The Paradigm Shift Needed in Technology: Sustainable Digital Design

Thought Leadership

By Natascha Mehrabi | January 17, 2020
Floating rock with greenery and wind mills

As the world becomes more environmentally conscious, it’s only natural to wonder how the digital technology industry can contribute to sustainability.

Many digital technology companies help facilitate the shift towards sustainability by providing smart solutions to typically technology-deficit industries. For example, at Apply Digital, we recently helped digitize the processes of a multinational agriculture solutions company. Now, their customers (namely farmers) have access to data that helps them make smarter and potentially more environmentally-conscious decisions and be more efficient.

Another important way digital technology companies can contribute to environmental conservation is to embrace sustainable thinking within our own industry. For this to truly have an impact, we need a paradigm shift.

Facilitating a paradigm shift in tech

Paradigm shifts are neither quick nor easy. First coined to describe the discovery of new scientific concepts, Thomas Kuhn defined a paradigm shift as a change that alters the way we perceive things. His model can also be applied to the tech industry:

Paradigm Shift Cycle

In order to facilitate a shift toward sustainability, we must embed sustainable thinking into our processes, our decision-making, our problem-solving. A few ways we can do this are to:

  • Discuss: During scrums and internal reviews, incorporate sustainability into our language and ideas. E.g. How can a third-party resource not only improve efficiency but also conserve energy?

  • Choose: When choosing one provider, platform, or design over another, we often weigh the options against cost, experience, or ease of use. Add sustainability as a deciding factor, too.

  • Encourage: Create a setting that invites a shift toward new ideas. Be mindful of how we and others currently perceive the world or a situation, then build a sense of trust and openness to inspire changes that will lead to a paradigm shift.

  • Co-operate: Understand where others are coming from within your group, their varied backgrounds, their current realities. Look for commonalities and similarities. Identify a common starting point from which to form new ideas. Be open to changing our views and seeing things differently.

We can design more sustainable products

Whether you’re a strategist, designer, or developer, here are a few examples of where to start incorporating solutions to reduce the carbon footprint of products you’re designing.

Integrate sustainability into your design thinking

A well-thought-out user flow or information architecture reduces the number of steps required to complete a task and so eliminates unnecessary energy use. Other examples include:

  • On eCommerce sites and apps, allow users to rate products by longevity and reusability.

  • Use personalization to enable repeat users to quickly find the information they need or the tasks they want to accomplish.

  • Encourage customers to auto-update their apps since new versions are often faster and more efficient.

Develop for sustainability

Optimization of digital products is key to reducing energy use. The internet currently accounts for 2% of total carbon emissions. Usage trends over the last 10 years show a doubling in webpage weight related to images and video content. A few ways to embrace sustainable thinking for development include:

  • Ensure code is clean for fast page loading

  • Compress media files

  • Choose a sustainability-minded hosting provider, e.g. find one through Green Web Foundation

  • Track your footprint before and after development using a tool like www.websitecarbon.com

  • Use resources like Greenpeace Report to see third-party applications rated by sustainability. E.g. Hosting a video on Youtube is more sustainable than hosting on Vimeo

Sell sustainable solutions to stakeholders

Changing our perceptions and processes is only effective if we can sell it to our clients. This isn’t a massive hurdle. In fact, the steps we take to reduce energy usage are often the same ones we take to increase load times, improve customer experience, and even reduce costs. We also find, as more and more companies strive to reduce their footprint, digital solutions built within a sustainable framework are well-suited to our clients’ values and goals.

Small changes, large impact

Implementing these small changes can have a large impact on your digital products and build momentum toward a more sustainable mindset in technology design. Let’s all step boldly into this new paradigm and drive it forward.