A New Generation and the Future of Sustainable Computing

The Gen Z generation has grown up with both powerful technology and a keen awareness of environmental impact. How will their perspectives as the new data scientists and stakeholders shape the future of sustainable computing?

Carrie Pallardy, Contributing Reporter

April 10, 2023

12 Min Read
Young, green leaves symbolize Gen Z's dedication to fighting climate change with green IT.
Zoonar GmbH via Alamy Stock

The power of computing technology has become essential. We rely on the cloud and data centers in our professional and personal lives, and we look forward to the exciting developments in machine learning and AI. But all that technology demands a delicate balancing act between profit, consumer demand, and security. For a long time, the environmental impact and sustainability of computing technology has been a lesser consideration -- but that is changing.

Generation Z, people born between the late 1990s and early 2010s, are contemplating what their future will look like. Older Gen Zers are already building their careers. And as they picture that future, environmental concerns loom large. A Pew Research Center Study found that 67% of people in the Gen-Z generation think that addressing climate change should be a top priority to ensure a sustainable planet for future generations.

Gen Z goes by many other names: “digital natives” and “the internet generation” among them. Their knowledge of technology and concern for the environment could bring sustainability into the center of computing conversation. What harm does this technology do to sustainability efforts, and how can it be harnessed to do the opposite?

Several experts talked to InformationWeek about the challenges that we face in the modern computing landscape and the potential solutions that could arise.

Gen Z on the Environmental Impact of Computing: 'A Culture of Waste'

The awareness of the environmental impact of computing technology has grown, but it is easy to understand why it has taken time. “One of the issues inherent in computing is the invisibility of the machinery that makes the magic happen, meaning that it is really easy for these impacts to go unnoticed, and it is very difficult to accurately account for these impacts even if one has a certain level of awareness,” says Bran Knowles, a senior lecturer in data science at Lancaster University.

Knowles was the lead author of a brief, Computing and Climate Change, for the Association for Computing Machinery. The brief explores the global energy demands of data centers (up 100% over the past 10 years) and the global emissions attributable to the information and communication technology (ICT) sector (1.8%).

Carbon emissions are a part of the picture, but they do not tell the whole story of how computing technology impacts the environment. For Steven Gonzalez, a PhD candidate at the Massachusetts Institute of Technology (MIT), the story is a local one. He authored a case study included in the MIT Case Studies in Social and Ethical Responsibilities of Computing (SERC).

The case study zooms in to look at individual data centers and the impact they have on the people and environment around them. Gonzalez points to the noise pollution emitted by a data center in Chandler, Ariz. He also highlights how data centers compete for local resources, like water, electricity, and land. “The server farm is no longer a metaphor. The servers are actually competing with crops for water resources,” he says.

Computing technology also demands rare earth metals. The mining, manufacture, and disposal of the resultant waste creates considerable environmental damage.

Devices powered by computing technology also contribute to the mounting electronic waste. “The hunger for faster and better machines remains insatiable. The average lifespan for an electronic device is hardly over three years, with a few needing to be replaced within 24 months,” says Durvesh Ganveer, chief architect behind the sustainability assessment framework at information technology service and consulting company NTT DATA. The engineering capabilities to make devices last longer than a handful of years exists, but planned obsolescence is a prominent business strategy.

All of these environmental impacts are compounded by the incredible demand for data centers and the cloud. Downtime at data centers is incredibly costly. The technicians at data centers are tasked with keeping the cloud operational, not sustainable or efficient, according to Gonzalez.

“There's a metabolism to computation. It has inputs and outputs that needs energy, and it needs water, and it needs all these materials, that it then ingests and then excretes …That's something that we're confronted with. The consequences of that as we digitize even more,” he says. “You can see that the cloud has a culture; a culture that is very much a culture of waste.”

Solutions to these challenges are not going to be easy to implement. “We've gotten into this ‘bigger is better’ power paradigm,” notes Sasha Luccioni, a research scientist and climate lead at artificial intelligence company HuggingFace. If people have been able to make a million-parameter AI model, why not a billion-parameter one? A trillion-parameter one? “Once you've embarked on this journey, it is hard to stop.”

