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The benefits of digital eco-design: towards the path of digital sobriety.

Digital technology is not nearly as clean as the sleek design of our smartphones suggests. It is responsible for 4% of global greenhouse gas emissions, even more than air travel. However, it is also a great opportunity to reduce the impact of other sectors – 96% of global emissions. So how can we reduce our share without slowing down positive innovations from an environmental and social point of view? Since the manufacturing phase of equipment is the most consumptive – it accounts for 74% of water consumption and 76% of the contribution to the depletion of abiotic resources linked to users’ equipment – and the most waste-producing phase, – 80% of which is not recycled – the priority is to extend its lifespan. We can therefore rethink the whole design and use of the devices, as well as the applications they carry.

Eco-design for digital inclusion

We rarely discard our phones and other devices because they are broken or unusable, but because they are no longer capable of running new versions of OS and applications. Although they are in perfect condition, they no longer offer the speed and fluidity of a satisfactory user experience. This accelerated obsolescence pushes users to renew their appliances very regularly, and thus to overconsume, leading to overexploitation of natural resources, overproduction of waste, and pollution of water, soil and air. 

In addition to its harmful consequences on the environment, accelerated obsolescence reinforces inequalities. Many people do not have the financial capacity or skills to change their equipment frequently. They cannot keep up with the pace of imposed renewals, which therefore aggravates the digital divide. Alternatively, by seeking to produce code that is sufficiently light and universal to run correctly and sustainably on current hardware, a virtuous circle can be set in motion. With less resource-intensive software, energy consumption is reduced. It is also less necessary to change devices and it is easier to buy basic or refurbished models. 

The role of businesses

Ideally, this topic should be included in a digital component of the CSR (Corporate Social Responsibility) policy, as this is where the main economic, social and environmental issues are at stake. This would allow measures to be taken throughout the ISD (Information Services Department), such as optimising the development frameworks used, and establishing eco-responsible rules for all projects, like withs the use of standard fonts. Concretely, few companies show such a level of maturity, and the subject is dealt with on an ad hoc basis, within projects. On the contrary, the trend is towards innovation and the achievement of technological feats, often very energy-intensive. 

The road to eco-design

To date, there is no complete eco-design methodology, but there are guidelines or guides that provide a number of recommendations. In France, this is the case of the Référentiel pour l’Amélioration de l’Accessibilité des Applications (Reference Guide for Improving Accessibility of Applicaitons – RGAA), published by DINUM, or the Guide de référence de la conception responsable de l’Institut du numérique responsable (Reference Guide to Responsible Design – INR). 

In particular, developers are encouraged to avoid unnecessary code, to use JavaScript only when necessary, to limit database queries, to reduce the number and volume of downloads. In short, to minimise resource consumption (CPU, memory and bandwidth) in every possible way.  

However, eco-design should not be reduced to an accumulation of technical tricks. It is a global approach, and its objective must be clearly stated from the outset. The challenge is to offer the best possible experience to ALL users, including those who do not have a state-of-the-art device or a high-performance network. 

Hence, the first step is to consider the profile of the users, their equipment, the contexts of use, etc. For example, there is no use foreseeing a responsive display if the application is to be used by technicians all equipped with the same tablet. On the other hand, in the field, they may not have good quality reception and exchanges will have to be minimised. 

Employees spearhead a new eco-design culture

Eco-design is therefore a long-term collective effort. It requires the involvement of all the players, who must be made aware of it and trained beforehand. However, although organisations are still struggling to make it a global policy, it has been noted that employees, in search of meaning in their work, are very receptive to it, and that they can be the agents of change coming from the field. 

Project stakeholders therefore have an essential role to play in spreading eco-design. They are the ones who take up the subject, who get their teams on board, and who will be able to demonstrate that producing eco-designed software has only advantages. Optimising code and data exchange improves performance, as companies like Google are advocating with their performance evaluation and optimisation tools. There are fewer bugs, and users benefit from pages that are more readable and load faster. 

Finally, the more attention one pays to accessibility, the more users will be reached. To take just one example, which company does not have any nearsighted people among its employees or customers? This automatically results in an improvement in the rate of use, the conversion rate and therefore turnover. 

On the condition that it has been thought of from the start, all these elements can be measured. These KPIs are arguments to convince the company of the merits of the approach and encourage it to generalise these good practises.