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We need a common vision for digital in sustainability


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The public sector needs to bring green thinking to its dealings with suppliers and partners, writes Ellen Wilson, sustainability lead for local and regional government at Microsoft UK.

Sustainability is rising up the agenda for us all, and with it an understanding of the role that digital technology can play in a greener future.

But it is part of a big, complex picture in which organisations can only get so far by working alone and need to collaborate with partners in the public and private sectors to create the infrastructure, working practices and mindset for long term sustainability.

The issue came to the fore at a recent UKA Live discussion in which I took part with Mattie Yeta, UK government sustainability ICT lead in the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra), Nadira Hussain, director of leadership development and research at Socitm, and UKAuthority publisher Helen Olsen Bedford.

One of the prime themes to emerge was that, while sustainability currently has a high profile, there is a risk that it could slip down the agenda, especially with the intense pressures on all parts of the public sector combined with continuing impacts from austerity. To prevent this sustainability must be built into processes, making it a central element of how organisations procure and structure their ICT estates, and begin to use the technology in planning for sustainability in everything they do.

Of course, no organisation can achieve this within a bubble. The factors affecting the environment do not confine themselves to organisational or geographical boundaries, and one body’s approach will often influence what another can achieve. It needs a holistic view and a coherent approach to collaboration to get the best results.

Supply chain factor

One element of this is in how organisations deal with their technology suppliers.

Some companies have a strong commitment to sustainability: Microsoft provides a good example with our recent announcement of our ambition to make operations carbon negative by 2030, and by 2050 to remove all the carbon emitted to the environment either directly or by electrical consumption since the company was founded in 1975.

This follows earlier initiatives – we began to make our operations carbon neutral in 2012, have cut energy use at our own facilities by 20%, committed to building sustainable devices and made our cloud services more energy and carbon efficient. We hope that other suppliers will follow our lead - indeed, public authorities need to give their whole supply chain a push towards taking a greener approach to their business.

Ethical procurement is an important element, in working with suppliers and holding them accountable for strengthening the social value in the products and services.

In the discussion Mattie Yeta pointed to Defra making sustainability an important consideration in awarding contracts to suppliers – along with efforts to combat modern slavery and protect human rights – and that it has been working with the Crown Commercial Service on introducing the factors into public sector procurement frameworks. 

This leadership is to be commended. 

Blockchain possibility

Yeta added that there is scope for innovation in this area, citing the possibility of blockchain technology enabling public authorities to trace and track the sources of components and raw materials in all types of products.

Organisations can also place a premium on arrangements for recycling digital products, whether they go for re-use or ‘urban mining’ of their raw materials to go back into a fresh production process. These are examples of what councils can look for in their supply chains and identify as requirements for doing business.

They also need to strengthen their collaboration with public and third sector partners. This is where the place-based approach becomes crucial, in which organisations serving a community look at the environmental outcomes of what they do and work on a shared perspective. This can lay the ground for a closer alignment of how they use digital technology for sustainability.

There is a movement for local government to work more closely with other local and regional organisations, and there is an opportunity to make sustainability an intrinsic element of this effort. They all need to understand the focus and establish a common understanding – possibly through a memorandum of understanding on sustainability issues – to lay the ground for a joined up approach to maximise the collective benefits.

As with all areas of digital change, a lot can be achieved through learning from each other and sharing expertise in specific areas. It is often the case that one organisation has harnessed a solution to provide clear benefits in areas such as reducing its energy consumption, or the need for its employees to travel, or in improving air quality on its local streets, and can share these with partners and neighbouring authorities.

Alternatively, an authority could have the missing components for solving another's problem - there is always someone in a locality who will have an expertise or a plan for dealing for with an issue. The key to success will be in working together. 

Instil momentum

At a local level, sustainability leads within authorities could instil some momentum by beginning a dialogue with their counterparts in other agencies. It would not be straightforward as, although an increasing number of organisations have a sustainability officer, the role is often combined with other responsibilities and the definition of what it involves can vary. Also, they may find it challenging to stir up enthusiasm from organisations where the leaders do not yet acknowledge their role in promoting sustainability.

The move would also benefit from mechanisms at a regional or national level for sharing expertise and mutual support.

Underlying all of this is the need for a common vision of what can be achieved, which promotes a holistic view of sustainability. There are a range of relevant factors on which public authorities can have an influence – technology in their working practices, their approach to recycling, data centre and/or cloud operations, traffic management, digital tech in planning – and they need to bring all of these into their vision for sustainability.

There is a challenge in coordinating all of this, but it would help to ingrain it within an organisation, so that planning for sustainability becomes a crucial element of digital transformation and efficiency programmes. This has to be a high priority for the future of all parts of the public sector.


UKAuthority is holding a learning event 'How Green is our Digital' at the Microsoft Reactor in London on 24th February - click here for more information and to register to join us on the day

Watch the full UKA Live discussion on technology’s role in sustainability below:

Image from iStock: Alex Brylov

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