Change will have to come from many different fronts. Measurement is one of the most fundamental places to start. How can computing technology be made more sustainable if we can’t quantify its impact on the environment?

“More work needs to be done to develop consistent guidelines for measuring the consumption of resources and the environmental impact across industries. This is a complex task that demands collaboration between industry, private-public partnerships, governmental agencies and various stakeholders,” Ganveer explains.

Measuring Tech Emissions

Efforts to measure computing technology’s emissions and resource consumption are underway. For example, the United Nations’ International Telecommunications Union (ITU) has released emissions targets for the ICT industry; it is calling for the ICT industry to cut greenhouse gas emissions by 45% by 2030. The European Green Digital Coalition has brought together 26 companies with plans to develop green digital solutions and tools for measuring their environmental impact. Companies can adopt standards for environmental management and become ISO 14001 certified.

While these efforts are important, measurable progress in sustainability will need to be supported by regulation. “I think policy also plays a role, and so far, water, power and emissions are really not priced or regulated based on environmental impact. This is changing, especially in Europe, where stricter guidelines are already coming into play,” according to Krishna Subramanian, co-founder and COO of unstructured data management as a service company Komprise. Subramanian also points out the importance of incentivizing sustainability initiatives. “Aligning economic incentives with sustainability is required to drive the urgency of sustainable computing,” she says.

Roles Consumers and Companies Play in Green Tech

With increasing awareness of the need for sustainable computing comes the question of responsibility. What role do consumers and companies have to play in a more sustainable future?

Individual consumers cannot control the large-scale impacts of computing technology, and they most likely cannot eschew the use of that technology. But they can evaluate how they use it. “I think we must start with fundamental questions. What kind of data do we want to store? For how long do we want to store? Do we need to keep all the photos of our cats and lunches on Instagram forever?” asks Julia Rone, a postdoctoral researcher at the Minderoo Centre for Technology and Democracy at CRASSH, University of Cambridge.

Consumers and companies can also collaborate. “The providers of computing resources can help consumers understand their carbon footprint based on their technology purchases and data usage, and likewise, consumers can demand providers use more sustainable products and services,” says Ganveer.

As consumer demand and regulation place more pressure on companies to prioritize sustainability, the approach to creating new products will likely change. “Data scientists of the future are going to need to consider climate impacts of the technologies they are creating at the beginning of, and throughout, their design process. It's no good thinking about it after the technology is already put out into the world,” Knowles says.

In the meantime, plenty of efforts to make current computing technology sustainable are already being made. “Efficient and sustainable computing is an area where there is a lot of innovation around renewable energy, reduced heat production, better cooling technologies, more efficient storage, better data management and compute form factors and other forms of green computing,” Subramanian points out.

Waste may be an unavoidable byproduct of computing, but there are opportunities to repurpose waste. A UK data center startup, Deep Green, has installed a system that uses waste heat to heat a local pool, according to Datacenter Dynamics.

Collaborative Thinking for a Sustainable Future

This kind of collaborative thinking could be an important piece of a more sustainable future for computing. Rone is studying the democratization of digital infrastructure construction. She is focusing on how and why local groups have mobilized against the construction of a data center in North Holland. Many of the people she has interviewed aren’t necessarily against the construction of data centers, but they do object to being excluded from the process. They are interested in making data centers more sustainable and minimizing the environmental impact. “There's this conflict between the logic of profit, basically, in terms of the people or companies that build the data centers and more local ideas about having them [be] more renewable,” Rone explains.

Embracing a more democratic approach could make a difference in many ways. Gonzalez sees promise in data storage. “How…we get to the point where somebody is going to innovate a solution for data storage is going to be by democratizing and opening up, giving people access to the patents to explore and do experiments,” he says.

Rone sees “...very interesting ideas such as collectively owned and operated clouds, collectively owned and operated social media platforms. I don't know whether this can come from the state, or it would come from social movements, but I think we need to start with the radical rethinking of our digital [world].”

