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Building architectural foundations for sustainable outcomes

The Open Footprint Forum, a Forum of The Open Group, is bringing enterprise architects together to help find solutions to crucial environmental sustainability problems.
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How information flows within an organization makes a decisive difference in its success. A delivery company that tracks the impact of decisions on fuel and vehicle costs will outperform one that freely assumes whatever costs arise from its fleet. An online retailer that can notice when people abandon their shopping journey will optimize better than one that treats payment as the start of its interaction with the consumer. A healthcare provider that stores patient records accessibly and securely will deliver better care than one that has to gather patient histories repeatedly.

One key contribution enterprise architects make to organizations is ensuring that such information flows are well-designed, efficient, resilient, and productive. That makes it a holistic discipline that influences not just the IT estate but organizational models, cultural ways of working, and business metrics, among other things.

Sustainability relies on data

It all relies on data, however, and data offers very different challenges in various focus areas. Sustainability is a perfect example of this. While delivery fleets, online retailing, and healthcare all (in different ways) produce discrete data as an inherent part of their processes, sustainability measurements like carbon-equivalent emissions present a more obscured picture. And with regulations coming that require accounting for Scope 3 emissions throughout an entire value chain, not just direct emissions from a company, the challenge of architecting for sharing emissions data is significant.

For example, buying a ream of paper for an office could hardly be a simpler or duller event in the life of a business. For carbon accountancy, though, it is unlikely that that ream of paper will come with a well-defined statement of its environmental impact, from tree felling to pulp processing to packaging, transport, and administrative overheads. Worse, even when products and services provide an account of their environmental impact, there is currently no standardized format for storing and sharing that data.

That means that organizations putting in the hard work of accounting for Scope 3 emissions—encompassing the value chain from material inputs through product usage lifecycle to disposal and recycling—bear an additional burden of compiling and comparing incompatible data. This analysis can be as simple as recording CO2e in grams, kilograms, or tons or as technical as the structures of data-sharing APIs.

[ Read about Red Hat's intention to reach net-zero operational greenhouse gas emissions by 2030. ]

Introducing the Open Footprint Forum

The Open Group is responding to this roadblock to effective sustainability initiatives through the work of the Open Footprint Forum. In collaboratively creating a common data model and a standard set of associated platform services, the members of the forum are working to ensure investments focus on avoiding, reducing, and offsetting impacts more than on establishing the infrastructure required to understand those impacts. The development of standards in this area will help facilitate the development of a robust competitive solutions space while reducing the inefficiencies that might stem from incompatible solutions.

From an enterprise architecture perspective, it means providing the clarity over data required to begin diffusing sustainability metrics into the daily flows of information that all businesses rely on. To better understand the challenges faced in this regard, The Open Group recently hosted two business scenario sessions in Sao Paulo and Edinburgh.

Structured around a three-step process of brainstorming problems, identifying commonalities across those concerns, and agreeing on a proper prioritization of issues, the sessions aimed to create cross-institutional communities of action on business environmental impact and inform the ongoing work of the Open Footprint Forum with real-world needs.

Sustainability is a holistic business challenge

The outcomes demonstrated that sustainability really is a holistic business challenge, not just a technical one. In the Edinburgh session, for example, we found that the process of calculating emissions accounted for around 10% of topics overall and received 19% of organizational budgets. Concerns around operating models, such as sustainability incentive structures and stakeholder management, represented 41% of topics and received 33% of investment budgets.

Participants identified some specific concerns as priorities. For example, they agreed that sustainability data needs to be standardized and validated and exist in an ecosystem where exchanging the data can be done safely and confidently. Regarding business behavior, they highlighted the importance of establishing standards that evolve with sectors' needs to enable innovation. At the same time, any solution must be sufficiently robust to withstand the influence of lobby groups funded by vested interests. Finally, they found the need for a structured approach to understanding the maturity of the approach to sustainability data so that organizations can understand their position within a broader roadmap.

[ Also read 5 ways to build sustainability into your software architecture ]

Enterprise architects can help solve sustainability problems

These are difficult problems to unpick. As we progress toward a common model for footprint-related data, we also deepen our understanding of this as a complex, interconnected, multivariable challenge that demands careful decision-making. However, the enterprise architecture community is well-placed to deliver cohesive solutions to these problems as we translate decades of accumulated knowledge and experience into this vital new area of work.

Addressed correctly, enterprise architecture's sustainability efforts will equip business decision-makers with more data based upon actual emissions, both inside a company and throughout their value chain, to enable better decision-making agility that actually helps lower greenhouse gas (GHG) emissions.

[ Learn about upcoming webinars, in-person events, and more opportunities to increase your knowledge at Red Hat events. ]

Author’s photo

Jim Hietala

Jim Hietala is Vice President, Business Development and Security for The Open Group, where he manages the business team, as well as Security and Risk Management programs and standards activities,  He has participated in the development of several industry standards, including O-ISM3, O-ESA, O-RT More about me

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