Tent Talks Featuring Tim Frick: Digital Sustainability

Tent Talks Featuring: Tim Frick
Tim Frick
Founder & President
Tim started Mightybytes in early 1998 to help nonprofits, social enterprises, and purpose-driven companies solve problems, amplify their impact, and drive measurable business and marketing results.

On Monday, December 4th at 5:00pm Central, Tim Frick joins us for a live Q&A session: “Digital Sustainability.”

Session Notes

In this episode of Tent Talks, Tim Frick delves into the evolving landscape of digital sustainability, a topic that’s gaining traction but still relatively niche. Tim discusses recent regulatory changes, like the EU’s Climate Sustainability Reporting Directive and Biden’s executive order on AI, highlighting their impact on sustainability. He envisions a future where sustainable practices in digital product design and development become the norm, driven by a growing awareness and desire for change.

Tim also touches on the significant environmental impact of the internet and data centers, a revelation from his journey as a B Corp advocate. The discussion also covers the Web Sustainability Guidelines (WSGs) and their potential to shape web development and design. Tim acknowledges challenges like lack of awareness, technical debt, data accessibility, and legislative incentives in adopting sustainable practices. Lastly, he emphasizes the importance of inclusive economic practices and regenerative design in the digital product lifecycle and advises on measuring and communicating the impact of sustainability initiatives, drawing on his experiences with MightyBytes and B Corp certification.

Digital Sustainability’s Future:

  • Digital sustainability is an emerging, niche topic.
  • Growing awareness in both technology and sustainability sectors.
  • Hope for sustainability to become a default in digital product design in the next decade.
  • Significant environmental impact of internet and data centers highlighted.

Web Sustainability Guidelines:

  • WSGs developed to provide guidance in digital sustainability.
  • A multidisciplinary approach covering business, UX design, web development, and more.
  • Aimed at making sustainable practices more accessible and actionable.

Barriers to Sustainable Practices:

  • Challenges include lack of awareness and understanding, technical debt, data accessibility, and lack of legislative incentives.
  • Emphasis on the need for sustainable data strategies and supporting right-to-repair policies.

Regenerative Design and Inclusive Economic Practices:

  • Focus on systemic thinking and sustainability in all decisions.
  • Importance of powering digital products with renewable energy and responsible data strategies.
  • Inclusion entails personal wellbeing, equitable hiring, and sharing economic benefits.

Measuring and Communicating Sustainability Initiatives:

  • The B Impact Assessment as a valuable tool for measuring sustainability.
  • Importance of collective action and making sustainability a journey rather than a switch to flip.

Notable Quotes:

  • “Digital sustainability…is growing rapidly. As technology advances, the intersection between digital innovation and sustainability becomes more crucial.”
  • “My hope is that 10 years from now, [sustainability] is just a default way that people design and develop digital products.”
  • “The internet is a big machine…the true environmental impact of the internet [is significant].”
  • “We need a set of guidelines to govern sustainable digital practices…and [the Web Sustainability Guidelines] aim to provide that.”
  • “Lack of awareness, technical debt, and data gaps are significant barriers in sustainable digital product development.”
  • “Sustainability is not a switch you flip. It’s a journey. It’s about continuous improvement and collective action towards a more sustainable future.”

Session Transcript

[00:00:34] Chicago Camps: Tim, with your extensive background in sustainability and digital products, how do you see digital sustainability evolving in the next decade, especially with a rapid pace of technological advancement?

[00:00:47] Tim Frick: Digital sustainability in the greater picture of sustainability is still a pretty niche topic. You’ve got people in the technology and digital sector who are just finding out about it and getting excited about it. And you’ve got sustainability folks who have been really focused on sustainability for many years, but not necessarily on what that actually means for digital products and services. So it’s relatively niche, but it is growing rapidly. And as you noted, there is a rapid pace of technological advancement going on.

