Digital ecodesign: taking into account the impact of virtual on the environment

Is it possible that educational technologies and content are designed with respect for human diversity while minimizing their ecological footprint? Our collaborator Marc Tremblay is interested in the question and discusses it with Kristen Girard, Web developer certified in Green-IT and specialized in "ecodesign".

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By Marc Tremblay, Accessibility Consultant, BA, CPACC (Certified Professional in Accessibility Core Competencies), Founding President Agence SAT, Blog Editor aidestechnos.com 

My wish is to make digital environments more caring, inclusive and accessible for the diversity of users. Information and communication technologies can be of much more than recreational, educational or professional interest. They can also be an important vector of social participation and environmental protection. Is it possible that educational technologies and content are designed with respect for human diversity while minimizing their ecological footprint?

In order to support the community of content creators and developers of educational technologies, I set myself the challenge of meeting web / digital professionals who have developed expertise in responsible design: inclusive design, eco-design, digital accessibility. 

Becoming aware of the social and environmental issues linked to digital transformations is the first step in revolutionizing our practices. It is in this spirit that I present to you Kristen Girard, Web developer, certified in Green-IT at the Cherry-WEB Agency, specializing in "eco-design". 

Kristen Girard. Source: LinkedIn

Yes, yes ONE developer! When we talk about diversity, that's also what I mean: women are still too rare in the digital world. Kristen became interested in the ecology of digital services because ecology is one of her personal values. It therefore seemed natural to him that his work should be consistent with these. Here is a summary of my interview with her.

What are the environmental and social impacts of digital services as they are generally designed?

[Kristen] The impacts are enormous since they are evaluated today at a little more than 4 % of GHG (greenhouse gas) emissions, which is equivalent to aviation! The biggest source of pollution in digital technology is the production of terminals (connected watches, laptops, box Internet, smartphones, etc…) which are estimated at 8 per person in the world. Then come the data centers, green spaces are sometimes razed to accommodate these data centers. It also takes a lot of electricity to cool these facilities. 

These are the biggest links in the chain. The societal impact is not to be outdone, since it is estimated that more or less 40,000 children work in mines in the Democratic Republic of Congo to extract the ore necessary for the manufacture of user terminals. Badly paid or not paid, this benefits the biggest companies in the world, selling more and more expensive smartphones and computers in industrialized countries.

Some definitions…

Before going any further, I asked him to define some concepts to help a better understanding. 

Responsible digital design

[Kristen] Responsible design is about creating a digital service, for example a website, in a more “green” way. This means that we will take into account its entire life cycle during its design: birth, purpose of its creation, life and end of life, that is to say what we will do with the site when its presence on the Internet will no longer exist. I refer in particular to www.translucide.net, created with a minimum of code which looks very nice, while having a responsible approach: less code = less online data, “clean” hosting (renewable energies), etc.

Digital sobriety

[Kristen] The notion of digital sobriety joins that of responsible design since it is a question of using the Internet or creating a service in a simpler way, but no less intuitive and accessible.

Take the example of an Internet user who seeks information and goes to a search engine such as www.google.ca. Google responds to the request of the Internet user, either to do a search. 

Conversely, www.msn.com presents a wealth of related information. All this data is stored somewhere, we called up data by clicking when we had not requested anything. The servers are therefore solicited for nothing.

Citizen technology

[Kristen] I could define citizen technology as technology that meets the needs of a person while taking into account the consequences on his health, the life of the person as well as societal issues such as the fair remuneration of a person with created this technology, for example.

Digital common

[Kristen] The digital commons could be defined as the existing technologies that are necessary for everyone, for example: Internet.

Digital ecodesign

[Kristen] Digital ecodesign means making digital less polluting by studying the life cycle of a defined product (website, application, software, etc.) and adapting it as and when product design.

Life cycle analysis

[Kristen] Product lifecycle analysis exists for any product in the world. It is quite simply the taking into account of its birth (therefore its reason for existing), its life and its end of life. This requires answering the question: what are we going to do with it when we no longer need it?

What would be the good practices responsible for the design of digital products and services (educational applications, digital books, websites, etc.)?

[Kristen] There are a lot of best practices to be aware of, and that is assessed as you design a product. Above all, avoid streaming as well as posting videos on a site, use good-sized images rather than choosing animated images such as GIFs.

Indeed, the streaming or animated GIFs solicit the servers for the duration of the viewing, which are called "server requests". Since it stays online (unlike downloading a video to your computer), these requests are incessant which prematurely wears out the servers, requiring early change and the consumption of more material.

What is the impact of responsible design of digital services?

[Kristen] Being aware of the issues allows us to start with models that are less greedy and more respectful of the environment and humans. It is a balance between the great usefulness of the Internet and environmental awareness. The Fairphone is a good example, since this mobile phone was the subject of an extensive study during its design so that the employees are paid fairly and the phone can be repaired easily without having to change it.

Why should content creators and developers of digital education services be interested in ecodesign?

[Kristen] It is necessary to be interested in it from the beginning of a career in information technology, because it will be a big topic of debate when the mineral resources run out, that is to say in one to two generations. We must therefore act now.


To conclude, the posture of digital sobriety is important, because it defines a set of behaviors vis-à-vis digital players (developers and users) around the values of social inclusion, respect for human diversity and biodiversity. . We are all responsible, from the user to the content creators, to the developers and those who teach digital skills.

Do you want to continue your reflection on the subject? Kristen invites us to read the book Digital sobriety, the keys to taking action by Frédéric Bordage, as well as Web ecodesign: the 115 best practices by the same author, more intended for developers. 

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