Not much sign of ICT education taking a role in “Sustainable ICT in Higher Education”

Posted on January 29, 2009


residents playing on road sign

I agree with almost everything Peter James and Lisa Hopkinson’s study on Sustainable ICT in Further and Higher Education (first, second, third, fourth posts). Although very long and heavily slanted to provision of IT services in tertiary education, it is second to Madden and Weißbrod’s Connected – ICT and sustainable development (see earlier post) on my compulsory reading list.

I say I almost agree with everything.  Here are my two issues:

1.   The authors seem to have overlooked the people: the worldviews, values, knowledge and skills required to accomplish sustainable ICT.   While there are here are management barriers and strategies described, the authors seem to have overlooked the biggest need…the role of computing education in sustainable computing in education.  Coming from educational institutions themselves, this omission seems quite bizarre. 

2.  When they do address “capacity”, the solutions all seem to be external (outsourcing sustainability skills etc).  I  disagree with this entirely.  We all need to take responsibility for IT sustainability, it’s not something that can be sidelined and outsourced. 


The last chapters in the report concern management implications of the previous chapters. Barriers are presented, then strategies. 

Time  is reported as a barrier:

IT and other departments in universities and colleges face increasing demands without commensurate increases in staff. Moreover, whilst some of these demands are straightforward, many of those related to sustainable ICT can appear to be complex and time consuming

So is internal coordination:

a disconnect between high-level aspirations for sustainability within institutional policies, and an absence of mechanisms for effective implementation with regard to ICT  ‘lack of awareness of sustainable ICT issues amongst staff/departments

The separation of IT and facilities management is discussed as a specific problem.   Only 32% of IT managers pay the energy bills (53% were unaware of the cost) and only 8%  report working closely with the environmental manager. 

IT and facilities organisations need to collaborate to make sure both understand how energy-efficient computing will help address both.

Budgeting structures where constrained capital spending is disconnected from operational savings in energy.   The authors suggest the creation of ring-fenced energy efficiency budgets.

The perception that “topic of ‘Green’ or ‘Sustainable IT’ seems to have emerged from nowhere” has left IT managers struggling to find reliable information.  This is made worse by vendors “jumping on the green bandwagon”.   The authors report a “lack of information, and standardised metrics, relating to computing activities”.  Credible labelling would make green procurement easier but there is still little widespread application of  environmental and social issues in invitation to tender processes, and an

absence, or superficial use, of techniques to highlight the energy consumption and costs of ICT equipment, especially total cost of ownership (TCO – also known as whole life costing)

Then we move to action points…

Clear strategic commitment:

If universities or colleges want more sustainable ICT, they must adopt a holistic approach that takes account of all aspects of sustainable development, including upstream impacts. It must also be embedded formally in their governance and management processes, and informally in the behaviours of those who provide leadership of them.

Specific implementation actions include champions, ring-fenced budget, IT on environmental management group, clear policies with targets, and monitoring and feedback.  The role of the champion is explained:

IT departments are busy and often over-worked. It can therefore be difficult to take account of what may appear to be non-core issues, such as sustainability. This is the case even when individuals have a personal interest in the topic. Changing this situation is only likely when one or more individuals within the department have a clear responsibility for dealing with sustainable IT issues, and are given the resources, time and – above all – senior management support to do the job effectively.

The authors see this role as acting as a point of contact for information about sustainable ICT issues, developing cross functional linkages, participating in networks and “being involved in key decisions such as major procurement contracts, or strategic decisions on IT”.   (Note, I agree for the need for champions, but this must not be at the expense of everyone taking responsibility in this area).


–  Capacity: Specialist resources, outsourcing, shared capacity, research exchange

–  Funding: sector-level assistance to overcome barriers

– Directives: conditions attached to funding, adoption of “Green Government” goals.

– Grant conditions: mandatory application of total cost of ownership for equipment obtained through grants (presumably they hope that picking on this area would build capability to undertake TCO in wider purchasing). 

– Integration of representative bodies

– Strengthening sustainable procurement

– Funding exemplar projects

– Financing research


In the introduction, the authors hinted that higher education had a special role to play:

And, in the long term, the biggest impact of universities and colleges with regard to sustainable development will be through the influence of their teaching, research and third-mission activities on students and society as a whole. If ICT enables this to happen more effectively, it will be an enormous contribution to a more sustainable world.


ICT accounts for around 6% of world GDP, and is therefore a major source of graduate employment and research funding – which will increasingly reflect the industry’s growing emphasis on sustainability issues.

The role of role of education in sustainable ICT and the implications for IT education are strangely missing from the concluding chapters where they look at implications of their findings. 

Can we expect our IT departments to have the knowledge and skills required to undertake a total cost of ownership analysis or contemplate the implications of responses to tender?   What are the training or hiring implications of this?   The report seems to confuse capacity and capability – is this an area that simply more people would make a difference? (I think not).

The authors suggest that sustainability be outsourced to vendors although they question the over-reliance on suppliers and an obvious bias in “self serving claims”.   I would also suggest that this would miss the point of an integrated approach to sustainability.  Health and Safety is analogous:  While we might have an identifiable staff member assigned to H&S  (and may even outsource functions such as safety auditing), the key message of H&S is that it we all need to take responsibility. Here we have the suggestion that I don’t need to drive carefully, we’ve outsourced that job to someone else.   In the rush for big strategies, I think the authors have missed some of the obvious.