The facade of the US$8 million Vacheron Constantin Reference 57260 mechanical pocket watch is stunning, but unassuming. Within the compact two-pound device, however, are over 2,800 tiny components that keep it running.

Digital government services are the same way. Behind every successful citizen service are millions of bytes of citizen data. But powering this data comes at an immense environmental cost.

Terence Teo, Sales Director at Hewlett Packard Enterprise (HPE), addresses the environmental impact of digital government services. He also suggests how governments can digitalise sustainably by purchasing only what they need.

The environmental cost of digitalisation 

All of the world’s tech runs on power. With increased digitalisation across the world, the need for power only increases. Current IT infrastructure is insufficient to power the projected growth of data-driven technologies such as AI, autonomous vehicles and blockchain, wrote HPE’s Chief Sustainability Officer Christopher Wellise.

“All this data has to reside somewhere,” says Teo. This means that governments have to invest in infrastructure that can host and analyse this data, resulting in a “massive amount of equipment and storage”, he adds.

“As more equipment needs to be used, power needs to be catered for it,” Teo explains. But most of the world’s power is still generated using fossil fuels which releases massive amounts of carbon emissions, according to Our World in Data.

Additionally, the equipment needs to be cooled through air conditioning, which is notorious for releasing carbon emissions and harmful gases in the atmosphere.

Mitigating the environmental impact

For governments to digitalise sustainably, they need to “start right and not overprovision”, says Teo.

Organisations often purchase equipment based on the projected amount of data they will need in the future, even if current requirements are not that high. This means that the equipment continues to draw power even if they are not used, Teo says.

In the United States, the average data centre is underutilised by more than 80 per cent, but still draws 30 to 60 per cent of maximum power, reported the Natural Resources Defense Council.

Governments can address this by purchasing only what they need. HPE GreenLake, for example, allows organisations to pay only for the storage that they are using at the current point of time. This ensures that organisations do not overbuy from the onset, shares Teo. Over time, HPE GreenLake is able to provide additional data storage if they need it.

With HPE GreenLake, chemical firm Lyondellbasell managed to reduce carbon emissions by over 2,000 times and cut its electrical consumption by 70 per cent, shared a video by HPE.

The firm reduced the amount of data stored during a tech refresh, as advised by HPE. This meant that when they migrated their data, they only needed to migrate a fraction of what they originally had. This leads to both an immediate and long term reduction in carbon emissions.

HPE GreenLake’s pay-per-use model also helps organisations be more mindful about how much data they are consuming. “If you use more, you pay more,” Teo says. As costs run up, users become more conscious, he explains.

Promoting sustainable growth

Limiting data storage from the onset is beneficial for the environment, but will it hinder growth?

This is a key problem for governments, as they may need to develop citizen services quickly. During the Covid-19 pandemic, for example, governments across the world had to come up with ways to conduct contact tracing. This meant collecting, storing, and processing unprecedented amounts of information.

Nobody knows the exact amount of data that will be collected because there are so many interactions among citizens daily, says Teo. “It’s an unlimited amount of data that organisations require,” he adds.

To help governments cater for future data needs, HPE GreenLake includes buffer capacity. For example, if an agency is using 2 terabytes of data, HPE GreenLake may provide them with an extra 0.5 terabytes. This ensures that government services can continue running even if they exceed their current capacity.

If the programme detects that the government agency is constantly exceeding 2 terabytes of data use, it may then prompt the agency to upgrade their storage. This allows organisations to scale without interruption.

“We allow a minimum amount of buffer capacity so that it doesn’t impact their business growth. But yet, do not over provision or go against the sustainability story,” says Teo.

Digitalisation is an unavoidable process today if governments want to connect with their citizens and improve citizen services. But they can still do so sustainably by consuming only what they need, while finding ways to improve energy efficiency.

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