital talent, or a school that educates said talent.
Digital sustainability is a novel area of expertise, so we cultivated a space for sharing ideas and questions. Anneke has set up several Mural spaces, where we exchanged our knowledge and documented our workshop. To highlight how understated the sustainability of digital products is, Ilaria asked the participants several binary questions. If the answer was A, participants held their camera on. If the answer was B instead, they would turn them off.
Each slide was accompanied with further explanation, but truth been told, we often clarified that sustainable products are heavily linked to the usage of the user(s).
Ilaria introduced her principles for sustainable digital design, which included points as:
- Introduce a page weight to your websites
- Design for efficiency
- Less video or imagery, or compress the size of it
- Use system fonts instead of custom typography
- Clean up your code
With these principles in mind, we divided the group of 20 participants into smaller groups. Their goal? Redesign the Digital Society School website! We measured the page weight of the Digital Society School and oh boy, it wasn’t good. There is too much information on the website, as well as too many images and video. We gave the team some time to explore the website and list down some obvious digital design flaws from the perspective of sustainability.
With every visit to the Digital Society School website producing 3,44 g of CO2, times the 43.833 sessions since in 1 year (21/4/2019 — 21/4/2020), the total website emissions for this year are 150,78 Kg CO2. This roughly translates to 150 loafs bread (1 Kg CO2 produced for it’s lifespan).
A communal workspace set up by the team in Mural was the playground for the redesign process. Teams got two distinct fields: one for wireframing (or sketching) and one for design (or presentation). We presented a collection of wireframe and website elements for the teams to work with, this would speed up their design processes.
Results and Reflection
The day ended with presentations, where we went over each redesign and got to know which content was cut, which design choices were made and most of all, how this redesign will reduce the emissions.
Reduce media size / use
In general, the use of images and videos was limited by all designs. One design team even opted for line drawings, which could be in vector or .png transparent format to reduce image size. Limiting (or compressing) images and videos is a great way to reduce the page weight, resulting in faster loading time as well as less time searching for the right information.
Sustainable by default
Although a lot of websites stayed ‘white’ by default, one team proposed using a permanent dark mode to increase energy efficiency. Another team made an alternate site that would show a range of the website that was seen as the most essential. On the top of the website, there was a disclaimer: “This website has been redesigned to reduce the CO2 impact — we’re now 90% lower than the average website. To see the original website, please click here”.
It is a great idea to have the visitor aware of sustainable choices on a website, and tell them that there is a choice to browse its content sustainable.
Limiting visual noise
Every team observed the mixed audiences the website caterers to. The Digital Society School website has the purpose to have people apply for the Digital Transformation Program, become a partner for a semester, read the research, enrol in one of the courses or participate in the annual Global Goals Jam. Three teams divided the website into two columns, where one is designated for courses and the other for either process or traineeship. The split would reduce the time visitors spend to find their required information as well as clean up the home page.
Unfortunately, we can not measure the emissions of the new proposals, but hopefully, it can fuel some discussions on a sustainable website. Below are the final designs by the teams. We would like to thank everybody for their participation and energy in making this course a meaningful learning experience for us all.
We used the Digital Society School website by default, however, we would like to explore the sustainable design principles on other websites too! Are you somebody working within a company and interested in following a course on this topic? Feel free to reach out to firstname.lastname@example.org.
There is a possibility this course will be revisited, so keep an eye out for updates via https://digitalsocietyschool.org/event/is-it-really-sustainable/.