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InfoQ Homepage Articles Actionable Green Choices for Your Software, Your Products, and You

Actionable Green Choices for Your Software, Your Products, and You

Key Takeaways

  • Applying Agile thinking and techniques will enable you and your clients to be more sustainable.
  • We all need to change - small changes, like using your broccoli stalks, all add up to make a difference. I am a work-in-progress to becoming more sustainable - I ask that you do the same.
  • Sustainable software development focuses on reducing physical resources, reducing energy, and being smart about how we use energy.
  • Tools and techniques like value stream mapping, software carbon intensity specification, and changing the location of data centres or the time when functions are executed, can help you and your companies take action and become more sustainable.
  • The time to choose action is now. What small change will you make next?

Sustainability. It's a word that can mean many things, with different meanings to different people. But what does it mean for you?

We are at a pivotal moment in human history where the decisions we make today determine humankind's future on earth. We have choices to make regarding whether to succeed or fail in reducing our greenhouse gases and creating a world where our near and far descendants can thrive in a sustainable and regenerative world. But what choices actually exist without knowledge that can help nudge your actions in the right direction?

Climate change is no longer just a huge worry cloud hanging over our heads. There are solutions, choices, and actions we can take - for ourselves, our children, and the future. This article gives you information about some of those choices: some bare glimpses into the art of the possible; others are tried and tested methods with known outcomes. I hope you will be able to use them to guide your own choices toward a greener future.

My personal journey

Ever since just before my son was born around 10 years ago, and I found out that disposable nappies take 450 years to degrade, I have been slowly changing my habits, with the aim of being more sustainable. We are now incredibly lucky that there are many companies, websites, and apps out there to help us do that.

I can personally recommend GoClimate and Nudj as ways to enhance your understanding of the small choices you can make with your buying habits that add up to a big difference - especially when more and more of the world are making these changes.  [Side note: apologies if these are UK/Europe based!]

At work, my role title is Agile coach AND eco encourager. The "eco encourager" part is my AND title - this is something all ANDis choose for themselves just before they start working at AND Digital. It is something about themselves, outside of their role. I am, hopefully, living up to my self-given title - just by writing this article for you to read!

I also created a challenge for my colleagues with suggestions of how they might make small changes in their lives in order to reduce their personal carbon footprint. One of my colleagues added three vegetarian meals a week to her family's diet - saving 1.9kg CO2 per meal. Another started washing her household's recyclables, saving 6kg of CO2 per week. And my personal favourite, I stopped buying new clothes and saved 15.6kg CO2 for each item!

Outside of work, I co-organise the Agility Impact meetup group where we meet every month to listen to stories of others using agility to make a positive impact on the world's wicked planetary challenges. With some members of this community, I also helped run the Agilists4Planet conference in April, where we brought people together from the Agile, sustainability and biomimicry communities to talk about how we can take action. Many attendees made public declarations as to changes they would make as a result of the conference.

We inspired people to take action, and continue to do so via the meetup. Just by raising awareness, by talking about issues and actions, others are talking, raising awareness, and making a positive impact on planetary challenges.

But enough about me, what about sustainability and agility in a wider sense?

How agility and sustainability support each other

In the Agile Manifesto, the 8th principle starts off with "Agile processes promote sustainable development." Yes, it is talking about "sustainable" in terms of working patterns, but it is not a big stretch to redefine that in terms of all types of sustainability: sustainability in Agile, in software, and in business.

In Jutta Eckstein’s keynote from Agile Testing Days in 2022, entitled "Agile Comes with a Responsibility for Sustainability", she goes into a deep dive of several Agile Manifesto Principles, showing how Agile and sustainability support each other. It concludes that Agile and Agilists have a responsibility to be sustainable, while helping to raise awareness on how the principles can be leveraged in order to create a greener future.

On a more specific note, an Agile mindset is fundamental to enabling sustainability. Agilists thrive in complex environments where experimentation rules. We use data to determine whether to adapt, depending on success or failure, using empirical evidence. We ask difficult questions to encourage others to dig deeper. All of these skills inherent to Agile can be used in the pursuit of more sustainable practices and products.

