Cliodhna Kirk discusses the sustainability challenges facing the IT industry and why she’s so excited about the right-to-repair movement.
Sustainability and tech often go hand in hand for a variety of reasons. Firstly, there are plenty of tech companies heralding tech ‘solutions’ that could help to fight against the effects of the climate crisis.
On the other hand, the consequences of the rapid growth of the industry have led to their own sustainability problems – including e-waste and energy consumption – which the sector must now address.
But there are also the unique leadership positions where the worlds of tech and sustainability come together in a clearer way, where both are directly part of the job description.
Cliodhna Kirk is the local IT team lead for Greenpeace International’s office in Amsterdam and she is currently on secondment as a functional application manager.
“As an application manager you are responsible for a variety of tasks ranging from the management of back-end integrations between some of our tool stack, to community and stakeholder management, to escalated support requests,” she told SiliconRepublic.com.
“The team I am working with are responsible for all global collaboration tools that we use in Greenpeace.”
Kirk has been working for Greenpeace International’s IT team since 2018. Prior to Greenpeace, she said her route to tech was slightly less conventional.
“My background is in European Studies, which has given me a broad understanding of culture, languages and international relations. Initially I stayed in that area, doing an internship with the Irish Embassy in Paris right after I graduated. While I gained a lot of useful experience during that time, it made me realise that it was not the sector for me and that I wanted to pursue a career in IT,” she said.
“My interest in IT was first sparked during an internship on the Africa Code Week programme that I did during a summer in university. As part of this initiative, we trained students across Europe and Africa in the basics of coding using the open-source software Scratch.”
After Paris, Kirk moved to Amsterdam for an internship with Greenpeace International’s tech team and quickly progressed.
Biggest challenges in IT
Kirk echoed other leaders’ concerns for cybersecurity within the tech sector and said it is “a constant threat” to IT infrastructure.
“To mitigate this threat, on an individual/user-based entity, we have a strong culture of advising colleagues on best practices in order to avoid infosec attacks,” she said.
“Another challenge is the mitigation of the environmental impact of the technologies that we use in Greenpeace. This is a very tricky issue, but one that is a priority for me. Data centres are significant carbon emitters and take up vast spaces of land, while the production and consumption of hardware is a major polluter.”
She added that while we need technology in order to get a lot of our work done, it’s still vital to reduce unnecessary tech-related carbon emissions on an organisational level.
‘What I would like to see is a future where the tech industry is representative of a diverse and inclusive workforce’
– CLIODHNA KIRK
“Greenpeace International focuses on certain key areas for this: the reduction of our data storage in cloud-based systems and on premises systems, reducing and using hardware until its final breath and sourcing refurbished options, and working with third parties who are committed to renewable energy and environmental best practices.”
Kirk also said there needs to be more work done around issues surrounding justice, equity, diversity, inclusion and security (JEDIS).
“What I would like to see is a future where the tech industry is representative of a diverse and inclusive workforce and where JEDIS policies are the standard. I do see progressive changes being implemented in the technology industry in this regard, but there is still a lot more that could be done,” she said.
“We have been taking steps in our tech department in Greenpeace International to consider JEDIS topics in terms of the people we work with and products that we use, provide and develop internally. Some questions arise such as: Are we too Euro-centric? What is the entry point for youth into the organisation? Does our tool suite cater to colour-blind staff? Do the third-party suppliers we work with have JEDIS policies in place?”
She added that she has seen significant progress in this area, with 60pc of applicants for the company’s most recent IT role being women and gender minorities in comparison to 25pc the first time she was hiring for her team in 2019.
“To achieve this increase we reviewed our recruiting processes and looked at ways to attract a more diverse range of applicants,” she said.
“Some of the key learnings from this process were that it’s really important to consider where you publish a job advertisement and it can be good to weigh up formal education versus experience, as experience can be as valuable if not more so, in particular in an area such as IT.”
Future tech trends
While there are plenty of trends cropping up within the tech space, from the metaverse and AI to IoT and alternative social media platforms, Kirk said these are not the trends she’s most excited about.
“What I am excited about is the future of more sustainable and greener IT. There are legislative proposals in the pipeline on the right to repair in the EU and there are also legislative developments in this area in the US,” she said.
“The right-to-repair movement is a grassroots initiative that is pushing for consumers to be able to repair and modify their own hardware where otherwise the manufacturer would only have the right parts/tools/knowledge to do so. Interestingly, it was initially made popular by farmers in the US who wanted to repair their highly technical and expensive tractors themselves.”
‘There is a mind shift … people want to repair their electronic devices’
– CLIODHNA KIRK
With these legislative moves, industry players have started to follow this trend. In 2021, Apple announced a self-service repair option to allow users to fix their own iPhones and Macs. Meanwhile, Samsung and Google are working with iFixit on a similar self-repair programme.
These regulations and industry changes are designed to reduce the level of e-waste currently plaguing the planet.
In 2021, experts warned that the amount of electrical waste generated globally would reach almost 60m tonnes that year.
“If people are able to repair their devices themselves or locally rather than buying new hardware yearly, it reduces the need to extract lithium for battery production and reduces the overall amount of e-waste being produced,” she said.
“There are two things that excite me about the right to repair topic. The first is the fact that people and communities can have such an impact on governments and legislating bodies to create positive change. The second is that the development of such laws shows there is a mind shift and that people want to repair their electronic devices and give them a second life, rather than buying unconsciously.”
10 things you need to know direct to your inbox every weekday. Sign up for the Daily Brief, Silicon Republic’s digest of essential sci-tech news.