May 23, 2019

IEEE Senior member Charles Despins is the Co-Chair of the IEEE Sustainable ICT initiative and Vice President of research, partnerships and faculty affairs at École de technologie supérieure (ETS) at the Université du Québec.

Information and communications technology (ICT) encompasses the tools and networks used to create, store and share information. That includes computers, the internet, telecommunications and broadcasting technologies.

With the rapid rate of change in all things internet-related, ICT is consistently at the center of the technology conversation. New device turnover raises the question of how to make the relatively short life cycle of phones and computers more sustainable.

To that end, we talked with Charles Despins, professor at the Université du Québec and co-chair of the IEEE Sustainable ICT initiative, about the direction of the initiative and its implications on everything from e-waste to environmental and social sustainability at large.

Q (IEEE): In the simplest terms, what does the IEEE Sustainable ICT initiative do, and why is it an important part of the sustainability conversation?

A (Despins): Information and communications technology (ICT) (and the so-called digital revolution in a broader sense) are a double-edged sword in terms of building a sustainable future.

On one hand, ICT’s energy consumption and carbon footprint have grown substantially in recent decades. This has been a result of the development of networks, increased usage and non-renewable energy sources powering (at least partly) these ICT infrastructures. ICT life-cycle management also remains a challenge, exemplified by a growing e-waste problem.

On the other hand, detailed studies have shown that widespread adoption of ICT solutions in various industries could enable the elimination of 20% of the world’s greenhouse gas emissions, as well as substantially contribute to the achievement of at least half of the United Nations’ sustainable development goals. This sustainability through ICT depends on achieving sustainability in ICT, addressing issues like those just raised.

The Sustainable ICT initiative has contributed to this huge endeavor by developing new IEEE standards and raising awareness through publications, webinars and events, such as our summits. Nine new IEEE standards are currently in the final stages of development and address network energy efficiency as well as carbon footprint. Our events also seek to break down silos between IEEE societies, and between the technology community and policymakers. This holistic approach is essential to achieving sustainability through ICT.

Q: What do you see as the biggest potential determinant in the next 10 years as to whether ICT can lead us to a more sustainable future?

A: Over the last decade, the ICT industry has made great strides on the “sustainability in ICT” front (improved energy efficiency is a good example). Much more needs to be done, but the process is engaged.

Going forward, with ICT gradually immersing itself in every industry and area of human activity, “sustainability through ICT” is a huge opportunity but also a daunting challenge. It requires a much stronger dialogue and concerted actions between the technology and  ICT industry community, the other industry sectors that use ICT and public policy makers. With respect to the latter, this means engaging at the national government level but also at regional and municipal levels. Notably, when we talk about “smart” cities, “smart” must also mean “sustainable.”

Q: Since the first Sustainable ICT Summit, what have been the biggest strides in making sustainability a part of the ICT conversation?

A: A 50-page white paper was produced as a result of the first IEEE Sustainable ICT Summit in Paris, France, in October 2017. The white paper lists a summary of 16 industry and policy challenges ranging from sobriety in software engineering to joint industry – government incentives for users of ICT. We look forward to expanding the conversation at this year’s summit, June 18th and 19th in Montreal, Canada.

Q: What are the social impacts of a more sustainable information and communication technology industry? What does success look like?

A: Further in this 21st century, the social impacts of sustainable ICT will range from clean, healthy and prosperous communities to individuals fully empowered to pursue their own goals. However, at the current time, as we discuss 5G, 6G and novel applications, just under 50% of the world’s population does not even have access to the internet. In this respect, there is a rich-and-poor-country digital divide as well as an urban-rural divide in many developed countries. As engineers, we must engage at the local level to make our own communities smarter and more sustainable. Much of the positive impacts of sustainable ICT will come from the bottom up instead of the top down.

The digital revolution is a reality, and as IEEE members we are major contributors to its development. In the spirit of IEEE’s mission statement “advancing technology for humanity”, it is also up to us to reach beyond our professional communities in order to steer this revolution in the direction of sustainability.


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