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Creating a more sustainable IT department

Technology leaders share some of the ways they're focused on lowering their carbon footprint and helping their companies advance sustainability goals.

Scientists all over the world are unequivocal in their call to address global warming. Smart business and IT leaders aren't ignoring it.

Pressure is mounting from all fronts -- government, boards, consumers, for example -- for companies to increase their focus on sustainability and take more climate action. But the topic of climate action can seem overwhelming, especially because at heart consumerism is antithetical to sustainability. Looking to how other companies are increasing their sustainability efforts -- including how others are creating a more sustainable IT department -- can be one source of climate action ideas.

To that point, four IT leaders discuss some areas in which they're focusing on climate action and how they're attempting to address sustainability.

Reducing technical debt, duplication

Abha Dogra, senior vice president of digital technology and CIO of Schneider Electric North America based in Andover, Mass.

In her role, Dogra leads Schneider Electric's artificial intelligence and automation strategy to apply artificial intelligence at scale. She is driving digital transformation through applied AI in finance, supply chain, employee experience, digital offerings and consumer science.

In January 2021, Corporate Knights, a media and research company based in Toronto, named Schneider Electric the world's most sustainable company -- up from the 29th position in 2020.

Schneider Electric has a number of sustainability goals, but one of our main goals is to create efficiency in our application development processes to ensure that we are not creating siloed applications because that uses more servers installed in more data centers, which then emits more carbon.

As a global company, when we look at our portfolio we ensure that anything we do in one part of the company can be used across multiple regions, so that we can reduce duplication. That duplication could come in the form of electricity usage, server usage, deployments in data centers, or duplication of labor and effort.

We also have a focused program around technical debt reduction. Because the company has been in business for many years and given the scale of our organization, it's natural that we have amassed technical debt. That technical debt could be in the form of outdated technology, such as servers and operating systems, as well as different ERP systems because of various mergers and acquisitions.

Technical debt requires more infrastructure, which results in more and more carbon emissions. In addition, technical debt requires more manual processes. For example, if we have three different ERP systems that are not integrated, it takes more manual effort just to extract the reports for financial reporting, which results in more paperwork. Technical debt accumulation results in much more latency in processes, much more manual effort, much more infrastructure -- and all that adds to our carbon footprint.

Because of that we in the technology group also have an eye toward not accumulating net new technical debt. We do that, in part, by looking at how we manage our vendors so we don't end up buying similar products [for different areas of the business] as well as how we introduce new technologies into our ecosystem to avoid duplication and to ensure they can scale across the organization.

Exploring carbon emission data

Narinder Sahota, CTO at Advanced, a software and services company based in Birmingham, England

Sahota is responsible for managing Advanced's growing research and development facility as well as moving the company's technology strategy forward, bringing products and services to market.

Like many businesses, Advanced is on a journey to reduce its carbon emissions [and as part of that effort] we invested in an environmental, social and corporate governance (ESG) reporting tool a year ago. That enabled us to see the results of the last two years of initiatives measured against our overall greenhouse gas emissions from all our offices, travel and data centers. [Data centers negatively affect the environment in a number of ways, including water usage and electricity.] This data that has enabled us to complete our first ESG report.

The report helps us understand our achievements so far and identify the areas where we still need to make progress. It will also serve as a comprehensive baseline for future annual reporting, ensuring transparency and providing confidence that we integrate the environment and sustainability goals into our overall business strategy for success.

Continued hybrid and flexible working options for our employees also helps us support reduced emissions because employees don't have to commute. We have also implemented our own business systems management platform that facilitates hot-desking in the workplace. Staff members can book their own desks, coordinating with other team members for easy collaboration.

Our target for 2021 has been to source 100% renewable electricity for all our buildings. In August, we successfully switched our two largest workplaces, our head office and regional headquarters, to renewable electricity. Despite the addition of acquired businesses, where changes need to be made, there is a net reduction in overall emissions across our combined business since 2018, partly due to consolidation and increased focus on utilities. This will represent a saving of 70.8 tCO2e [tonnes (t) of carbon dioxide (CO2) equivalent (e)] against our current 2020 greenhouse gas totals.

