What is Sustainable Software?

Robert Heine's picture

A few months ago we shared some of our thoughts on sustainability with you and promised to follow up with some more answers to the question: Can software be sustainable?

The concept of sustainability is based on three pillars: the ecological, the economical and the social. This means that for a software to be sustainable, we must take all of its effects – direct and indirect – on the environment, the economy and the society into account. In addition, the entire life cycle of a software has to be considered: from planning and conception to programming, distribution, installation, usage and disposal. Those are a lot of factors to keep in mind! But it also means there are plenty of opportunities for software to contribute to sustainability, or at least minimize its negative impacts.

So far, the Green IT and Sustainable Informatics community’s main focus has been on the ecological pillar, and figuring out how to minimize resource and energy consumption. Ideally, software requires as little hardware capacity as possible. Some properties of efficient software include being compatible with power save settings, and allowing the installation of individual components in order to make optimal usage of working memory. Oftentimes, a software’s renewal will make it hard or impossible to function on older hardware. Even though the hardware still works fine, it has to be replaced, creating unnecessary waste and requiring new raw materials and energy in its production. Sufficient software breaks this vicious cycle – its renewal doesn’t require the renewal of hardware. Since WebMo is an online tool, all that is required for its optimal functioning is an updated browser. Furthermore, we host our software on 100% renewable energy powered servers.

We must also take a software’s interaction with the economy into account. On the software market, increasingly complex software is making us dependent upon a small number of specialized software companies. Their dominant market position allows them to set the price of software, making the knowledge less accessible to the people (including future generations). Free and Open Source Software, such as the Wiki-Software which WebMo is based on, offers a sustainable alternative to this trend, while still allowing for successful business models.

What about the social dimension, how can software be sustainable in this regard? The term software socialness refers to the degree of involvement of its users in the engineering process. When a software is flexible and adaptable, its lifecycle potentially increases, which in return can minimize the environmental and economic impacts (instead of buying a new product, the old one is adapted). By offering our M&E software as a service, we are constantly adapting our software to the needs of our users, instead of forcing them to adapt to the product. This allows us to offer long-term solutions to our clients.

So far, we have touched upon different ways in which software can be sustainable in and of itself. But in addition, there are many ways in which sustainability is supported through software. So-called enabling software helps users make sustainable decisions, mainly by providing information. For example, E-bay helps to reuse objects, instead of putting them to waste, and Google Maps shows public transport routes, making it easier to act in an environmentally friendly way. As for WebMo, the added transparency and efficiency that our users gain with the software enables them to serve their projects and communities more fully. We are proud to know that our clients in the field of development cooperation are engaged in making our world more sustainable, and so we have gladly taken on the responsibility of offering a matching product that is as sustainable as possible. Let us know if you have any further ideas or thoughts – we are always happy to hear from our readers.  

Further reading:

http://www.umweltbundesamt.de/sites/default/files/medien/378/publikation... (in German)
http://www.umweltbundesamt.de/sites/default/files/medien/378/publikation... (in German)

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