Comment: How Tomorrow’s Engineers can help us be more sustainable

3 min read

The carbon footprint brought by digital transformation can be reduced by giving employees the data literacy skills and tools to drive a data-driven culture from the bottom-up, says Matt Watts, Chief Technology Evangelist at NetApp.

Becoming more data-driven is an objective for business leaders across the UK. Thanks to black swan events such as Brexit and Covid-19, uncertainty has become the new norm, leading businesses, governments and even people to seek validation through information.

Particularly in the last 18 months, language such as ‘following the science’ and ‘trusting the data’ has entered the mainstream vernacular, rather than being the reserve of boardrooms and data science departments.

In addition, the acceleration of digital transformation and cloud adoption triggered by the pandemic means the vast majority of businesses now have the data they need to create more informed and insightful decisions.

So how can we better manage this data and ensure it is sustainable now and in the future?

This global industry challenge affects us all

Firstly, it’s important to mention that the downside of creating this vast amount of data is the impact it has on the environment. Whether your company’s data lives in your IT cupboard or a huge offshore data centre, it’s still your data. It still has mass, it’s still consuming energy, and it’s still producing emissions. This means that all data has a carbon footprint.

Currently two thirds of the world’s data isn’t used, which is creating data waste. Every email, message and cat video we send has an impact. The process of filtering a spam email produces 0.03g of carbon. Over 120 billion spam emails are sent a day. That’s one more reason to hate spam emails. In addition, data centres are creating a carbon footprint that by 2030 will account for eight per cent of the world’s energy usage.[1]

Businesses need to ask themselves some simple but important questions based on this: How much data do we have? Where is it? What do we use it for? Do we need it?

Now is the time to take responsibility for data and its environmental impact. This is not about eradicating data but getting the most value out of it. Data is vital to creating a more sustainable future. It is being used to design low-emissions vehicles, helping people reduce their energy use through smart meters, and helps us measure our collective carbon impact.

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The issue is that of digital waste. This is also not just a private sector problem, but a problem affecting everyone. All organisations need to be aware that if they are storing data which they are not using, it is really just existing and using up energy. This is completely unsustainable.

A smarter approach needed for data literacy

But it’s not just about getting the technology right. Part of the problem is down to a lack of data literacy skills needed to make the right data driven decisions to manage it all properly. Without proper analysis, data is useless.

This is highlighted by the huge demand for data scientists and analysts in recent years. In fact, demand for data scientists and engineers tripled in the last five years, rising by 231 per cent, according to research by the Royal Society and Burning Glass Technologies.

However, organisations don’t need to hire data scientists for every department. Instead, they need to provide their employees with the data literacy skills and tools to drive a data-driven culture from the bottom-up as well as doing so from the top-down. At an organisational level this can be as simple as ensuring that every employee understands where to find and access the data sets that inform their everyday decisions – whether it’s understanding what sales leads to prioritise or where resources need to be allocated to drive a big project.

Thanks to advances in low code and no code, every employee can be a data scientist.

The role of tomorrow’s engineers

 But the biggest opportunity of them all is that of the next generation of engineers who can help us to tackle this challenge. Businesses play a huge role in encouraging the new generation of engineers to question the sustainability of the products and applications we create. Future engineers should understand sustainability and how to make sustainable decisions, not just decisions that are based on innovation and profit and loss.

 It’s also important that industry empowers our future engineers, by encouraging the uptake of STEM subjects in schools and universities to help young engineers find new innovative solutions to battle climate change. With engineering continuing to define the digital era, supporting tomorrow’s engineers will help us create a sustainable future.

Matt Watts, Chief Technology Evangelist at NetApp

[1] How Bad Are Bananas? The Carbon Footprint of Everything, written by Mike Berners-Lee