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R&D for a Sustainable Digital Economy

Estelle Geffard, PhD in R&D, discusses the importance of research in reducing the impact of digital technology.

How R&D at fruggr redefines our vision of digital impact

Within the Responsible Digital Ecosystem, Research & Development plays a central role as a driving force for progress in understanding an emerging issue: the environmental impact of digital technology. And to limit it to the carbon footprint would be to overlook many other crucial aspects (water, acidification, abiotic resources, etc.). New data and studies are constantly emerging, enabling us to take more efficient and precise action every year on the overall environmental footprint of the digital age.  

Estelle Geffard, R&D researcher at digital4better (publisher of the fruggr solution), talks about her research work on the impact of digital technology, and in particular on fruggr's new footprint engine, which makes the environmental indicators of the evaluation solution more precise.  

How is R&D essential to the Responsible Digital cause? 

At present, the field of Research and Development (R&D) focused on the environmental impact of digital technology is still largely in a state of knowledge in the making. That's why we're committed to continuous improvement, working with the data we have, and always seeking to add to it and innovate. R&D is essential to the mission that digital4better (publisher of the fruggr solution) has set itself, namely to help reduce the impact of digital technology by providing the most accurate environmental indicators possible.  

To do this, we gather knowledge from studies conducted all over the world. It's essential to constantly question and challenge different ideas, and to choose methods or sources with which we are in tune and which we can explain clearly.  

Why is it misleading to limit the digital footprint to CO2 emissions?

It is important to approach the digital footprint holistically, taking into account all impact categories. While greenhouse gas emissions are one component of this footprint, other aspects also merit analysis, such as impacts on human health and biodiversity. Some stages in the life cycle of digital equipment and services will have a low impact on carbon, but a significant impact on other aspects.   

How does the new version of fruggr's environmental footprint engine gain in accuracy?

This V2 of our footprint engine deals with nine different indicators of environmental impact. These include climate change (carbon emissions), surface water and soil acidification, freshwater ecotoxicity, human toxicity with non-carcinogenic effects, human toxicity with carcinogenic effects, fine particle emissions, ionizing substance emissions, water resource use and natural resource depletion. 

Thus, the footprint engine covers three categories of impact: ecological damage, damage to human health and damage linked to the depletion of resources. 

What is the purpose of this new footprint engine?

Our aim is to propose a model that is as close as possible to what we know today about the impact of digital technology. fruggr will therefore become more precise and relevant in terms of the environmental indicators used to assess the footprint of information systems and digital services.  

Our intention is to present an extremely thorough footprint engine model. To this end, we aim to account for all our choices and justify the logic underlying these calculations. Our aim is to submit this model to an external critical examination, in order to benefit from an outside view for validation and to possibly question certain aspects. We are already doing this with the third-party organization Images et Réseaux, which validates our R&D.  

What are the challenges encountered when identifying and assessing these indicators?

There are very few studies and sources available on the impacts of digital technology (apart from the carbon footprint). A few databases are available, but their level of credibility is relatively low. We also have to contend with a lack of data, which may have led us to set aside certain indicators in favor of those whose relevance we can guarantee.  

Another challenge is that of methodology. There are several of them, which means we have to make choices. Once the methodology has been applied, we have to collect and sometimes even generate the data. For example, to carry out a Life Cycle Assessment (LCA), we need to break down the structure of digital equipment. We then create indicators relating to electricity production and its impact on fine particles, based on global electricity consumption data and energy mixes specific to each region. The data generated will soon be freely accessible on the GitHub platform, as part of our drive to promote open data, and thus foster the evolution of the entire ecosystem.   

What is your vision for the evolution of research and action in the field of Digital Sustainability the next few years?

The field of digital impact research is evolving thanks to the active participation of a large number of IT experts. There is a real awareness of the impact of digital technology, and more and more of them are becoming involved in research on the subject.   

New PhD students are joining the laboratories, bringing this theme with them. However, this environment is still in the development phase, with a clear gap between laboratory activities and their concrete application in companies. To bridge this gap, it is essential to foster greater collaboration between research laboratories and corporate R&D teams.

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