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Sustainable Software Systems Using Circular Economy Principles

The circular economy is a framework that aims to keep products and materials in use for as long as possible, reducing waste and pollution, and regenerating natural systems. As practitioners or change enablers, we can support sustainable product development using concepts from the circular economy in our daily work.

Ines Garcia spoke about the circular economy and agile product development at XP 2023.

The IT industry can reduce waste and pollution by embracing circular economy principles, Garcia mentioned. This includes designing products for reuse and refurbishment, promoting the sharing economy, implementing closed-loop supply chains, and responsibly managing electronic waste. The principles can guide the products we create and how we create them, Garcia said.

Garcia explained why the circular economy matters to her:

It provides a pathway to decouple economic growth from environmental degradation and create a more resilient and thriving future for all, not just humans as species.

PESTEL analysis is a strategic tool often applied in the circular economy world, that just suits any product organisation and therefore worth equipping as agile practitioners on our toolboxes, Garcia said. PESTEL stands for Political, Economic, Social, Technological, Environmental, and Legal factors. This tool evaluates external macro-environmental factors impacting an organization:

For example, suggestions for using it include analyzing how these factors can impact product development, project funding, team dynamics, regulatory compliance, and market demand. To its core, PESTEL analysis helps inform decision-making, identify opportunities, and address risks related to sustainability and circularity.

We often think of software and services as ephemeral, non physical. Yet the crossroads with the circular economy are rather wide, Garcia said.

As practitioners and change enablers, we can support sustainable software development by promoting practices such as green software engineering, optimizing energy consumption, and reducing waste in the software development life cycle, Garcia said. This is a simple starting point.

Garcia mentioned that a good next step is to advocate for the use of renewable energy sources, implement eco-friendly infrastructure, and raise awareness about the environmental impact of software development:

Don’t forget about the physical items we use such as hardware, remember to keep products and materials in use for as long as possible. Extend and maximise items use, repair, upcycle, etc.

InfoQ interviewed Ines Garcia about the circular economy and sustainable product development.

InfoQ: What can be done by the IT industry to reduce waste and pollution?

Ines Garcia: The industry can prioritize energy efficiency, adopt sustainable sourcing practices, and minimize the use of hazardous materials in production. Just to name a few.

Needless to say, tech is everywhere. I see it not as an industry, but as a fabric layer in our 21st century. If you think about it, tech is touching almost every aspect of society and the economy.

It has become an integral part of our daily routines, communication, entertainment, transportation, healthcare, and more. When I refer to tech as a fabric layer in our 21st century, I mean that it permeates and interconnects everything, much like a fabric weaves together different threads. It has a profound impact on how we live, work, and interact.

Whilst it has potential to support the reduction of planetary boundaries overshoot and the social shortfall, it’s essential to recognize that technology also has its own environmental footprint. The production, use, and disposal of tech devices and infrastructure contribute to resource consumption, waste generation, and carbon emissions; and the huge amounts of energy consumption.

InfoQ: What do you hope that the future will bring?

Garcia: When considering the topic at hand, often the concept of "the future" is brought up. In the question posed here, for instance, we are prompted to contemplate what lies ahead. In our limited time, we must recognize the urgency to take action. Today is the focal point for change, as we cannot afford to delay further.

My hope is that TODAY will bring a widespread adoption of circular economy principles, where sustainability becomes seamlessly integrated into every aspect of our lives and business practices.

In envisioning TOMORROW–rather than future–I see a world where organizations prioritize the well-being of the planet and its inhabitants (not just humans). This entails using resources efficiently, regenerating in the process, and leveraging technology and innovation to create a thriving and resilient environment.

And doing so not just for future generations, but to dramatically slow down the detrimental effects we impose–us humans– as one species into our biosphere, which is not ours alone.

The future is not to be predicted nor forecasted, but to be imagined so that it can be created. It’s up to us.

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