For example, by asking a development team to think about the electricity usage and carbon intensity of said electricity for the product and/or feature they are developing. How might they simplify the design, minimise their network load and data packets in order to build a cleaner, greener product?

What solutions are available to mitigate climate change?

According to the latest IPCC (the UN Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change) report, there are multiple solutions and things we can do to mitigate climate change. For those in IT, the main item we can focus on is using clean energy and efficiency. The Green Software Foundation has a free course called "Green Software Practitioner" which teaches anyone in product design and development how they can rethink how they design and develop software products, so their code has a low carbon cost.

As individuals with multiple devices, we can personally think about how much data we actually use, versus what we have. When was the last time you cleared out your emails, your documents, your photos and videos? Do you really need all of it? And do you need to have it automatically backed up to the cloud every day - which means extra carbon used via moving bits over the network?

As humans, we need to stop using fossil fuels, decarbonise, well - everything. Restore natural habitats, reduce waste and eat less meat. I follow a zero waste chef for tips on how to reduce my food waste, like using broccoli stalks in stir fry. I use a green energy supplier and I'm a pescatarian baconite, (haven't managed to give up bacon!) who eats local fish and cheese, and vegan options for milk and margarine where I can. These choices are also yours to make.

In general? Decarbonise, decarbonise, decarbonise. Use biomimicry and circular economy principles in design and restore the planet's habitats.

For example, Dell is developing a fully modular and recyclable laptop, and Toyota is building hydrogen transport trucks.

And, for inspiration, here are some brilliant innovative companies that I follow:

  • Biohm: a bio-manufacturer of building materials from waste, known for their insulation material made from mycelium.
  • Notpla: Not plastic - seaweed packaging that dissolves safely after use.

How can we accelerate sustainable practices to move to a greener future?

The social tipping point, according to Centola, D in "Experimental Evidence for tipping points in social convention" (2018, Science Magazine Vol 360, no 6393), is 25% - once 25% of people have made the change, it becomes the new norm. In order to reach the social tipping point, we need to raise awareness. Not the doom and gloom of climate catastrophe that has caused everyone to harden their hearts and ignore the problem; no, awareness of the solutions! Of the small changes you or others have made, new ways to do things more sustainably that you have heard or read about. Awareness of the actions are now needed, in order to inspire more action. Transparency of things you can do to help is needed - and for that, we all need to talk about it more.

We need everyone, everywhere, all at once - to make changes to their lifestyles and their businesses to be more sustainable and regenerative for the planet. It starts with you. Start making changes towards sustainability in whatever fashion you can, talk about it, and raise awareness.

The main blocker I have found in this space is the idea of black or white, this or that. If you are sustainable you must be doing a, b, c, d  ... z. Please, do not let perfect get in the way of trying to do better, of making small changes, of continuous improvement towards a sustainable way of living. I am not asking you to flip a switch and suddenly everything is better. I am a work in progress to becoming more sustainable - I ask that you do the same.

For example, in personal sustainability, I talk about things like the GuppyFriend bag and microplastic filters for your washing machine as personal solutions to reduce microplastic in our water. Many are not aware of this small action you can take to reduce microplastics, and therefore help life below water to survive. The biggest impact I have seen is using the carbon footprint calculator as it enables us to see the true cost of the way we live, and how our beautiful planet cannot sustain current consumer patterns.

Through my talks, posts, and articles, I have also helped people reduce their meat consumption, buy less single-use plastic like hair product bottles, reduce their digital data footprint, and make the change to oat or soy milk. All of these changes have an impact on the total greenhouse gas emissions.

Leverage agility to positively impact the environment at work

Agility enables value to be delivered in complex environments. Using agility empowers us to navigate through climate change by running small experiments to test the best way to do things for people AND planet. It helps and encourages us to measure and reduce the waste in our processes.