[00:01:15] Of which in some recent developments in regulations and regulatory kind of compliance, the EU has released the CSRD, the Climate Sustainability Reporting Directive. And there’s a similar legislation in California. And then of course, Biden just released a whole Executive Order on not putting the brakes on AI, but like thinking a little bit more about it before just diving forward.

[00:01:38] So in terms of where sustainability is going, my hope is that 10 years from now, it’s just a default way that people design and develop digital products and services. And it is encouraging to see it moving in that direction. And I think people want to see, I guess I didn’t realize when I started getting into this, how thirsty for change people in the digital sector really were.

[00:01:59] When I wrote my book, I didn’t think that it was going to have quite the impact that it had and really met people from all around the world who were excited about this idea of applying sustainability principles to the work that they’re doing. So it’s been really rewarding so far. And I’m really excited about where it’s going to be heading moving forward.

[00:02:17] Something that I recently read is that a data center can use an on average of 11 to a 19 billion gallons of water a day. So that’s not just about emissions or electricity use, but it’s really this whole kind of systemic thing of minerals and water use and electricity and all that stuff.

[00:02:32] And it’s significant. The internet is a big machine. I’m lucky enough to have started my agency when the internet was such a young thing in the nineties. And there was a lot of excitement and promise. And it’s been great to see a lot of that excitement and promise come to fruition. As an elder state person at this point, it’s been disheartening over the last 10 years, especially to see all of the misinformation and all of this kind of stuff and learning along our B Corp journey of just finding out what the true environmental impact of the internet was.

[00:03:00] And as somebody who designs and builds those websites and applications and all that stuff. I really wanted to think about what is there, what can we do about that? And so I’ve been on this 12 year now journey of waving the flag and hoping that people will at least pause when they think about some of these things.

[00:03:16] I’m not a contrarian when it comes to emerging technologies or AI or anything like that. I do believe there’s a lot of good. It can come out of that stuff, but I also think we need to do all of it responsibly and ethically and think about the kind of systemic ramifications of our choices.

[00:03:31] Chicago Camps: The Web Sustainability Guidelines, WSGs, seem to set a new standard for digital products and services. How do you envision these guidelines shaping the future of web development and design?

[00:03:43] Tim Frick: I’ll take a step back and talk about what they are and how they came about. A friend of mine at the World Wide Web Consortium encouraged me to start a community group way back in 2013, share some of this then emerging digital sustainability stuff that was going on and that community group, it didn’t necessarily sit fallow, but it was a place for people to generally say, hey, I found this new article. This is cool. Or did you know about this or that or whatever?

[00:04:06] As digital sustainability awareness started becoming broader and I started connecting with all of these people from all around the world on this. People were like, we really need some guidance on this. We really need a set of guidelines to govern what it is that we should be doing. There was a lot of blog posts and practices here and there and all around the internet, but nobody had really collected that knowledge in a single place. A couple of individual companies had tried and a couple of interactive advertising agency associations had put out some guidance and the state of the country of France put out some guidance as well.

[00:04:43] Our goal was to take all of that and pull the best of it together under the umbrella of the World Wide Web Consortium and release a set of guidelines or guidance that people could use, design teams, development teams, general digital product teams could use to guide the work that they do.

[00:04:59] We were inspired by the web content accessibility guidelines, which is W3C. And so we naturally thought it would be a good fit to start working with them. And so we expanded the community group, spent about a year and a half, about 50, 60 people dedicated a lot of time, volunteered a lot of time to put these guidelines together.

[00:05:16] The group itself has about 150 people, I think, but generally there was a core group of about 50 and then there was like four, five subcommittees basically that focused on UX design and web development and metrics and various topics. And we just collaborated virtually over the course of about a year and a half and then we released them in September, and then just as of last week, we put them on sustainablewebdesign.org.

[00:05:38] So there’s now a publicly available place to search through them and tag them and they’re categorized and stuff. The initial document that we released in September was 300 plus pages, 93 different guidelines. It was an outstanding tome of data to process.

