"I CHANGE the conversation about how design and digital behaviour influence our climate and our planet's future."
—Andrew Boardman, Founder of Manoverboard Inc.
Growing up in the suburbs of Philadelphia, my dream was to become a psychiatrist. Psychiatry was a beautiful admixture of so many things that interested me: the practice of medicine, the evolving theory of mind, and a deep concern for the individual. In college, I nearly completed my pre-medical requirements when one final course, organic chemistry, stopped me in my tracks.
Organic chemistry (aka “Orgo”) is known to be the course that separates out the adults from the children. It is meant to develop a deep understanding of how the elemental physical and chemical properties of matter construct the building blocks of life on our planet.
But it was not the difficulty of Orgo that pushed me in the direction of the liberal arts. It was the realization that I wanted to try to leave a mark on the world by changing minds collectively rather than individually. I also recognized that the science of psychiatry, and of human psychology more generally, shared a common core with the practice of critical thinking and its application. And that core is the practice of diagnosing and changing how we think about the world.
To the chagrin of my loving parents, I went on to study the visual arts, English and critical theory. And my operative hope was that, through my new calling, I could find a way to positively influence others’ lives.
Today, I run a design practice called Manoverboard with a focus on using the tools of visual communications to address collective social, environmental and economic challenges. Climate change is the most urgent of all of these issues because it has a multiplier effect on all others: endemic human poverty, mass migration, agricultural viability, and species extinction.
Climate change is also the most complex of the challenges we face. When Manoverboard underwent its first certification as a B Corporation in 2013, I had to take a very close look in the mirror. The certification process requires a full and measured analysis of a company’s social and environmental impact. (The B Impact Assessment, while not quite as difficult as Orgo, kindly demands that you look at your business in its totality.) I recognized that the work that we’re performing at Manoverboard—on computers, online, and on behalf of clients and our partners—was not without environmental predicaments. Every time a desktop chimes or a laptop opens and a screen comes on, electricity is used and energy expended. Every time an email is sent and a Word document is shared, energy is expended. And every time a webpage opens and a Tweet is sent, energy is expended. It was clear that our business, along with millions of others, was using more energy than we had ever imagined.
According to Greenpeace, the energy consumed by the information technology sector will soon represent a staggering 10% of global electricity. Dozens of new servers and massive data farms to house them are cropping up globally. And those data centres are, for the most part, being powered by fossil fuels. By some estimates, the Internet represents the same carbon footprint of the airline industry. In fact, the electricity used in cloud computing is larger than that of all of Canada, where I reside.
The good news is that powering our servers and server farms with renewable energy and creating better performing applications and websites is within our reach. Google, Facebook, Apple and other large companies are committed to using renewable energy such as wind, geothermal and solar. In fact, these companies have made renewably powered servers and server farms a priority with very public commitments.
The next step is for organizations big and small to start thinking about how much energy they are using—and for us to find a way to more easily correlate a digital footprint with a carbon one. At Manoverboard, I am working to open and expand the conversation of digital and carbon footprints with clients, colleagues, and other businesses. We will be moving our sites to green or greener hosting over the coming years and changing the way we design and build sites and applications to use less energy.
We need to find a better way to build the internet while also reducing its impact on the climate. Education is key. We created a web-based initiative called Serving.Green that highlights some of the key issues and ideas around creating green sites and applications. The website helps explain the numerous challenges of bloated websites and fossil-fueled data servers—and to provide a number of concrete solutions to a lay audience. The site itself is also meant to act as a model for other designers. While rich in content, it is built to be light in overall weight and therefore more energy efficient.
I am also working on introducing the concept of the Bonsai Web, an approach to more thoughtfully and humanely creating digital products, including websites and applications. The Bonsai Web is a way of planning, tending, and developing our digital communications with sustainability in mind. A fully sustainable web means using patient capital and long-term discipline to create strong, thoughtful, engaging sites and applications that are humane, human and helpful.
Modifying our digital livelihoods is a small yet under appreciated part in the climate change conundrum. But we can change our behaviours. In just the past twenty years, smoking rates have declined, countries have stemmed numerous diseases, and general maternal health has increased.
As the founder of a conscientious company and a Certified B Corporation, I do everything I can to limit our use of fossil fuels. Most of the energy for our offices comes from hydro and we purchase credits to offset any fossil fuels that we might use. We subsidize employee use of public transportation and participate in a commuter challenge. We are also donating 1% of our revenue each year to sustainability-focused organizations in Canada and the U.S.
Outside of the business, I work hard to honour my own sustainability commitments and general nerdery. The design studio is one block away from my home. I take the bus whenever possible and live in a neighbourhood in which a car is rarely needed. I recycle and reuse as much as possible. The natural world is my source of inspiration and a reminder to me that our lives are short but our collective impact large.
I am persistently seeking new ways to use design and technology to help influence behaviours and decision-making. If we want to leave the planet a beautiful and life-giving force to future generations of life, humanity will need to reduce its energy consumption and take back its carbon-based roots. It’s interesting how organic chemistry is now core to the work that most interests me: helping to preserve plant, animal and human lives and livelihoods.
Learn more about Manoverboard Inc. or contact me directly by email at firstname.lastname@example.org