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What IT architects can do to design for sustainability

One way to build sustainability into your architecture is to consider it one of the non-functional requirements (NFRs) you're already designing for. Here are two ideas to consider.
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Sustainability has become a significant focus for organizations, as customers, employees, and stakeholders increasingly express concerns about it. In response, organizations are creating strategies around sustainable operations like net-zero and zero emissions or setting lower greenhouse gas (GHG) targets. These organizations also recognize global needs to address broader sustainability efforts beyond carbon targets, including, for example, wider ethical sourcing concerns.

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

Many of these organizations have previously pursued environmental, social, and governance (ESG) initiatives. ESG does not equate to sustainability; it is a method to distill sustainability into attributable non-financial performance. It is also a mechanism to identify and categorize actions and their impacts. It is a subset of sustainability and involves frameworks and standards that companies and organizations use for disclosures.

Today, a much broader view of sustainability has come to the fore, which views it as a critical driver involving all the actions we take in the world. The general idea is to treat the world and people in a way that makes them and society better for future generations. This ambition is often based upon the UN's Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs).

You may be asking, "I work as an architect within my organization, and although I care deeply about the planet and topics such as climate change, what can I do in my role that materially helps?" One way is to consider sustainability as one of the non-functional requirements (NFR), including scalability, resilience, and security, that you're already architecting for.

This article offers two ways to think about sustainability as an NFR with some ideas to consider.

Take advantage of what's already working

Organizations are recognizing and developing strategic intent to improve sustainability, as 86% of CEOs in an IBM survey say they have a sustainability strategy in place. However, they rarely have plans and measures to execute against that vision. Nearly two-thirds in the same survey have not yet established a portfolio of initiatives to deliver that strategic intent, and nearly half say they can't measure the impact their efforts would make.

One thing architects can do is align change initiatives to the organization's strategic intent. That can be at an enterprise architect level, where you seek to ensure the complete portfolio of activities is "doing the right thing" (delivering the accumulated sustainability changes needed). Or it can be at a solution architect level, where you seek to do those things "in the right way" by following industry guidance and standards that support sustainability goals and outcomes.

To drill down further, every architect has a role in delivering business capabilities. Enterprise architects identify and define them as part of the bigger picture to ensure they are compatible and consistent with the rest of the business' capabilities. Solution architects ensure that the solutions they design deliver as required by the business need alongside the solutions' other NFRs.

[ Check out Red Hat's Portfolio Architecture Center for a wide variety of reference architectures you can use. ]

Understand the true impact of change

Sustainability creates the need for new, augmented, and adjusted business capabilities with additional requirements around data and processes to do things you couldn't do before. These include understanding the complete end-to-end value chain carbon footprint or supporting initiatives with renewed imperatives, such as recycling products in circular economy initiatives.

Architects can model and interpret these value propositions and requirements to ensure that their portfolio of initiatives addresses the right things and that the people working on those solutions know what contributes most and where. If you view sustainability as a new NFR (or at least a more prominent one), you can find ways to incorporate sustainability into architectural solution processes during viability and validation.

Another architectural concern regarding sustainability is to consider the impact that IT has on what you are trying to achieve. Technology is a significant energy consumer, so you must factor its footprint into architectural solution decisions. For example, in 2019, the SHIFT Project estimated the CO2 impact of online video, which has exploded in use with things like the growth in online meetings. Other new energy consumers include bitcoin mining, new AI algorithms (with chat and art dominating the conversations), and enticing topics like the metaverse. So while we work on optimizing our energy use in datacenters, we are simultaneously growing our footprint with chatty code, additional siloes, and a proliferation of data.

[ Learn how IT modernization can help alleviate technical debt. ]

What can architects do?

As individuals, we can each make efforts with activities like recycling, reducing personal waste, and reconsidering travel. As employees, we can advocate within our organizations for greater efforts in the way we work.

Architects must also use their capabilities to address sustainability. It is incumbent upon us to understand and balance the solutions we pursue against all these requirements, including viewing sustainability as an NFR. Who knows, we may soon be called to measure the technical sustainability debt we create in our IT estates.

This article is based on Paul's talk "An architect's perspective or 'What can I do?'" presented at The Open Group's EA for Sustainability event in January 2023.

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Paul Homan

Paul is a Distinguished Engineer & Chief Technology Officer for industrial-sector clients in IBM Consulting. More about me

Navigate the shifting technology landscape. Read An architect's guide to multicloud infrastructure.

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