Creating a climate resilient web
Speaker: Tom Greenwood, Co-Founder and Managing Director of Wholegrain Digital
Featured in our 2021 London Climate Action Week event: The environmental impact of the digital industry.
The world relies on digital technology all day, every day. More often than not, our jobs depend on it, and our social lives are married to it.
We haven’t actually had fast internet digital technology and smartphones for all that long. And yet, it’s hard for most of us to remember what life was like before it came along. Or how we would cope if it was all taken away. As a result, we’ve become almost wholly dependent on digital technology in every part of our day-to-day functioning.
But whilst these powerful tools enhance our lives and make them easier, it’s also vital we look ahead to the risks this sort of dependence could incur, particularly in terms of climate change.
Breaking down the risk
It’s easy to think of the internet as being virtual and in the cloud. But it’s actually a very physical infrastructure, with data centers and telecom networks spanning the entire globe. And without that physical infrastructure, none of our virtual services can actually function.
So, what happens when a natural disaster strikes? When a hurricane snaps a telecom network’s mast wires? Or when a storm floods a datacenter? We need to think about how these events could disrupt our infrastructure, and how they’re already disrupting infrastructure around the world.
Wildfires can bring damage to utility poles and fiber-optic cables, ultimately cutting off internet connections and phone signals for thousands. They have prompted telecom firms to build their towers over and over again. Last year, wildfires in the Bay Area of California caused at least 5,000 residents to go without internet or phone service for an entire day.
Flooding and rising sea levels can also impact our digital infrastructure. The worry is that the dense network of cables which make up the internet are being inundated with saltwater as sea levels rise.
As National Public Radio explained back in 2018: “The internet is particularly susceptible to flooding because data travels through underground cables buried along roadways and through tunnels. While the massive deep sea cables that carry data under the Atlantic and Pacific oceans are designed to be permanently underwater, other infrastructure such as copper wiring and power stations are not.”
Protecting the heart
Here’s a map of London Docklands in Central London, the year the UK experienced a series of flash floods.
The red area shows the projected flood area on a moderate flood risk scenario for 2050. And at the heart of this map, we have the Docklands, which is the centre of the UK’s internet infrastructure. It is the heart of where the country’s internet services connect.
If flooded, it would be disastrous for telecommunications – not just in London, but across the entire country. This is the sort of risk we need to be thinking ahead about. The products or services we provide need to function in the times and places where people need them most.
Natural disasters should be used as a reason for better infrastructure, not as an excuse to cover the failures of our current systems.
Design for every weather
But what if we built disaster-proof infrastructure? To build a sustainable web, companies need to stop designing services just for the best case scenario. That is, where people have the latest device and a fast connection.
Instead, they need to think about the services that matter and then figure out how they could function in the worst case scenario, or under highly imperfect conditions.
This is particularly true of critical services, such as ambulances or the police, which can only be contacted with an adequate phone line. The way these services are reached make having an adequate communication line essential.
Without it, people wouldn’t be able to warn others and coordinate efforts in emergency scenarios, particularly where information on the weather is needed for their own safety.
Weighing up all these risks, it’s clear we need to ensure emergency services are available in emergency situations. Likewise, we need to ensure things like business systems, payment services and educational tools also remain resilient to the impacts of climate change for society to function.
Sustainable web in action
In 2017, when Hurricane Irma approached, US news outlet CNN launched the lite version of its website. It uses 97% less data compared to CNN’s standard website, meaning it can be accessed on very slow, weak internet connections.
This meant that when the mobile towers went down, disrupting the internet for thousands of Americans, people could still retrieve news and access the information they needed in order to keep themselves and their family safe.
It is this sort of thinking we need in software design, moving forward. We need to be making sure that the software we design doesn’t have single points of failure. That it’s super data efficient. And that it can load fast on devices with low battery, hence not draining people’s batteries in emergency situations.
By putting climate change at the forefront of how we build infrastructure, our web will have the ability to remain resilient and sustainable, no matter the weather.
What’s the most exciting thing you think has happened in this digital space in the last six months?
Just the fact that there’s so many people talking about this in the industry now, and actually trying to take action. So conversation is one thing, which was lacking in the past and that’s happening and actually leading to actions.
I’m hearing from people all the time now who say they’re actually making efforts to make their software more efficient, which can only be a good thing, and they’re really excited about it. This is good for the users of that software as well. So it’s really good to see tangible actions happening off the back of the conversations being generated in the last few years.
What are you seeing in different countries’ approaches to climate change?
In France, rather than tackling the issue of climate change as a whole, the country is picking out bits. For example, it’s got this circular economy law which is really powerful. And as part of that, there is a repairability index which it’s introducing for electronic products. The country is also reviewing the possibility of introducing a form of digital sustainability into the school curriculum.
Are companies considering drastic measures to mitigate climate change?
There are some digital infrastructure providers now looking at things like future sea level rises, or impending flood risks, when they’re building out new infrastructure. But we have to remember that infrastructure is usually planned years in advance and lasts for many years so we always have to think a long time ahead.
There’s a real lack of long-term thinking behind a lot of our existing infrastructure, and even behind some which is being built out now – which is a shame. But how we can change this pattern is by starting to make these issues of climate resilience a larger part of the overall conversation.
It’s really hard to find many really good examples of software designed in this way which are operating today. A website like gov.uk is a good example of resiliently built platforms because it is very efficient and reliable and can work well on even basic devices.