A mental model for thinking about the impact of a digital product

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When you think about how a digital product or website creates an environmental impact, you can think of it creating it in three main ways - through the Packets of data it sends to users, the Platform the product runs on, and the Process used to make the product itself.

In more detail…

Packets

Unsurprisingly, it takes network infrastructure to move data from the servers you run, to a user's device. All this infrastructure needs electricity, and which is usually generated by burning fossil fuels. The amount of fossil fuels used to generate power varies based on the time of day and where in the world it is generated.

What's more, different kinds of infrastructure have different power demands - so transmitting the same video file over a wired connection uses a different amount to sending it wirelessly.

On top of that, different speeds of wireless connection also use different amounts of power, so a relatively fast 4G connection typically uses more energy to download the same amount of data as a 3G. With a forthcoming move to 5G, connections are likely to use more power still, even before we take into account their typically reduced range, meaning we'll need more of base stations running to cover the same area.

We look at this in more detail, and the causes, along with the strategies you can take to mitigate against this in your packets, borrowing ideas disciplines like web performance optimisation, accessibility, and content design.

Jump to your packets

Platform

In addition to taking infrastructure to move data from your servers to your users, you need power to run your own servers. You typically do this directly, by having your own server in a rack you rent in a datacenter, or indirectly, paying per compute-unit with cloud computing, or a software as a service offering.

In this case you can control the impact in a number of ways.

These include, what controlling the kinds of computing resources you use, and choosing how electricity is generated to power these resources.

Choices you make about your product's technical architecture also affect how easily and quickly you can adjust the amount of resources you use directly.

This is covered in more detail in your platform, and in here, we look at how using virtualisation, containerisation, serverless/functions-as-a-service can help, as well as other idea from the devops toolbox, as well as server-side performance optimisation.

We also cover options for running infrastructure on renewable power, and what options you have when you don't have direct control over where power comes from.

Jump to your platform

Process

We've established that we end up generating CO2 when we burn fossils to move bits (as in bytes) around.

We also end up emitting CO2 when we burn fossil fuels to move actual physical things around, like people, parcels, and so on, in jets and cars for business travel, and so on.

We also emit CO2 when we burn fossil fuels to keep places we work well-lit and depending where you are in the world warm or cool enough to work in.

Finally we build in large amounts of resource use (and money) into our products when we decide to spend lots of time and resources working on them without researching how useful they are our users.

In here, your process we touch on ideas from service design, behaviour change, remote working and remote research practices, as well as agile product management.

Jump to your process

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