[00:05:53] And so immediately people were like, Whoa, that’s a lot. That’s like a lot going on there. And so we worked for the last couple of months to get them on sustainablewebdesign.org to get a place where it could be easily absorbed.

[00:06:05] It’s a lot, there’s, I think 28 guidelines in business and product strategy. There’s another 29 in UX design. There’s 12 in hosting and infrastructure. I think another 25 to 29 in web development as well. We were intentionally multidisciplinary in this.

[00:06:21] And again, by putting them on the sustainablewebdesign.org website, the hope is that if you’re a UX designer, you can go in and look at what’s relevant to you and focus and hone in on those. And if you’re a web developer, you can go into find that stuff. But if you’re interested in getting a broader understanding, there’s an easy journey that you can chart through that.

[00:06:41] Chicago Camps: In your experience, what are the most significant barriers to the adoption of sustainable practices in digital product strategy and development? And how might we overcome them?

[00:06:52] Tim Frick: I think general lack of awareness and understanding is probably at the top of that list. But also there’s that kind of move fast and break things mentality that the product teams have and I’m a fan of agile and I’m a fan of agile-esque processes and stuff like that, but you’ve got to clean up your mess. I heavily believe in continuous improvement. But you’ve got to go back occasionally and clean up the things that you did and stuff. And a lot of that’s not happening.

[00:07:18] So there’s a barrier there for technical debt and there’s implications of technical debt and sustainability and stuff. I think also there’s a lack of access to data. People say, Oh, I want to measure the emissions of my digital product. What do I do? And then it turns out when they peel back the layers of the onion, there’s four or five places where that data is proprietary or behind a firewall or not disclosed by your third party provider and stuff. And so there’s also a lack of just access to really good data practices and data that you need data gaps to fill, so to speak. I think there’s also a lack of incentives. So when I say incentives, I’m really thinking about legislation.

[00:07:56] A lot of times companies aren’t going to make changes in certain things until someone says you have to do this. And so there’s not a lot of those incentives right now for more sustainable practices, but those are coming across industries and every industry is going to be needing to reckon with this.

[00:08:11] And so our digital industry is no exception. And then I think also there’s with legislation comes funding and resources and all of that kind of stuff. And there’s a big gap there as well. There’s a lack of resources, a lack of funding, and especially for organizations that are like mine that are working to make a difference in the world, a lot of nonprofits, social enterprises, et cetera, B Corp.

[00:08:33] And I think the very first news story that climate change could be potentially fueled by fossil fuels or powered by fossil fuels was like a well over a hundred years ago. So it’s taken us several generations just to wrap our head around what the industrial revolution has brought in terms of good things and bad.

[00:08:54] And here we find ourselves at this kind of cross section and we have some decisions to make to move forward.

[00:09:01] Chicago Camps: You co-facilitated a course on economic design with a focus on regenerative design and inclusive economic practices. How can these principles be effectively integrated into the digital product life cycle?

[00:09:15] Tim Frick: The first part of that statement there is yes, indeed, I did facilitate a course. Mainly because of imposter syndrome. In 2015, I was past with writing a book about sustainability and I had no formal education on sustainability. I was passionate about it and very much interested in it about it and spent a good year and a half writing the book, focusing on the research for it and everything like that, but once I got all done, I was like, okay, I have this really good knowledge base of digital sustainability, but what does that actually mean?

[00:09:44] From a bigger picture, how does the rest of the world think about sustainability? And so I registered with an organization called Gaia Education. They have design for sustainability. It’s a year long course. It’s a four dimensional course that focuses on environmental, social, worldview, economic, et cetera.

[00:10:00] And once I finished that and went through that whole process and got the certificate with that, they asked me if I wanted to teach the economic design course, which was really about applying B Corp-y like principles to organizations in general. Gaia Education is an eco village design organization.

[00:10:17] So a lot of their work is on the premise of designing eco villages. However, the principles that they teach in that course and many of their other courses apply to any organizational structure. So it could be a city, it could be a club, it could be a company, it could be a small business, a huge business.