For example, why not do some user research before your next social event? Calculate the carbon equivalent savings if the entire menu was vegetarian, display that cost in a way that is relatable (ie a return flight for a to b or x miles driven by a petrol car) and ask attendees if having a carbon-heavy menu (meat) was acceptable? A stronger (ask for forgiveness rather than permission version) of that would be to just serve vegetarian food, state the carbon savings, and ask for feedback afterward.

A software example would be only executing large, batch processing when the carbon intensity of electricity is low - do your customers find that acceptable? How can you design your products to ensure that you can maximise processing when carbon intensity is low?

Agile has techniques such as value stream mapping which can easily be extended to developing a more circular product, and a more sustainable economy. Our current consumer process is linear: we take resources, make products, use them, and then dispose of them. A circular process is one where products are designed and built to last, to be repaired and reused, and where waste becomes a by-product to be used elsewhere. Agile techniques can help enable this transformation. See the diagram below of how a Value Stream Map can be extended to develop and measure the success of a circular product.

[Click on the image to view full-size]


Using an Agile mindset with the tools and techniques and the planet at the heart of it - we can be the change we need to be for humanity to thrive.

What developers and team leads can do to support sustainability in their place of work

The IT sector is currently causing 3.9%+ of the planet's greenhouse gas emissions (data from 2022), 2% of which comes from data centres. It is predicted to overtake the emissions of the whole of the US by 2040. While we need to digitise to support sustainability (we need the data to make good decisions), we must ensure that the way we create and use digital is sustainable - currently it’s not.

For example, on a windy day in the UK, minimal fossil fuels will be used to create the electricity required by the electricity grid. So the carbon intensity of using electricity is less. In certain parts of the UK, electricity is generated almost solely by renewable energy sources. If your data centres are located there, the carbon cost of running your software is less than a data centre located next to a coal-fuelled power station. We need to be designing our software to use this greener energy where possible, and that means changing the location of our data centres, and/or when functions are executed.

It also means thinking about how to design for simplicity and duality as much as possible. An easy to use, accessible front-end design is more sustainable as users will be able to do what they want more quickly, with fewer steps. Where we can capture information or run a process once for multiple purposes, we can save energy, and therefore create cleaner applications.

I am helping introduce the concepts and practices of sustainable software development via a community of practise, and in the business units that I coach. Sustainable software development fundamentally focuses on three areas to reduce the carbon emissions of software, as stated by the Green Software Foundation:

  • Reducing physical resources
  • Reducing energy
  • Being smart about how we use energy so that the energy is either a lower-carbon source or helping transition towards a low carbon future

Mainly this is focusing on increasing awareness of things such as: how to design your software using the least energy and physical resources; how to measure the impact of your software through calculating the carbon intensity per unit of use; and the carbon intensity of the electricity being used to power the software. Basically how you can make small changes when processes are executed, or your data centre is located - in order to make your software more sustainable.

We, at AND, are in early stages of exploring and using these practices, and we are baselining our carbon intensity in one of our applications. Once we have a baseline, we will create hypothesis statements as to what we can change to improve the metric, enabling us to have a greater understanding of how small changes in design and code can influence the amount of carbon used in our software.

I advise everyone to take a course on sustainable development. Calculate the carbon intensity score of your software using the Software Carbon Intensity Specification and then try to reduce it.  When building a new feature or product, design it with sustainability in mind.

Another great tool is Comparative Agility's team quiz Agile Sustainability enabling teams to think about the impact of the choices they make in design, development, and the system they develop on. While I have not yet managed to run this more than once with a team to see what they have improved, I have run it. The awareness it brings with regards to all the small pieces of the puzzle that affect sustainability is pretty mind-blowing, and I am excited to see improvements when I repeat the exercise!

Generally, we need to take action - small nudges in the right direction. I hope I have given you some ideas of where to start, to remove the fog and fear that we cannot do anything about it, and towards a roadmap of a thriveable future.

Toward a Greener Future

"The greatest threat to our planet is the belief that someone else will save it", Robert Swan.

We have less than seven years to reduce our greenhouse gases by 43% in order to meet the 1.5 degree limit set by climate scientists. We all need to do our part to ensure our children have a life worth living, and a thriving planet to live on. What small change will you make to make a difference?

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