Luccioni describes how making AI and machine learning models more accessible and democratic makes it easier to recycle and reuse data. “You can take an existing model and tweak it to your purpose, and you can take the data that someone else collected and reuse it,” she says. “In the end, [it] really becomes climate positive.”

AI and machine learning undoubtedly have environmental impacts. It can take millions of GPU hours to train large AI models, according to Luccioni. But this technology can also be put to work to better understand climate change and sustainability. “Most people who are doing machine learning now are quite young, and I do see, for example, climate change AI has grown immensely in the last couple of years,” she says.

But she does not yet consider this use of AI to be mainstream. “I feel like we've got a divide between mainstream AI research, which is really focused on performance and scale,” Luccioni says. “Then there's another kind of an alternative path of people who are really trying to use AI for detecting methane leaks or tracking deforestation or monitoring biodiversity.”

Another potential path to sustainability is through the development of alternative technologies. Gonzalez points to projects like Grow Your Own Cloud, which is exploring ways to store data in the DNA of plants.

A New (Greener) Generation

The challenges and potential paths to more sustainable computing are myriad. Gen Z has their work cut out for them, but it is already possible to see how their focus on sustainability could cause significant shifts in consumer and company behavior. “Majors like environmental science, sustainable engineering, and data science are gaining prominence. We are getting a workforce that not only understands the urgency of the problem but is also better equipped to innovate in this area,” says Subramanian.

This generation’s environmental concerns could also play a role in shaping policy. Maxwell Alejandro Frost was elected as the US representative for Florida’s 10th congressional district, becoming the first Gen-Z member of Congress. He cited the climate crisis as one of his motivations for running, according to Inside Climate News.

With environmental concerns helping to shape Gen Z’s education and career choices, they are being pickier about what companies they want on their resumes. A survey from recruitment platform Handshake found some telling trends among Gen Z. A total of 65% of survey respondents reported they would be more likely to apply to a company committed to sustainable practices, and 60% reported avoiding employers perceived to have a negative impact on the environment.

Rone also notes that employee activism is on the rise. She indicates the trend of employees mobilizing to demand companies become more environmentally friendly. For example, in 2019, more than 1,800 Amazon workers protested their employer’s lack of action regarding climate change, CNN reported.

Gonzalez describes the importance of shifting expectations as consumers in order to increase sustainability, and Gen Z may be leading the charge there. The State of Consumer Spending: Gen Z Shoppers Demand Sustainable Retail report from consumer engagement solutions company First Insight found that 62% of Gen-Z consumers prefer to buy from sustainable brands. Additionally, 73% of Gen-Z respondents are willing to pay more for sustainable products.

Gen Z’s dollars could be going to more than just sustainable products. They could also be putting their money to work in sustainable investments. A survey from impact investment service Inyova found that 72% of Gen Zers hope that responsible investment could drive sustainability outcomes. Iu Ayala, CEO and founder of data science consultancy Gradient insight, points out that there are more means becoming available to support that aim. “The growing interest in sustainable investing has also led to the emergence of new tools and platforms that help investors assess the environmental impact of their investments.”

Sustainability is top-of-mind for Gen Zers, and some of them are finding ways to bring that focus to careers in data science. Ayala believes that younger data scientists bring a fresh perspective to their field. “Their holistic approach to problem-solving, which considers social, economic and political factors, can help address the complex, interconnected nature of environmental challenges,” he says.

What to Read Next:

Special Report: What's the Environmental Impact of a Data-Driven Organization?

IT Pro Pathways for Gen Z: What the Enterprise Can Do to Help

Generation Z Is Bringing Dramatic Transformation to the Workforce

Generations in the Workplace: Stereotypes and Facts

About the Author(s)

Carrie Pallardy

Contributing Reporter

Carrie Pallardy is a freelance writer and editor living in Chicago. She writes and edits in a variety of industries including cybersecurity, healthcare, and personal finance.

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