ICT is changing: new materials are being used, technology is advancing, people are sharing in new and more innovative ways and data production is on the rise. But are these changes happening in a sustainable way?

This question is addressed by The future of computing: Indispensable or unsustainable?, a report published today by the Royal Academy of Engineering, which examines the future challenges of ICT and progress made so far. The report is based on a discussion meeting that brought together Academy Fellows and ICT experts from industry, government and academia.

The experts call on both the ICT industry and regulators to make key changes to keep pace and become sustainable in an increasingly digital world.

The last decade has witnessed the rise of the data centre as functions from social networking to retail move online. However, the shift from the desktop to the data centre comes at a cost. Many data centres do nothing for much of the time but still use 95% of the energy they consume at full load. Ironically, the more energy efficient data centres become, the greater their demand, ultimately driving up energy use and carbon emissions.

Participants also called for more transparency within the ICT industry so that consumers are able to compare the so-called embodied energy of a system, which measures the total lifetime energy costs of a system.

The experts also stressed the need for a change in behaviour around ICT use. As well as calling on government to incentivise green ideas and use, they ask industry to design devices that are made to be reused and recycled.

The future will see a massive increase in the amount of digital data we produce. While this data can provide opportunities for new discoveries and insights, it also creates issues with regards to storage, curation, access and analysis. Better ways are needed of filtering and classifying data in order to access it efficiently. In a similar vein, the current shift to cloud computing models will also require new regulations on data protection and ownership.

Professor Andy Hopper FREng, who chaired the roundtable meeting, said: “We covered a wealth of ICT related topics, from technical issues around datacentres and big data, to social issues around the use of ICT to facilitate economic development and this is reflected in the proceedings document. The future of the UK is inextricably linked with ICT. It is therefore appropriate that we think about what that future may hold and the challenges that will come with it. This document is intended to start that discussion.”

Notes for editors

  1. The future of computing: Indispensable or unsustainable? is available:
    www.raeng.org.uk/futurecomputing (815.37 KB)
  2. The future of computing: Indispensable or unsustainable? was produced as the proceedings of an event titled ‘The future of IT: Indispensable or unsustainable?’ organised by the Royal Academy of Engineering on December 2 2011.
  3. The Royal Academy of Engineering

    Founded in 1976, The Royal Academy of Engineering promotes the engineering and technological welfare of the country. Our fellowship – comprising the UK’s most eminent engineers – provides the leadership and expertise for our activities, which focus on the relationships between engineering, technology, and the quality of life. As a national academy, we provide independent and impartial advice to Government; work to secure the next generation of engineers; and provide a voice for Britain’s engineering community.

For more information please contact

Manisha Lalloo at The Royal Academy of Engineering
Tel.0207 766 0683; email: Manisha Lalloo