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IT Sustainability Think Tank: IT leaders must prepare for green challenges in 2024

As we approach the end of 2023, it’s important to reflect on significant steps that have been taken by businesses to reach net zero. While some of the sustainability hype has fallen off the agenda, at Digital Catapult, I often engage with business leaders across multiple sectors including manufacturing, engineering, transport, and the creative industries to understand their pain points and priorities. 

From these discussions, one thing is clear; sustainability is still an incredibly high priority amongst IT and technology leaders, and this is not going to change. With 26 years to go on the journey to net zero, we have positioned ourselves well to meet this target, but there are challenges that lie ahead next year, and IT leaders must be prepared to overcome these obstacles with sustainable innovation.

This responsibility will in part lie with the advanced technology sector to demonstrate how sustainable innovation can benefit businesses of all sizes.  

Giving credit where it’s due 

This past year, we have seen businesses paving the way in terms of tackling some of the IT sector’s biggest sustainability woes, including e-waste. One example from this past year is the availability of remanufactured laptops from Dell, Lenovo, HP as well as the dramatic drop in the price of these units. These devices are now available at an affordable price, and play a significant role in reducing the amount of e-waste generated by the IT sector more broadly. 

More efficient graphic processing units (GPUs) that launched this year offer their own huge sustainability advantages too. In August, Nvidia launched The RAPIDS Accelerator for Apache Spark, which is a game-changer that could cut both costs and carbon emissions by up to 80%.

Nvidia is a key partner of Digital Catapult’s, supporting startups on the MyWorld programme in Bristol, which looks to develop and support startups in the West of England by awarding each participating company with up to up to £50,000 in funding. 

Seeing Nvidia’s commitment to sustainability this past year has been both exciting and affirming. It’s so important that others follow Nvidia’s lead in 2024 and focus on both assessing the climate impact of their products and sharing this information with IT leaders, to empower them to make the most sustainable decisions possible.

This demonstrates the importance of testing new products that will appeal to technology leaders within businesses across the country, maintaining levels of interest in sustainable innovation. 

Effective use of excess heat and achieving symbiosis 

I have also seen some great stories on IT symbiosis this year as well, where organisations and businesses have further identified how they can leverage sustainable innovation to appeal to technology leaders across the country. For example,  there is a growing trend around datacentres being deployed next to swimming pools which allows excess heat from the servers to warm the water in the pool, while the water simultaneously cools the datacentre. This results in huge energy savings for both the business operating the datacentre and the organisation that manages the swimming pool.

This type of out-of-the-box thinking is not only saving huge amounts of money in terms of energy costs for both parties but is significantly improving the carbon footprint of the organisations too. 

What’s interesting is that swimming pools are not the only facilities that can benefit from the excess heat generated by storing and processing data. There are also examples of datacentres being used to power homes and businesses across Europe, and this level of urban planning and innovation will result in not only significant carbon reductions, but brand new revenue streams for the IT sector.

Preparing for the ‘Quantum Revolution’ 

We still face countless challenges regarding sustainability, with the next big challenge on the horizon likely to involve Quantum technology. We are already seeing huge demand for quantum technologies and Digital Catapult’s recently launched Quantum Technology Access Programme was hugely oversubscribed, with participants from the transport, infrastructure and energy sectors.

The oversubscription is testament to demand amongst leading UK businesses for quantum solutions that will sharpen their competitive edge. The dawn of quantum must however be welcomed by businesses with a simultaneous commitment to sustainable innovation too. 

Quantum computing presents huge opportunities not just in things like processing power and cyber security but also in addressing a whole variety of solutions that traditional computing cannot comprehend today. This is why there is increasing demand for quantum solutions amongst IT leaders in the UK.

The challenge we need to solve is once again related to cooling. Quantum Computers require incredibly cold environments in order to work, close to absolute zero in fact. To keep systems in a quantum state, designers need to minimise the risk of anything disrupting the fragile position. 

We need to find more sustainable ways to cool quantum computers to both take advantage of the positive power that quantum can offer, without causing a huge increase in energy requirements. This will require a wide range of experts, from quantum hardware experts, who work directly with the qubits, engineers who design the cryogenics systems that cool the hardware, as well as the control systems that program the qubits, and researchers who study thermodynamics, to come together to solve some of these challenges.

Once this team is in place, more IT leaders will have the toolkit they need to further embrace this level of sustainable innovation and emerging technology, to bolster growth and cut their carbon emissions. 

While it’s great to see the impact of sustainable innovation over the past year, it’s important for IT leaders to respond to and prepare for challenges that may present themselves in 2024. I’m excited to see more IT leaders embrace new solutions that will improve efficiencies while cutting carbon emissions.


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