In this post I am going to discuss the PC in the context of a circular economy. Business models that shift value creation from a linear to a circular economy model are central to making IT more sustainable.
Linear vs Circular Economy
A linear economy traditionally follows a “take-make-dispose” process. Raw materials are collected, and then transformed into products that are used for a period of time and then discarded as waste. Value is created in this economic system by producing and selling as many product as possible.
In a circular economy, value is no longer based on increased manufacturing. Instead, products are shared, rented, repaired, maintained, upgraded, recycled and reused with the help of various services and digital solutions. Consumption still exists, but becomes more sustainable. An excellent resource for further reading about this Circular Economy is this site.
The Personal Computer and the Linear Economy Model
The personal computer is a classic example of a linear economy product. The compulsion to make and sell more in order to create value skews incentives towards designing devices with a limited life, so they to frequently be replaced. This obsolescence by design feeds ever more consumption and ever more waste. This poses a problem on a planet with finite resources. It is also a key contributor of global warming.
Contrast this with the software industry, which is more at ease with a circular economy model.
The Circular Economy and the ‘XaaS’ Model
The concept of sharing in a circular economy is a means of overcoming the challenges of product underutilisation that are typical of a traditional ownership model.
Capacity management in a ‘company owned’ datacentre is a challenge. The ability to scale up or down is ultimately limited by the constraints of physical servers. From this challenge, cloud computing was born.
The technology industry was a forerunner at the leading edge of the ‘as a service’ model. Cloud computing services are now ubiquitous. Nearly every business in the world has used M365, Zoom, Google Workspaces, Salesforce, or Dropbox.
Why are these services so popular? They generally offer significant advantages over previous company-owned, on-prem equivalents.
With no installation, equipment updates or traditional licensing management they are cheaper and faster to set up and run.
They offer more flexibility and scalability to adapt to changing needs. They can be accessed from anywhere you have an Internet connection.
Cloud providers invest heavily in security technology and expertise and as such their offerings are typically more secure than traditional on-prem equivalents.
In contrast to physical devices this is a far more eco-effective and sustainable model of operation.
The PC in a Circular Economy
If PCs are designed with obsolescence built in, what can be done to increase their durability and longevity?
How can the labour, energy and materials that go into making them be preserved to extend their value?
The answer perhaps unsurprisingly is the same as for software and cloud services. Instead of buying physical PCs consume them as a service. Thip puts the PC in a circular economy business model.
This is a much more efficient way to provide desktop computing. Using Microsoft’s Azure Virtual Desktop service, we can typically put the equivalent of 16 desktops on a virtual machine. A physical server will host 12-15 VMs. The computing power that would normally require the consumption of up to 200 physical laptops or desktops, is replaced by just one computer in a datacentre – albeit a pretty large and powerful computer.
New devices aren’t needed. We already have the devices. We are putting hundreds of thousands of devices into landfill every day. These could instead be repurposed with an alternative operating system to enable them to access more powerful, faster and more secure computers in the cloud. If these are maintained, economic value can continue to be extracted from the resources and carbon that went into producing these devices. It is possible to use your computers well beyond the limited life they were designed for.
Taking a circular economy approach to your computers makes sense for your business and makes sense for the planet.
To get an idea of how much CO2 you can displace by using your computers for longer, take a look at our calculator here.