The Web Runs on Electricity and We’re Running Out

We get a sour taste of it when our phones run out of battery power, or when we can’t find a plug at the café. Without energy, it’s like we’ve swallowed the red pill and the magic is gone: our knowledge, our friends, our memories, even our capabilities and identities evaporate without even a puff of smoke for effect.

Article Continues Below

Yet we continue to increase the number of devices in our world, planning for a connected web of things in hopes that the poor will be liberated, education will be free, and our fridges will tell us we’re out of lettuce. Remarkably, we fail to acknowledge that we scarcely have enough fossil fuels to maintain the current state for long. It’s a humbling thought, but as web professionals, nothing we create actually exists when the power goes out.

Now I’m not saying we set off the fire alarm and give up on our egalitarian dreams for pervasive computing, but we’re currently building these dreams on a very fragile foundation. What we need is a way to be part of a solution. As web designers, we probably can’t go build solar panels, but we can talk about sustainability more—and we can exercise the surprising power that lies in seemingly small designerly decisions.

Learning from scarcity#section2

Human-computer interaction researcher Susan Wyche designs for mobile users in rural Africa who have to travel miles to the next village to pay a guy at a kiosk to charge their feature phones for them—every time they run out. Phones among these users are typically seven or eight years old (compared to the first-world average of 18 months1). Our phones get discarded young.

These user stories remind us how invisible obsolescence has become, but even this can be tamed by conscious decision-making on the part of designers. For example, designing for accessibility, with its support for backward compatibility, allows older devices to be useful for longer.

Power outages are also part of daily life in the large middle-class cities of India, like Bangalore, where UX designers are turning to their users for tips on thriving with less. A team at IBM Research, led by Yedendra Shrinivasan, carried out a study that revealed a culture of routine conservation there, and its results provide some practical implications for designers.

For example, according to the team’s findings, we should design systems to provide point-of-use feedback and suggest energy efficiency measures. Energy use monitoring wasn’t as useful to their participants as was device-specific feedback coupled with opportunities and suggestions for saving more. These users already knew how much energy they used, and just wanted to know how to use less.

These same approaches could be applied in developed countries where, although we aren’t spurred on by actual outages (yet), we do want to reduce consumption. Helpful nudges provided by our devices might be just the thing.

For example, what if your laptop tracked its own use, found out you leave it on overnight, and suggested a power down at bedtime? What if the maps on your smartphone could give you directions that showed alternate transportation options with associated resource use?—e.g., take the route to work via your Toyota (8 pounds CO2/0.3 gallons gasoline), the subway (2 pounds CO2/2kWh), or a bicycle (burn 300 calories).

The IBM research also suggests we should design opportunistic systems that make use of the energy that is available when it’s available—systems that don’t need to be on full-time, that can run tasks only when connected, and that can turn themselves off when not in use.2

Meet Brad the toaster#section3

Sustainability is serious stuff, but it can also be a good time. Simone Rebaudengo, inventor of Brad, a toaster with opinions about its owners, suggests that products should have the right to walk out on us.

His off-the-wall suggestion is that we solve our materialistic addiction to stuff by changing the way we design that stuff. “What if people didn’t own products, but hosted them?” he challenges. What if products were desperate to be used, and if unused, they could leave you for someone better—someone who needed them more?

To demonstrate, Rebaudengo created a prototype project, which he described as a “real fictional service” that was road-tested via a network of toasters programmed to love being used, complete with a geo-mapped website. The toasters communicated with each other online and even with their owners via Twitter. They could respond to their frequency of use and move their handles up and down for attention. No, really. Brad’s story, complete with interviews and footage of toasters in the neighborhood, is told in a brief and highly entertaining video.

Rebaudengo’s words were echoed by MOMA curator Paola Antonelli (who has acquired interactive media like Donkey Kong and Portal into MOMA’s collection) at CHI 2013, where she noted that people are thinking less about possessing things and more about using them. For evidence, look at sites like Streetbank, where friends and neighbors can share things like leaf blowers and camping equipment that would otherwise go years without use. Guerrilla and community gardeners use public land to grow and share fresh produce—see the American Community Gardening Association or Ron Finley, who started growing food along neglected roadsides in South Los Angeles.

As designers, how can we support this growing mentality? Thankfully, there are plenty of less-eccentric ways than talking toasters to be part of the solution.

What we can do#section4

As web professionals, we can make resource-conservative and resource-creative decisions at all our touchpoints with materials, whether we’re planning a conference, designing collateral, shaping user behavior, or buying a coffee. Re-nourish is an excellent launchpad. It’s a resource—including a project calculator and “green your studio” tool—dedicated to sustainable systems thinking for the communications design community. But even if we work exclusively in the virtual, there are ways we can take action.

Plan lower-energy events#section5

We tend to run heaps of events, from grand conferences to pub meetups, and there’s no reason not to make these more sustainable. When planning a Sydney conference last year, my team turned to the Sustainable Events Alliance for advice and supplier listings, for example. We ended up combining lanyard and conference materials into one USB name tag—a simple but utterly feasible change that reduced waste. There are hundreds more decisions like this one, from reusable coffee cups to freebies to bike parking that, en masse, can make a big impact.