[00:10:34] So generally I took all of those courses just so that I could assuage my imposter syndrome, but kind of guilt complex. In terms of actually what can we do on that, I think there’s two things going on there. On the regenerative side, the thing that I got out of the class the most was just systemic thinking and systems design and thinking about systems in every decision that you make.

[00:10:55] And so when it comes to digital product life cycles, powering digital products with renewable energy, focusing on quality over quantity, focusing on more responsible and sustainable data strategies, especially around things like interoperability, like right now you can’t leave, for instance, Facebook and take your Facebook data with you to another place.

[00:11:14] It all sits inside of this walled garden and stuff. And there’s, of course, mentioning Facebook. You can’t mention Facebook without data privacy mentions as well as data retention, data disposal, ownership of data protection, et cetera. Clear e waste and right to repair policies. This is a big thing here, but we’re not really good at planned obsolescence is really filled the landfills around the world with electronic waste.

[00:11:38] And so there are things that software developers and product teams can actually do to extend the life cycle of their products and stuff, and then also to support legislation around right to repair so that if someone actually wants to go and hold onto their iPhone for another couple of years, they have the actual ability to go do that and get that thing repaired and stuff like that.

[00:11:57] I can go on and on about regeneration. And there’s also this level of inclusion, which is really thinking about personal wellbeing, mental health, sharing economic benefits, living wages, equitable hiring, there’s a whole list of things there as well.

[00:12:10] Chicago Camps: How do you recommend companies measure and communicate the impact of their sustainability initiatives? Particularly those that are less tangible, like improved user experience or environmental justice.

[00:12:22] Tim Frick: MightyBytes is a certified B Corp and we’ve been a B Corp for a while. And we’ve been part of this kind of growing global community of companies that are interested in doing exactly this, changing their practices so that they can measure, that they can communicate the impact of their work, that they can be really clear about sustainability initiatives and that sustainability initiatives aren’t just greenwashing or this layer of marketing that sits at the top, but it actually fills throughout the entire organization.

[00:12:47] I think for. Organizations who want to get started on this, the B impact assessment is a free tool and you don’t have to become a B Corp to use it. it’s a Salesforce powered survey monkey type thing where you go in and you’re going to answer a hundred questions about what it is that you’re doing with your business.

[00:13:04] The first time I did it, I walked in thinking I was a really green business cause we’d already gotten like a local neighborhood sustainability, green certification, so we thought we were all good and it was super eyeopening. And it really, for me, it was like, all right, there’s a lot of work on all the ESG stuff.

[00:13:19] It wasn’t just about low flow toilets and led light bulbs. It was about all of this other bigger stuff and I didn’t know exactly where to start. And so having the B impact assessment there as a tool, that’s probably the simplest thing that I can recommend to people is to just go there because it’s free and it’s readily available and anybody can use it and you don’t have to be pressured into thinking that you want to become a certified B Corp.

[00:13:41] Now, of course, if you do, it’s an amazing community of businesses and everybody’s learning from everybody else. It’s like a huge global learning community. There’s a lot of value that comes from being part of the community. If you do decide to go through the certification process.

[00:13:54] I will say that if someone is interested in this stuff and they’re not in a decision making place. Just start putting your ear to the wall and listening around. There’s probably other people in your organization that are also interested in this.

[00:14:07] If your leadership is not interested in it, there’s a good case for collective bargaining and helping them on their journey. Sustainability is not a switch you flip. It’s a journey. And so getting people on board with that journey of just finding like minded people makes a huge difference.


Event Details
Digital Sustainability
December 4, 2023
5:00 pm
December 4, 2023
6:00 pm
Tent Talks Featuring Tim Frick: Digital Sustainability On Monday, December 4th at 5:00pm Central, Tim Frick joins us for a live Q&A session: “Digital Sustainability.” Tim Frick Tim started Mightybytes in early 1998 to help nonprofits, social enterprises, and purpose-driven...
May 2024