We started this project believing that people working in digital tech wanted to engage in a more holistic discussion on sustainability, but we had limited evidence to support that. The findings from our pilot workshops suggest a willingness to discuss sustainability more broadly and deeply is far more present in the tech sector than we had imagined.
This section summarises the stand out themes and discussion points we observed. A sanitized list of all the pain point comments made during our workshops can be viewed on our google worksheet.
Prominent discussion points
The doughnut flower
The digital tech Industry doughnut flower diagram is a visual representation of the conversation amongst our attendees from the pilot workshops. It draws inspiration from the well-known Doughnut Economics approach of quantifying the doughnut.
The outer petals represent the ecological boundaries. The darker the shade of green the more this came up as a pain point during the discussion. The inner stamens represent the social foundations and the longer and darker the stamen the more this issue featured in the workshop discussions.
Ecological boundary intensity
The diagram helps us see that, not surprisingly, climate change was a very strong topic of discussion amongst the ecological boundaries. There was much discussion, and main examples of adverse affects relating to climate change.
Air pollution and land conversion were the next dimensions to receive the most attention.
Biodiversity loss, freshwater withdrawals and chemical pollution were discussed to some degree in most of the workshops.
Ozone depletion, ocean acidification and nitrogen/phosphorus loading were barely discussed at all, and attendees generally did not see much or any connection between these boundaries and the impacts of digital tech.
Social foundation intensity
The diagram helps us see that all social foundation dimensions were relevant to the attendees.
Most relevant, and most strongly discussed, were income and work, networks, peace and justice, and social equity.
Strongly discussed but less so were the dimensions of education, energy, gender equality, health and polictical voice.
Also discussed, but not to the same degree were food, housing and water.
General and cross-cutting discussion themes
Many issues were represented in the 21 dimensions, and many came up across the different dimensions. Strikingly prominent in the discussions were:
- Issues around gender/ethnicity – differentials of pay, but also exclusion were major concerns of participants. It should be noted that attendees were majority male and overwhelmingly white – we cover this later. These issues were clearly seen by many attendees as essential – and central – to any meaningful discussion on sustainability.
- We had one discussion “lense” focused on the tech workforce, so unsurprisingly work culture was a theme, but that extended to all lens discussions – with “toxic” tech culture referred to repeatedly, as well as exploitation, overlong work hours.
- Frequently brought up were quality of life issues, and in particular our unhealthy relationship to technology – for example our addiction to tech and also disinformation.
It was really encouraging to see a lot of interest around diversity in the tech sector……”Default male culture” and the link between exploitative and extractive mindsets jumped out.— Graham Lally, Sustainable developer and consultant
Taking action to shift the status-quo
Our workshop attendees were prompted to discuss a vision for the future for each of the 21 dimensions. In this regard, the discussions between the attendees questioned many of the fundamentals of tech industry business models.
These are the four common tech strategies that our attendees highlighted as needing to shift if the digital tech industry is to become more sustainable:
- Stop the relentless consumption/depletion of resources – attention based revenue is driving the wrong behaviours.
- Pointless – and endless – growth is getting us nowhere – the exponential growth bubble needs to burst.
- Build things that last and can be reused – the strategy of planned obsolescence only serves shareholders and not society.
- Detoxify tech culture – replace with fairness, inclusion and better ways of working.
There is so much potential here to change things, we just have to make sure that – among other things – the people with the power and interest to do it are informed and equipped with the knowledge and tools to foster positive change.— Michael J. Oghia, Sustainability Advocate
What was missing from the dimensions
The dimensions of the Doughnut model offered a helpful frame. However some key sustainability issues were not reflected clearly in the Doughnut dimensions, yet were strong recurring themes:
- Resource depletion – this was a concern voiced in all discussions, with many describing this as a far more significant ecological impact than ongoing energy use of servers
- E-waste – this was another major theme and was expressed closely alongside prompting reuse, recycling and circular economy approaches
- Closely related to that, many attendees raised consumption patterns and the tech sector’s role in maximising consumption
Observations about our attendees
Many attendees were already familiar with considering sustainability in broader terms and were clearly highly appreciative of the opportunity to explore the issue more deeply in a longer workshop format with others.
Those attendees who saw sustainability as more specifically related to carbon emissions and renewable energy found the workshops enabled them to broaden their perspective on sustainability.
The workshops were purposely planned to be an extended time: 2.5 hours. However, we noted exceptional engagement from attendees throughout and many of the respondents said they would have liked the workshops to be longer.
Due to time constraints, we focused on inviting people from the ClimateAction.tech community and our own personal networks. Consequently we got a highly engaged and informed group. But it was of course a self-selecting group, so possibly not representative of a broader set of people working in the tech sector and their attitudes towards sustainability.
In particular our groups were majority male and not diverse – as some attendees commented. We would certainly want to change that for future workshops, all the more so since the participants we had assigned such high importance to diversity and inclusion.
Summary – did the approach work?
YES! After hosting these workshops, we felt that the Doughnut is a friendly, accessible – and non-ideological – way of encouraging people to address fundamental and possibly radical concepts of sustainability, for example challenging economic growth, consumption and waste.
The workshop emphasised the interconnectedness of the topics and brought home how the issues of social justice and sustainability relate to each other.— Michelle Barker, Senior Front End Developer at Ada Mode and technical writer
We felt the social dimension to these workshops was so strong that maybe one of the most compelling reasons for hosting these workshops is to find a new context and approach for addressing deeply entrenched issues in the tech sector of exclusion and toxic cultures, as much as sustainability.
The dimensions defined in the doughnut – the ecological ceilings and social foundations – were a very useful frame for these discussions. However, they had limitations when applied specifically to the digital tech industry. We found some aspects were not relevant – while other important impacts of tech – resource depletion, tech addiction – had no obvious place.
What we would change
- The ecological and social sides still felt disconnected from one another in our format, and our attendees commented on this. A longer workshop, or an additional module would allow us to explore the interconnections between the dimensions.
- For future workshops we’ll consider adjusting the dimensions and finding new ways of framing the vision/solution discussions.
- Hosting workshops online can make them more inclusive, for example lowering the geographical and time barriers to joining. However, we did note that the platforms we used were problematic for some people. Both wonder.me – our initial video platform and Miro, our whiteboard, were awkward to use for many people – and meant a couple of people couldn’t fully participate.
Follow-up insights from our attendees
As is so often the case with things of a complex nature, it can become a journey of discovery as new ideas percolate and connect.
Some of our workshop attendees have shared some new thinking that has happened for them since the workshop:
Escaping the White-Male Monoculture of Technology: 3 Thoughts by Graham Lally
Can software and web design reduce e-waste? by Wholegrain Digital (Jerome Toole and Tom Greenwood)