I was very fortunate to get an invite to the Government Digital Sustainability Alliance (GDSA) summit at the Science Museum in London. This event brought together 200 people from government departments, 30 delivery partners and academia. There were tech leaders, sustainability experts, and government representatives all with a passion to tackle the key challenges in driving sustainable IT. The event featured updates on progress made by the GDSA working groups, and opportunities to network with others in this space across government and the private sector, and to understand the alliance’s future steps.

I thought I’d pull together a blog with a summary of some of the key points covered on the day:

Opening Sessions:

Jack Simmonds from Dell opened (and hosted the event) stressing the urgency of addressing climate change and resource depletion. He emphasised the role of IT in generating e-waste and emissions, saying, “Our digital footprints matter, and it’s time to tread lightly.”

Following Jack Simmonds’ opening remarks, Chris Howes, CDIO at Defra, took the stage to discuss the department’s mission and the role of sustainable ICT in government. He highlighted e-waste as a significant issue, with 6 million tons generated annually, of which only around one-third is recycled in the UK and less than 20% globally.

Chris also talked about Earth’s 5 mass extinctions which resulted in 75%+ of species being wiped out. Looking at the current rate of progress of species loss we sadly are on track for another.

Looking back at previous mass extinctions - Earth recovers but it’s the species that don’t. Uniquely, we have the opportunity to avoid this latest mass extinction event, as it is within human influence and control.

He also shed light on the power consumption of AI, noting that it requires 10 times the compute power compared to traditional search, with its energy consumption being on par with that of Sweden. He mentioned that data (so vital for effective AI) contributes to 22 tons of CO2 per person annually yet so much of that data is unused. However, he also highlighted some potential examples of AI with the power to drive sustainability, such as:

  • Managing traffic flows in cities, which can lead to a 10% reduction in emissions.

  • Smart agriculture to reduce pesticide and water usage

  • Identifying drainage channels from earth observation data to restore peatland.

Toby Strong – reminding us why this matters

Toby Strong, a multi-Emmy and Bafta award-winning cinematographer, shared his passion for the natural world and the transformative power of digital technology in capturing it. His stories of coming up close and personal with the natural world were inspiring – as were the clips of BBC programmes he played. He talked about the progress in drone technology to be less invasive when used for filming wildlife.

He urged attendees to “Be brilliant as we’ve run out of time to be less than that.” He also had a message from his colleague and friend David Attenborough:

“Get on with it!”

Art from e-waste by Zak Mistry

Sponsored by DXC and N2S this chameleon will be going around the country as a piece of art that aims to challenge and influence our culture around tech use.


Planetary Impact Working Group

Matthew Bradley from the Planetary Impact Working Group reminded everyone that “There are no passengers on spaceship earth; we’re all crew.” He introduced a three-pillar approach to expand the focus beyond net zero: Awareness, Assessment, and Action.

He shared this video with the room which I think is one of the best short videos highlighting the impacts of technology that I have seen:

Scope 3 Working Group

The Scope 3 Working Group panel discussed the challenges in reporting scope 3 emissions, including coverage, quality, interoperability, and the need for standardised metrics. They also highlighted the importance of forward-looking planning and transition planning reporting.

GDS – One Login

Natalie Jones, SRO of GOV.UK, emphasised that sustainability should be factored in from the start of projects. She asked how things would look different if we considered sustainability on the same level of priority as security and accessibility.

Talked about how the One Login initiative will replace 200 logins and 44 ways of providing identity across government services. That £2.4m of environmental related savings will come from mostly from the reduced need to travel to undertake identity processes in person.

Challenged the duplication and silos in government data capture. She called for sustainability to be everyone’s responsibility and urged attendees to lead and help others – in particular how the private sector might help with providing sustainability training to government DDaT professionals.

Circular Economy

The Circular Economy Working Group focused on building a “Sustainability Engine” through:

  • Education and Awareness

  • Reducing e-waste & increasing material recovery

  • Use of refurbished and remanufactured devices

  • Tackling Security Policies that pose barriers to circularity

  • Product Labelling - including “ingredients” of technology hardware

  • Looking at procurement models

They emphasised the need to break the cycle of frequent device replacement and move towards a more circular approach.

The Circular Economy Panel highlighted the importance of embracing a broader marketplace to support the circular economy. They stressed that circular economy principles should be a core part of our work and that government could aggregate it’s demand as a significant collective customer to drive change.

There is too much focus on purchase price and not enough on the total cost of ownership. Cheap to buy wins over the Total Cost of Ownership (TCO) over the life cycle of the device. (I’d say this applies to infrastructure and services as well?)

Recycling - huge opportunity for recyclability of materials. Problem in the UK is almost everything we do on this goes abroad - how do we do this in the UK? Re-use is great but we need to look at end of life recovery.

“Design has been quite narrow - too focused on end product not on the bigger picture of materials use and re-use / recycling. What are the innovative circular economy business models?”

Another quote I found interesting (and I hope will become true) “If you aren’t circular by 2030 you won’t be credible as a supplier due to customer expectations” (I’d add supply chain and material availability realities to this as well).

Closing reflections

Chris Howes recapped the event:

  • Inspirational keynote that made clear what is at stake.

  • Reminder that the task goes beyond carbon

  • On scope 3 – there are challenges on reporting that we can work on

  • Education and awareness for DDaT professionals needs to be prioritised

  • Circular economy - lack of awareness of the art of the possible and lack of consistency across government

  • Opportunity to wean people off of new gadgets - need to think circular

  • He felt the event had been a success as he wanted to see collaboration and discussion and this had been happening across the day

  • Next steps for GDSA will be

  1. Strengthen and broaden the Government and Delivery Partner representation

  2. Work through a strategy of how the GDSA expertise will be used

  • Sustainability must not be an add on optional extra but core to all our work

  • He echoed the inspiring words of the speakers, urging attendees to “Be brilliant; we don’t have time” and to “get on with it.”

On a personal level I am optimistic that the GDSA presents a unique vehicle in providing leadership on technology sustainability. I am a big believer in cross industry collaboration and the power of the intersection of roles to make significant change. I am hopeful that the work the Scott Logic team has been doing in tech sustainability can be incorporated into the relevant working groups and output of the GDSA and look forward to doing more within this alliance in the near future.