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Key to Sustainability: Innovation & Collaboration

At our first-ever virtual Global Member Summit last month, we unveiled our new sustainability vision “Every click improves the future.” The Summit brought out insights and stories around sustainability from leaders at Google, Microsoft, Facebook, and Switch as well as feedback from 200+ attendees.

The discussion made clear that innovation and collaboration will be key to achieving our sustainability vision, just as it has been key for individual companies achieving theirs.

This is the third in a series of blog posts reflecting the top-of-mind issues discussed during the Spring 2020 Infrastructure Masons Advisory Council meeting and Global Member Summit. Attendees included senior-level end users and partners from across the digital infrastructure ecosystem. The Advisory Council meetings are private, closed door affairs and comments made there aren’t attributed publicly. The Global Member Summits are open to all iMasons and comments made there are publicly attributed.

“Innovation and collaboration will be key to achieving our sustainability vision, just as it has been key for individual companies achieving theirs.” Click to tweet

Go bold

Our sustainability vision will be delivered through initiatives – “the programs through which we live our values and make progress on the vision.” The fifth proposed initiative is “Achieve Radical Efficiency Through Innovation.” As sustainability committee chair Patrik Öhlund explained it, this is about “Challenging old paradigms and inspiring smart people, teams and companies to find new and innovative solutions to radically improve end-to-end efficiency by designing under ‘artificial constraints.’ (Imagine there is no additional energy, memory or cycles to use. You must use what you have.)”

Öhlund solicited feedback from the 200+ Summit attendees, who participated via the chat function on Zoom. One iMasons member said, “Innovation is constrained by fear of introducing risk in mission critical sites. No one wants to be the first! But maybe iMasons can shine some light on those who have tested the waters and succeeded.” Another member floated the idea of an innovation competition – an idea many of the attendees were excited about. As one said, “An innovation competition would be a great way to get young people involved in the industry.”

In fireside chats with iMasons founder and chairman Dean Nelson, Kate Brandt (Sustainability Officer at Google) and Noelle Walsh-Elwell (Corporate VP at Microsoft) talked about the incredible innovation happening at their companies.

Brandt talked about the role of AI, which she said represents a “huge opportunity” for sustainability. “For example, Google’s AI-powered efficiency recommendation system for data centers led to a 40% reduction in the energy we use for cooling. There’s a huge opportunity for us to reduce energy consumption across our own data center fleet, and also to make [the technology] more widely available [for others to use].” Google is going bold in many other ways as well, including with its new carbon intelligent computing platform (detailed in this blog post).

“Challenge old paradigms and inspire smart people, teams and companies to find new and innovative solutions to radically improve end-to-end efficiency.” Click to tweet

When Nelson asked, “How do you make innovation happen?” Walsh-Elwell explained, “Microsoft is an inherently innovative company. Satya [Nadella, Microsoft CEO] has driven a growth mindset approach versus a know-it-all approach. Within infrastructure it takes innovation every day. I have an advanced development team [run by IM Advisory Council member Christian Belady] looking at quantum, fusion, hydrogen. Having that closely coupled will enable us to commercialize effectively. We can’t just stay in firefighting and day-to-day.”

Microsoft has committed $1 billion to “accelerate the global development of carbon reduction, capture, and removal technologies.” As the company explained in its announcement of the Climate Innovation Fund, “Solving our planet’s carbon issues will require technology that does not exist today. That’s why a significant part of our endeavor involves putting Microsoft’s balance sheet to work to stimulate and accelerate the development of carbon removal technology. Our new Climate Innovation Fund will commit to invest $1 billion over the next four years into new technologies and expand access to capital around the world to people working to solve this problem.”

Microsoft has welcomed Infrastructure Masons members to contact them for more information about the Climate Innovation Fund.

Industry leaders aren’t shying away from the toughest challenges. Microsoft’s sustainability goals include “paying back” all carbon from operations since the company’s founding in 1975 by 2050 (that and Microsoft’s other goals are detailed in this blog post). Dean Nelson emphasized that in these sustainability goals, Microsoft isn’t giving itself credit for gains realized by customers or society through use of Microsoft technology. Walsh-Elwell explained, “Yes, these commitments are about operations. It’s not taking credit for moving from enterprise into the cloud. It is the cloud as it is today and all that it takes to build that infrastructure and those servers…To ensure that it’s overall net negative.”