Design for backward compatibility#section6

If you didn’t have enough reasons to design for accessibility compliance, the eight-year-old phones in rural Africa point to yet another. Accessibility guidelines are one part of the effort toward taming the unsustainable rate of technology turnover.

Of course, it’s not all in our power—as long as that turnover is lucrative for manufacturers, their product strategy will probably encourage it. But we can do our part by designing for the graceful degradation and progressive enhancement that allows older devices to be used for longer, for mobile phones to reach the age of three, and for users in countries that already stretch device longevity to its limits to remain included.

Support sustainable technology#section7

We can also make demands with our buying power (gadget lovers, take note). By choosing to be early adopters of sustainable technology, you are voting for certain priorities and supporting socially innovative industry.

There are already examples of bike-powered phone chargers, backpacks, and solar chargers, which, while not always sufficiently robust for the developing world, work wonders in downtown San Francisco or London.

Help your users use less#section8

But of course, our greatest impact may lie in how we help our users make more sustainable decisions more easily. In the same way many washing machines and apartments now come with energy ratings, little bits of just-in-time data can go a long way in helping users choose greener options. Tags, search filters, and feature lists could include sustainability criteria. This of course entails thinking about sustainability early in a project, so we can plan for the database fields, categories, and metadata that would allow for this. Processing big data to visualize information, or provide more sustainable options, can be the nudge that shifts a population.

Designers are already using their capacity to generate creative solutions to solve hard social problems. Initiatives like UX for good and Open IDEO provide infrastructure for design professionals to solve big problems collectively. Think what magic we could make if we were problem-solving for sustainability as an industry.

Isn’t it time we added sustainable design to every list of project requirements? Yes, profit maximization, management, and the status quo will show up to give us a hard time. But then again, we don’t work on the web because it’s easy. We’re here because we like solving tough problems—all the more so when they’re really important ones.

The more we embrace this elephant in the room, the sooner we’ll become part of the solution. And a solution is what we’ll need if we want to see our industry not only survive, but create positive impact worldwide for eons to come.


About the Author

Dorian Peters

Dorian Peters leads online strategy for the education faculty at the University of Sydney. She is currently co-authoring the forthcoming book Positive Computing: Technology for Wellbeing for MIT Press. She started her career on a Lite-Brite in the ’80s and now designs interfaces for learning and wellbeing (drop by at:

20 Reader Comments

  1. I do not agree. There is more than enough power or energy / electricity in this world for everyone.

    And saving energy through so called energy optimized code is even more of a pipe dream. Are you really going to measure every for-next, while-next or if-then construction to see how many femto watts it will save, if any? And also after every software update or patch from windows or your favorite compiler?

    Just switch your computer or any device off during the night or when not in use will save more energy than can be achieved though energy optimized programming.

  2. Interesting take on this subject…I do think we can conserve all the time. We all know that somewhere in the world some doesn’t have something…food, water, electricity…

  3. The only way to figure out if “there is enough power for everyone” is to do an analysis. It is not just power, but the impact of generating and using that power on the environment. That’s how sustainability differs from Web Performance Optimization (WPO). There are lots of numbers on this, so we can look at the facts. James Christie has another article on this site that gives some ballpark computations as a precursor to a full LCA analysis. I have some links at to sites with numbers and calculations.

    The major effect of JavaScript is not necessarily code execution – it is multiple HTTP requests caused via big, heavy frameworks that do a lot of server polling, as documented by Steve Souders at Google for years. The inefficiencies are even more pronounced in mobile – the device is low-power, but the huge network of cell towers is not. The equivalent of an HTTP request in the cell network is even more energy-intensive than it is on desktops.

    The number of HTTP requests is being driven up by designers who don’t know much about the back-end. They design sites without considering the final product – probably like the Hummer designers created a car considering many things but not its impact on the environment. So, lots of sites are really “hummer websites.” I have a list from a year or so ago at

    The irony is that the typical designer often acts as if they were “green” in lifestyle, but they design as if design was “weightless.”

    The web’s current contribution is a few percent but will grow as more and more products and services are “virtualized.” It seems likely that less developed parts of the world will preferentially adopt web-based solutions, since they reduce the demand for physical infrastructure. So, in the future, the micro-efficiency of code and poor design will have macro effects. There will be the equivalent of “green” web design patterns, just as there are “green” physical products replacing less efficient ones.

  4. @Pete: “…it is multiple HTTP requests caused via big, heavy frameworks that do a lot of server polling…”

    Wow. Show your biases much? Just a couple of things.

    Many “frameworks” like jQuery are available via CDNs from Google or MS. Used by many, it’s likely that they’re already cached on your computer, or if requested, served from the edge of the network.

    And many JavaScript HTTP requests are not polled, but issued when the user performs some action. The result (JSON, XML) is much “lighter” than the alternative: a complete page download or reload.

