Made Tech Blog

It’s time to design and deliver greener products and services

We recently had the pleasure of having Ned Gartside, Senior Service Designer from the Department for Environment, Food and Rural Affairs (Defra) join us in Bristol. He delivered a truly insightful talk on how we can design and deliver greener services. Off the back of Ned’s talk I’ve had some great conversations with the team around sustainability and organisational impact. It’s got me thinking. 

In this post I’m going to share what the tech sector as a whole needs to do more of, and that includes us too. I’ll also touch on the steps we’re taking to make planet-centred design a priority. 

Calling the tech sector! We need to do more

When it comes to creating positive change for the planet, we often hear the phrase ‘digital by default’ – on paper it seems to suggest progress and efficiency. But doing things digitally doesn’t necessarily mean doing things sustainably. The sad reality is that our industry needs a wake up call if we want greener services in society to become the norm. 

Last year, UN Secretary General, António Guterres put out a clear call to action at the launch of the Synthesis Report of the intergovernmental panel on climate change. Antonio says that our world needs ‘climate action on all fronts – everything, everywhere, all at once’.

What this means for the tech sector is that we need to build a fuller understanding of the sustainability impact of the products and services we design and deliver. While yes, creating change will require stronger governance and an industry-wide culture change, there are a few questions we can ask ourselves on a much smaller scale to get started, including:

  • how might we design for end-of-life when the product or service may no longer be needed? 
  • how will the products and services we deliver affect the lives of the citizens? – this can touch on many different things, from changing daily habits to consumption patterns
  • does the sustainability impact of this product or service justify its existence?

Asking these questions and acting on the answers at the start of your next project is just a small way we can all start to introduce the idea of sustainable design into our work. While there’s still a long way to go in our sector, for all of us, one thing remains true – if we want to see real sustainable products and services, the tech sector needs to change.

The hidden impact of our carbon emissions

To understand how technology contributes to, or reduces impact on our planet we also need stronger frameworks around measurement. While the UK’s Streamlined Energy and Carbon Reporting (SECR) policy does require organisations to share energy use and carbon emissions information in their annual reports – it doesn’t go far enough.

At the moment, organisations are only obliged to publish greenhouse gas emission reports on ‘direct effects’ and ‘enabling effects’. Not to get too technical, but that means the impact of the technology sector itself and the environmental impact when technology is applied to other sectors. For example, on a typical project this would include the sustainability impact of:

  • the organisation and its delivery partners involved in designing and delivering digital services
  • the product or service itself

While this is a step in the right direction, we still need more. Within this SECR policy, reporting on what the government defines as ‘Scope 3’ emissions would paint a more interesting picture. Scope 3 emissions are those that are a consequence of your actions, that occur at sources you don’t own or control – currently reporting on these is voluntary. An example of this is travelling for work using transport not owned or controlled by your organisation – catching the train or taking a taxi etc. 

If it was necessary to report on Scope 3 we’d see the systemic effects of technology-driven change. In other words, we’d gain valuable insights on what behavioural change has happened across society due to a new technology, and how these changes affect the planet! 

We’re not only here to be critical – the good news is that small changes are happening. Governments around the world are starting to revise their approach to reporting to highlight the hidden impact within emissions data. Making the publishing of Scope 3 emissions data a legal requirement here in the UK is a crucial step if we want to build a more sustainable future for our citizens.  

Sustainable steps at Made Tech

We don’t have all the answers yet. We’re still at the start of our own journey at Made Tech, but we have taken our first steps. In our own team we’re asking more questions to build our understanding of this problem, some of these include:

  • how might we make sure that we’re not just focusing on carbon emissions?
  • how does digital both enable and endanger our transition to a sustainable future?
  • what might those designing and delivering services already be doing that can help?

There are also some practical activities we’ve started this year. We’re currently designing a planet-centred design playbook. We’re still in the early stages. When completed this will aim to outline the steps we need to take to make sure we’re committed to designing and delivering greener services with our clients. Stay tuned for an update on this. As part of this exciting project we’ve also:

  • put together a planet-centred design working group to lead and coordinate our efforts 
  • organised upcoming training for our teams on planet-centred design and designing sustainable services
  • started research into what has already been done and where we can can adopt and adapt

Later this year we’ll share a draft version of our design for planet playbook. We’ll also share more on our commitment to planet-centred design with updates on everything we’ve mentioned so far. We know we still have quite a way to go, but this is a hugely important journey the team are excited to be part of. We can’t wait to share the changes we’re making with you. 

Is planet-centred design something your organisation is thinking of? 

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About the Author

Daniel smiles at the camera, he has brown hair and is wearing a blue collared shirt.

Daniel Healy

Discipline Head, Interaction and Service Design