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Open source software and collaboration could curb climate change

Chris Howard, Lead Open Source Program Manager at EPAM Systems, Inc.

EPAM’s Chris Howard explains how fundamental openness and collaboration will be to solving sustainability challenges. Open source software can provide a foundation for this.

Delays in international action on climate change says we need new approaches

There is no shortage of efforts, committees and groups dedicated to sustainability and curbing the effects of climate change – from the regrettably unsuccessful Paris Agreement to last year’s United Nations Climate Change Conference, also known as COP26.

Yet despite the pomp and circumstance of these meetings that attract leaders from across the world, all the promises, pledges and agreements will be nothing but empty words without effective collaboration. Ensuring the success of these programs’ ambitious goals requires breaking siloed systems and strategic alignment.

One tested and widely disseminated means of achieving various climate initiatives is open-source software (OSS) and its core principles. Such solutions and strategies can facilitate teamwork, transparency and efficiency more naturally and authentically without the constraints and hoops of bureaucracy.

There have already been several organizations, including the Science Based Target Initiative (SBTi), The UK Climate Business Forum and The Green Climate Fund (GCF), that have leveraged OSS and the fundamentals of open source culture to realize meaningful sustainability efforts.

Open source software and the rise of open culture

Open-source software is non-proprietary, meaning anyone can modify, enhance or view the source code behind it, allowing for seamless collaboration and adjustments among developers.

Marked by transparency, inclusivity and community, the open source way can be applied more broadly, extending beyond software to entire industries, domains and initiatives. Of course, the process of modifying OSS isn’t free game for anyone – there are licenses attached to applications with differing requirements.

Still, the pillars of OSS, often called open culture, have propelled a global paradigm shift, encouraging unprecedented levels of openness and co-creation for problem-solving – and sustainability goals are no exception.

Traditionally, the various sectors combating the climate crisis have been disconnected, lacking meaningful alignment on their targets and action plans. However, with OSS and open culture philosophies, respective stakeholder groups – though different – can combine their diverse perspectives, skills and assets to accelerate value creation.

Opportunities for climate stability with OSS

OSS and open source solutions provide quantifiable basics, which bolster the work of scientists, researchers and developers in their fight against climate change. Most notably, the ability of OSS to bring together large amounts of data enables people to compile vast information on climate change in one central and accessible repository. Then, that data is shared publicly for software developers to use and build novel solutions and unique models much more efficiently.

Another way OSS can help people, teams and organizations reach their sustainability objectives is by eliminating legal restrictions. Because open source licenses grant users the ability to utilize OSS how they see fit, projects can be regulated and facilitated based on a system of participatory democracy.

Tech solutions that result in direct action and real change can replace ineffective policies. Similarly, OSS provides smaller non-profits with more opportunities to manufacture cheaper software than commercial competitors; moreover, researchers can alter tools in real-time, boosting project speed and driving innovation.

Real-world examples: OpenUK, Patchwork Kilt and others

Various groups are using OSS and its principles to cooperate at scale regarding climate action; OpenUK, a not-for-profit company supporting open source collaboration and open-technologies in the United Kingdom, is perhaps the most notable.

OpenUK seeks to use its shared and collaboratively developed framework, the Patchwork Kilt, for transforming data centers into net-zero infrastructure. By converting run-down retail and office spaces into 5G-connected edge data centers, it is helping the farming industry reduce greenhouse gas emissions by as much as 80%.

Additional initiatives the UK-based organization has put forward includes encouraging hyperscale cloud giants to recycle their data center hardware. This allows expensive equipment to be recertified for another operator, extending its lifecycle and avoiding unnecessary waste.

Patchwork Kilt serves as an open source community where people and entities can add their ideas to the “patchwork” of ever-expanding information. True to the collaborative spirit of open source, OpenUK’s Patchwork Kilt (now headed by Eclipse Foundation) underwent development and input from others, including Open Compute Project, The Sustainable Digital Infrastructure Alliance, IT Renew, the Scottish 5G Centre and the Octopus Energy Centre for Net Zero.

Other real-world examples of sustainability embodying the tenets of open source are (as mentioned earlier) the GCF, which uses collaboration and financial vehicles to spark climate innovation and the UK Climate Business Forum, which works to bridge the gap between the private and public sectors.

Likewise, the SBTi, a partnership between CDP, the United Nations Global Compact, World Resources Institute and the World Wide Fund for Nature, fosters teamwork amongst different sectors to set science-based decarbonization targets.

Less stick more open source

People, like institutions, are less motivated to do something (in this case, sustainability efforts) when forced. They will be more driven if given tools that make it easier to accomplish the intended objective. OSS can create synergies and opportunities for differing entities from a spectrum of sectors – business, non-profit, government, etc. – to collaborate effectively and intentionally for a collective impact.

Moreover, OSS and open source principles can move climate efforts from abstract goals and highlight-worthy speeches to real action and tangible change.

Chris Howard, Lead Open Source Program Manager at EPAM Systems, Inc.

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