Other digital initiatives include installing smart printers in all our offices, greatly reducing energy consumption while also helping employees monitor their own printing requirements. This encourages them to print as little as possible.

Electric vehicle use is an important shift for people looking to reduce their carbon footprint, and problems with accessing charging facilities are one of the main reasons some are reluctant to make the change. We have already installed EV charge points at our head office and regional hub, specifically in the U.K., and will be adding more across our other locations.

Looking to partners

Mark Rees, CTO at Xero, a provider of cloud-based accounting software in Wellington, New Zealand

Rees is in charge of Xero's technology direction and strategy. He leads the company's platform, security, data, engineering and architecture teams and is responsible for enabling Xero's platform for innovation, growth and operational excellence.

From developing strategy and managing risk and governance through to looking at how we can make smarter purchasing decisions, we at Xero are constantly looking at our full value chain -- including suppliers, customers and partners. We work to set clear targets that embed our sustainable energy initiative values, [which include workforce, environmental and community goals], into everything we do.

This means we also have to think differently about who we work with to ensure our partners contribute to our efforts. So for example, our cloud services vendor, AWS, [has gone on record as being] committed to achieving 100% renewable energy usage for its global infrastructure by 2025. We're also working with AWS to determine how we can optimize our infrastructure use.

Xero has started using Salesforce's Sustainability Cloud as we look to more easily and closely manage the calculation and review of our carbon footprint. [Salesforce's Sustainability Cloud is meant to help organizations measure, analyze and report greenhouse gas emissions.]

Ultimately, we want to optimize our carbon footprint so that we can continue to reduce our impact, rather than just offset it, and using Sustainability Cloud [is meant to] help us to work toward this goal.

Focusing on better environmental actions necessitates bigger picture thinking and greater collaboration as we can no longer work in an IT silo to achieve our objectives. Instead, we must work closely with every area of the business to ensure we're supporting the efforts of the whole organization.

Streamlining data centers

Tony Kerrison, CTO and core technology infrastructure executive at Bank of America, headquartered in Charlotte, N.C.

Kerrison and his team are responsible for designing, building and operating end-to-end technology infrastructure tools, managing critical systems and platforms across the enterprise and determining the architecture of the bank's technology across the firm.

Bank of America has a goal of net-zero emissions before 2050, and that encompasses every part of the company, including data centers. Since 2010, we have reduced data center greenhouse gas emissions by 52% through energy reduction, space consolidation and greening of the utility grid. Data centers' water use is down 57% due to the move to modular data halls and we have replaced evaporative coolers with air-cooled chillers.

The company has moved from 80,000 servers with 100,000 operating systems in 2010 to 80,000 servers with 204,000 operating systems. Digital banking has grown exponentially over the last several years. But despite these greatly higher data volumes, the bank is using less electricity and water than a decade ago. In 2010, data centers accounted for 17% of the bank's energy use and 7% of its water use. This is now down to 12% and 3%, respectively.

Now, Bank of America has set new goals to achieve by 2030, and our data centers are a key pillar of our strategy to reach those goals.

One key aspect of that is virtualization of the private cloud. We already met our goal of moving 80% of our workloads on the private cloud by 2019. We have also implemented modular data halls in several of our data centers. [These are designed to be more environmentally friendly.]

Recommendations from an industry expert

Addressing climate problems is an inherently complex endeavor, but industry experts are vocal that the time to act is now. And some experts are starting to focus specifically on what CIOs and IT leaders can do.

For example, companies cannot afford to ignore the climate change risks, said Richard Hunter, an analyst at Gartner during his presentation, "Get ready for the carbon flip." His recommendations for IT leaders included the following:

  • Work with the CEO to prioritize carbon reduction.
  • Measure the organizations carbon footprint.
  • Understand how to improve energy management.
  • Eradicate waste from both operations and the supplier base.
  • Create an IT department that prioritizes sustainability principles.
  • Find zero carbon alternatives.
  • Market sustainability to consumers.
  • Be an example by lowering your own carbon footprint.

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