    Third, cell-based requests have a higher energy footprint, true. But the code served to those devices also has a much lighter footprint than does the often multi-megabyte code, images, and resources served to the desktop.

    Fourth, the “cell” impact is reduced more and more these days, as more and more homes, restaurants, and places of business offer WiFi connections, allowing mobile devices to route lighter weight mobile requests across traditional networks and backbones.

  5. Thought provoking! Software makers always on the lookout on the latest cool technology tend to forget about the rest of the world things are not moving at that fast pace. building efficient digital experience even for those is the way to go

  6. Turn off notifications on all your mobile devices. Use airplane mode. Disable images in email. It’s a bit akin to the traditional green debates – I drive I Prius, I cycle to reduce my footprint. You can make your site as small as you like, doesn’t stop the fact that the majority of wasted energy comes from heat dissipation throughout the network.

  7. I agree with @moosenl: You’d save more power by turning off the computer at night. Don’t misunderstand — I’m all for saving energy and the costs associated with it, but this article allows the pendulum to swing too far out of balance. There’s a big glowing orb in the sky, and we’ll always be able to harness that.

    If all of us in the web development and design realm truly, deeply cared about saving the environment, we wouldn’t be reading this article right now. Amish, anyone?

  8. Very interesting read! However, so much of what we do as web professionals is about attracting visitors and converting customers with the budget to buy our clients’ products or sign up for their services. And by “attract”, I really mean “entertain” or “distract”.

    With that in mind, how do we balance sustainability with the need to win clients and put food on the table?

  9. Interesting article; sustainability is definitely an elephant in the room for digital workers. But don’t forget stuff like embodied energy and resource usage too. No one I know in this industry is comfortable with the mining industry; most see it and manufacturing as “dirty”. Yet most upgrade their hardware long, long before its utility is even reduced.

  10. A timely and prescient article as many, if not most people, reflexively assume, based on little more than their personal experience, such fantastical notions as, “…There is more than enough power or energy / electricity in this world for everyone….”, and “…There’s a big glowing orb in the sky, and we’ll always be able to harness that.”

    Fortunately, wiser heads see that we are facing a serious predicament as fossil fuel resources continue to diminish and deplete and the renewable resource infrastructure they make possible begins to falter, crumble and fade. Without fossil fuels you have no solar panels, nor wind farms, nor even dams to generate the massive amounts of electricity needed to power the grid, let alone the internet.

    However, as wisely suggested here, careful planning and reasonable use (including many of the methods noted in this article and comments) will ensure a better life for all as we slide down the (hopefully) long-slope of Hubbert’s curve to the new future that awaits us.

    Assumptions that the power will continue without interruption are just that, assumptions and, I would argue, unfounded ones at that. Progress is NOT a religion that will “save us”, even if you believe in it fervently.

  11. The topic touched upon is really interesting..But if we talk about limited resources, there will be always not enough of them for everyone..

  12. @Johandesilva Absolutely! I think the web obsession with white backgrounds comes from word processors. The computing world is getting away from paper and “black ink on white paper,” so we don’t need #FFFFFF anymore. It’s bad for/hurts your eyes too.

    Another thing that needs to be said: When non-computer-obsessed types are given “less robust” tools to upload images from their multi-megapixel cameras, I often see huge images squished into small spaces. The default way HTML deals with image sizing is resource-intensive (like squishing a 3000×5000 image into a 300×500 space without producing a thumbnail). There should be server software to correct this.

    All of this said, it’s more important to convince people to start driving bikes. ._.

  13. A point on the phone charging issue – I’m about to buy a hand-crank phone charger for £12 ($18) for those long train journeys where I’ve forgotten to pre-charge and happen to be on a train without plug sockets. Or just in the middle of nowhere with no power. Seems like something that would be a good candidate for a OLPC-style campaign…

  14. Hey Dorian and thank you. I do not know all the mentioned names, companies and I did certainly not click all the links and read all the pages in your article, but even so, as a designer in the making, I feel different know. You gave me a new perspective. I am a pretty modern hippie to start with, so I’m already not buying useless stuff and the concept of using everything to its full potential is already something I live by, but now I feel a responsibility in my work to do it also. Not just as a person. I havent pushed people into thinking the same way, because they get angry. Like as if I am trying to put myself above them and insult them for using plastic stuff once then just tossing it out. Even though that is stupid is hell, I dont tell them that, instead I politely question their decisions. (at least I do my best to be polite. Perhaps I fail a lot all the time.) Point is, they feel accused and I end up a pretentious bitch. But now, If I take the conversation from a professional point of view, I can get away with it. So good news everybody, the bitch is back.

    And I wish to share with you, what I shared of you with others:

  15. I don’t agree at all.
    Turn off your laptop/pc/modem when not used will save you more energy and hours of analysis of opportunities.
    Thinking about backward compability?? bullshit. why do bother for 1% of ppl who uses ie5??

    I’m going to say sure we need to turn off pc at night and use sprites instead of many http requests but other things are inefficient and the article is about efficient.

Got something to say?

We have turned off comments, but you can see what folks had to say before we did so.

More from ALA