Featured in the ECN June 2017 print issue, the article "New Realities—Augmented And Virtual—For ICT Sustainability" takes a deep dive into the burden augmented and virtual reality have on the world's information and computing technologies (ICT).

Potentially, the two may consume an unstainable amount of energy and leave harmful carbon footprints. Jaafar Elmirghani, co-chair of the IEEE Green ICT initiative, discussed a holistic, multidisciplinary approach to achieve sustainable, Green ICT. 

Dr. Elmirghani spoke at the IEEE Green ICT Initiative’s global conference, Greening through ICT Summit (GtICT)—“Sustainability in a Connected World”—in Paris, October 3, 2017. Below IEEE spoke with Elmirghani, who discussed the major takeaways from the event.

Q: You came away from the GtICT summit, held in Paris in October, thinking about the need for an interdisciplinary approach to greening ICT because of the complexities of related systems. Would you articulate your thoughts on this topic?

Elmirghani: Certainly. Our ICT networks and processing represent the cyberspace element in a chain that links together physical, environmental, social, and economic systems. We might shorten that to “CPESES,” although we can foresee how those links and that acronym will grow as we think through the implications.

Cyber-based, Green ICT solutions that we are working on will not be widely adopted unless we consider how they will impact physical, environmental, social, and economic systems. Green ICT solutions must benefit each of those domains to make sense. Therefore I think we need to involve subject matter experts in those and other domains to join our efforts to ensure that “solutions” don’t merely push the problem from one domain to another.

Q: Would you elaborate on the opportunities and challenges of such an approach?  

Elmirghani: We already work on the linkage between cyber and physical systems as we work to protect physical, industrial control systems (ICS), for example, from cyber hackers. These two links in the chain are closely connected and I think that’s understood. Cyber-based monitoring, control, and security affects other physical systems such as medical devices or traffic flow in a smart city.

From the beginning of our IEEE Green ICT initiative, we have had multiple technical societies and committees involved, from the management by the IEEE Communications Society to the support of the IEEE Standards Association, the IEEE Computer Society—literally, too many to list here. So, from the beginning, we’ve taken a holistic approach that is multidisciplinary in nature.

As we expand our thinking and our efforts to include other links in the chain, however, we enter new territory. Just as the cyber-physical link is supported by many diverse, even disparate technical societies and committees, so each of those other links is supported by various disciplines and technical communities. We’ll need to bring them into the “CPESES” fold as well. So opportunities abound to advance our thinking and our cross-domain work.

One of the obvious challenges is that these disciplines require specialization and, thus, they have different modes of thinking, different nomenclatures. People in different disciplines may not speak the same language, they may have different understandings of the same term. Those of us working on a cyber-physical system may make certain assumptions about the environmental, social, or economic dimensions of a problem because we are trained to think in a certain way. So bridging the gaps between disciplines will be important to pervasive, cross-domain solutions.

Q: Have you envisioned the development of joint approaches or frameworks for working together?

Elmirghani: Yes, I have envisioned how a framework for collaboration might work, but as an electrical engineer, I have a certain perspective that will benefit from other disciplines. Every discipline rapidly becomes quite complex in terms of understanding it from the perspective of another discipline. I think one of the first steps is to try to produce models that are simple, well-defined, at a high level, but contain enough detail to be useful to and usable by other technical communities.

At least with our GtICT summit we are bringing these possibly disparate elements together. We have yet to delve into this challenge in detail. At the summit, we learned that different people have different notions of what our most important goals should be. We are beginning the process of bridging our different disciplines. I think agreeing on priorities, processes, language, and common metrics will help.

Q: What sort of discussions emerged at the GtICT summit on IEEE’s potential role in greening ICT and meeting associated challenges?

Elmirghani: I should point out that one of IEEE’s ongoing efforts is bolstering the pipeline of engineering students and making society’s engineering challenges attractive to young people. The summit included the first IEEE Young Professional Green ICT Idea Competition, which focused on both sustainable ICT and sustainability by ICT.

Hasan Farooq and Ali Imran from the United States were recognized for their spatiotemporal user activity and mobility prediction empowered proactive energy saving or AURORA, framework, which maximizes the energy efficiency in emerging, ultra-dense networks. Alis Daniela Torres of Spain was recognized for her City E-waste Platform focused on sustainable management of E-waste in Smart Cities.

Among the other tangible results of the summit will be a white paper reflecting the program and related discussions. We have proposed a magazine to be called Sustainability, which would provide a forum for interdisciplinary ideas and papers. We need to start producing literature that is jointly produced by different technical communities, much like the forthcoming white paper, which integrates the links we discussed earlier—thus the magazine proposal. We are confident that the summit will become an annual event and planning has begun for next year’s summit.

One intriguing idea that is less tangible at this stage is the notion of a potentially IEEE-approved green label that would signal that a holistic solution is at work, a solution that addresses all the links in the “CPESES” chain. Perhaps this imprimatur would be given to a healthcare application, a smart grid, or a process serving a smart city. Such an imprimatur might provide the impetus for diverse technical communities to work together in a practical way.

Making that happen might be quite challenging, but it also might be a very rewarding process. The label itself might carry significant prestige if people understand what it represents in terms of a holistic, sustainability solution that addresses the entire sphere of related domains. Perhaps this could catch on in the market like Energy Star did for energy efficiency or LEED ratings have done for sustainable building design.

Jaafar Elmirghani is co-chair of the IEEE Green ICT initiative and a member of the IEEE Communications Society. He is chair of Communication Networks and Systems at the University of Leeds, UK. He serves as director of the Institute of Communication and Power Networks, School of Electronic & Electrical Engineering, University of Leeds, United Kingdom.