Sustainable IT Holds Opportunities For The UK


Computing can affect the future of this planet, says the Cambridge professor of computing, Andy Hopper. And there are opportunities for the UK here – if we can handle our fear of change 


The US has led a big shift towards green IT since the arrival of the Obama administration, says Professor Andy Hopper of Cambridge University. But there are lessons to be learnt from Africa and elsewhere. And UK companies still have an opportunity to lead the way – if we are not afraid to accept big changes in our lifestyles.

Professor Hopper has emerged as a green IT advocate, but is we3ll remembered by network nerds and PC enthusiasts alike, for his long-term involvement in Cambridge IT circles. A co-founder of the British micro-computer company Acorn and a co-inventor of the Cambridge Ring network system (eventually the basis of ATM), he is now professor of Computer Technology at the Cambridge University, and head of the Computer Laboratory there. We spoke to him at the Royal Society in London.

Sustainable computing struck him as a research opportunity several years ago, around 2000, he says: “It is relevant and not well understood.” At that point the field was too fragmented, but when he became professor in 2004, he made what he calls “computing for the future of the planet” a major theme of the department.

Five years on, the research is bearing fruit. In academic terms, this means a paper given to the Royal Society (PDF) last year. “As far as I know, it’s a leading article on the topic,” he says. It’s even giving him a direct link to the increasing US interest in Green IT: “I’ve been solicited by an American learned publication,” he jokes.

US involvement is crucial, he says, as nothing will change till large countries get behind sustainable IT: “We need the big players to be on board. I’m delighted that the heads of the world’s largest companies are endorsing this.”
In his paper, Professor Hopper breaks sustainable IT into four main headings:

  1. Energy Efficient Computing: IT needs to reduce its own demands for power, by working in a better way: “It’s not just using lower-energy chips,” he says. “That’s good stuff, but it’s traditional. We can use the very special thing about computing. You can take it to the energy source – or follow the energy source round the world.”
  2. Sensing and Reacting: “We can use the digital world to optimise things in the physical world,” he says, for instance embedding intelligence to improve the routing of cars and trains. We can also applying more effective regulations and policies.

    “It should be a win-win,” he says, “because we can use less energy, and it costs you less.” Eventually, we could imagine monitoring the health of our biosphere, with some sort of sensor in every tree, he suggests.

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