Where it All Began
In my last semester of school I began work with the Solar Powered Media Project
, a low-power website & sustainable educational resource under the NYU Green Grant Initiative
. The research for Solar Powered Media set out to better understand the environmental impacts of modern internet products and how to mitigate them.
I began to realize how costly it was to keep the internet turned “on”.
It was clear from the start that there was a disconnect between the low-cost reputation of the internet and its deep environmental footprint
. Very few people realize that if the internet were a country it would rank as the fifth largest for energy consumption
— more than Japan, Germany, or Canada. Luckily, Solar Powered Media itself was beginning to disassemble the low-cost facade of the internet, and find alternatives by backing the website with solar-powered, open source hardware and software.
Over the course of a few months, I investigated how many builders
on the internet actually understood the mythos of the low-cost internet. Designers, developers, and product managers alike were familiar with the process of building a product but were not certain about how to be deliberate and efficient in that process.
Internet users were even more in the dark: without a baseline understanding of the wastefulness of the internet products they used, there was no clear place to start in cutting down on those costs.
A Design Language for Low Impact
Sustainability is a very new and under-discussed concept for the average tech industry employee. Still, there is documentation
on internet companies shifting towards greener practices, and ever-growing usable products
working to offset energy costs. Kickstarter even launched two features
in 2018 to help its users commit to creating more low-impact products.
Industry workers need a practical source of truth for designing and building a low impact internet.
The ultimate problem I was discovering was that low-impact internet products are clearly achievable, but the work put in by product builders is lagging behind academics and more experimental technology. The large majority of work in climate tech is led by a small set of experts and existing resources are outdated, underdeveloped, or unattractive. And while that may be changing soon
, there is a lot to be done in setting the foundation.
After getting my hands dirty with server-focused solar powered research, I got to work. I started by defining holistic goals for the solution I was about to create. Here are a few qualities I decided to focus on:
Green Design must, at its core, aspire to be as efficient as possible from a consumption standpoint. Staying ‘‘lean’’ is an existential counter to the recent ‘‘fattening’’ of web content.
Sustainable practices are not familiar to the average internet user, so the burden is on the creators to present the right information in the appropriate contexts to be impactful.
High-tech unequivocally remains in the design spotlight for now, and Green Design wants to be for designers of today, finding ways to balance sustainability with the status quo.
Achieving zero-waste means closing traditionally linear processes into regenerative loops. This means adopting practices that allow products to give back to wherever they take from, repeatedly.
Green Design is currently a resource geared towards designers. It’s a start, but there is so much more coming for other internet builders and users. Below are some challenges that a greener future will face that Green Design may one day tackle.
Builders need principles
Product designers and developers unequivocally find value in having an overarching, abstract set of concepts and principles to keep in mind when designing for a low-impact internet. This set of principles should help identify the biggest areas of opportunity for reducing costs and stay thorough but not restrictive.
Users need more context
A low impact internet needs to first break down the myth that the internet is low-cost. Staying informative and transparent will come around and create value in greener internet practices for both builders and users.
Users need it to be simple
By nature of the beast, an uninformed user's behavior skews towards low intent when it comes to sustainable internet choices. In order to maximize impact, this leaves designers and developers two choices: make energy efficiency low-effort, or make the default itself efficient.