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Weighing the Cloud: Our Digital Carbon Footprint

There is an unsaid promise of the cloud: as we move from physical to digital products and documents, our environmental impact is lighter. However, our production of digital content is exponentially increasing every day. For example, Facebook alone handles 250 million photo uploads per day. To house this growing data, we are building a vast physical infrastructure that depends on non-renewable energy resources.

This infrastructure comes in the form of data centers – factories of the Information Age. Similar to the massive structures of the Industrial Age, we are again choosing to build systems that use resources faster than this planet can provide. We have an opportunity to create this massive new infrastructure sustainably and we shouldn’t just expect it to happen. As designers, we need to create tools that allow others to demand it.

I will outline the problem space, explain the concept of digital carbon footprints, and propose solutions to move the conversation forward.

Additional Supporting Materials


  1. What are the environmental effects of transmitting and storing exponentially growing data generated from our digital products? Are these effects better or worse compared to our use of physical products and documents?
  2. What is the carbon footprint of a Tweet? Of a Foursquare check-in? Of an email? How can we clearly communicate and relate these amounts to users so they can understand and comprehend their own behaviors when compared to a larger set of users? Should we even care?
  3. Can we design digital products and services for informed behavior change that encourage - rather than force - users toward an environmentally sustainable, digital lifestyle? Likewise, can we build tools that allow users to demand that digital services to conduct and build their businesses in an environmentally sustainable manner?
  4. What are the types of digital content we should focus on for behavior change? For example, should we focus on more ephemeral content from social media versus content related to communication in an office?
  5. Does demonstrating the correlation of cloud-based computing with carbon dioxide emissions lead to a decrease in digital consumption?



David Bellona, Interaction Designer, Self-Employed

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