Eddie Schutter, CTO at Switch, reiterated the point. “A lot of people focus on moving to cloud. But it has to be sustainable in multiple facets. It can’t just be about sustainable energy or carbon impact. It has to be sustainable economically. It has to be sustainable as a control mechanism to meet compliance requirements and things like that. I want to make sure there’s clarity that we’re not looking at a solution just from the perspective of energy or water or carbon impact.”

Nelson added, “It’s not just mechanical and electrical. It really comes down to the data center itself and the supply chain that feeds it. It’s everything about that data center and how you would make it carbon neutral as it operates or even carbon negative to achieve that ‘Every click improves the future’ vision.”

“Solving our planet’s carbon issues will require technology that does not exist today.” ~ Microsoft announcement of its $1 billion Climate Innovation Fund Click to tweet

Do it together

One of the core values underpinning our sustainability vision is collaboration: “Compound our impact. Individuals and companies can do more working together.” That, too, was a key topic of conversation at the Summit.

As Rachel Peterson, VP of Data Center Strategy at Facebook, explained, “What’s striking to me is that all of our objectives as individual companies are very similar. We’re fortunate to work at companies where we do have the ability to make an impact. At Facebook one of our goals is to foster innovation and transparency in the industry. For example, the Open Compute Project was an effort to share our open designs in order to drive efficiencies and improvements across the industry. We had smaller companies saying ‘I wouldn’t have known how to do this on my own but this has enabled me to reduce energy usage.’”

Working together to drive change at scale was a key theme of the panel conversation with Peterson and Schutter as well as Christian Belady, GM of Data Center Services at Microsoft and Joe Kava, VP of Data Centers at Google. “The companies we work for and the roles we play afford us the opportunity to lead by example,” said Kava. “At Google we’ve been pioneering the move toward renewable energy for over a decade. Along the way one of our internal principles was that whatever we do, whether public policy or advocacy, we wouldn’t do on behalf of only Google, but on behalf of any company that wanted to follow suit and procure or purchase renewable energy to power their operations. As large power customers we have a big voice. That’s an area where we’ve been able to amplify our voice and help others follow suit.”

“Compound our impact. Individuals and companies can do more working together.” Click to tweet

One of the key outcomes of working together can be enabling cost-effective access to renewables for everyone, everywhere. As Peterson explained, “Five or ten years ago renewable energy was very expensive – prohibitively expensive for some companies – and it was very difficult to acquire. We set out to drive green tariff adoption in states that didn’t have ways for companies to achieve renewable energy. That opened up procurement in those states and also spurred renewable energy projects in those states. Now what you’ve seen is the shifting of supply and demand through these efforts. In a lot of places we’re now seeing renewable energy consumption exceed coal at rates that are less than brown power rates. It underscores the importance of us as industry partners driving towards these common goals because together we can achieve so much more than we can individually.”

Working together is not only about enlisting the help of other digital infrastructure leaders. It’s also about engaging the supply chain.

As Brandt explained the lessons she learned as the first ever Federal Chief Sustainability Officer (the post she held prior to Google), she said, “For me a couple of the big takeaways were the power of driving change at scale and the power of engaging your supply chain. That kind of work showed me the power of large organizations using their buying power to drive change. That’s been the approach at Google, which predates my time here; we’ve always looked to use our scale and influence to drive change. Secondly, something I’m really proud of from my time at the White House was looking at how we could engage our federal suppliers more deeply. Similarly at Google, we’re very committed to our responsible supply chain program. We have a goal of a 100% renewable energy supply chain and we see that partnership with our suppliers as key.”

“Working together is not only about enlisting the help of other digital infrastructure leaders. It’s also about engaging the supply chain.” Click to tweet

Get involved

To gather input from the growing number of iMasons members around the world, we’re hosting two more virtual summits, in APAC and EMEA. The Global Member Summit APAC – Virtual Event will be held on May 21 and the Global Member Summit EMEA – Virtual Event will be held on May 28.

Each Summit will have a working session where participants are asked to provide feedback on our five proposed Sustainability Strategy initiatives. That feedback will be combined with ideas already generated by the Sustainability Committee to develop an Action Plan. That Action Plan will be shared publicly during the Global UN Sustainability Summit in September 2020.

All members are welcome to attend any and all Summits.

If you’re interested in participating – either providing your feedback during an upcoming Summit or as a member of the Sustainability Committee – you can do so via the new iMasons app. (If you don’t yet have the app, learn about it here. It’s free for all members.)

Learn more

Check out these blog posts for more insights from the Spring 2020 Infrastructure Masons Advisory Council meeting and Global Member Summit:

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