The materiality of working from home - RSA

The materiality of working from home

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  • Picture of Saleem H. Ali FRSA
    Saleem H. Ali FRSA
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Covid-19 has highlighted how important internet infrastructure is to resilience when spatial distancing is needed and when we need to gather and exchange vital medical data across borders.

Saleem H. Ali FRSA argues we should not neglect the raw materials, hardware supply chain or good governance needed.

A full year has passed since most of the world transitioned into working from home in some capacity. On this somber anniversary, it is important to reflect on what has sustained us during these trying days. As lockdowns came into force, normal life came to a grinding halt. And yet many of us were able to adapt because of one reason: Covid-19 happened in the age of the internet. 

A silver lining to the Covid-19 pandemic appears to have been reduced car usage and ostensible cleaning of our immediate environment. According to the latest estimates from the United Nations, working from home may have lowered the global carbon footprint by around 7%; there is however no room to be complacent. As shown in this short five minute educational documentary we produced, working from home involves significant material resources.

Making working from home easy and efficient requires a vast hardware infrastructure from mines to smelters to server farms and a massive physical cable network spanning oceans and continents. The wireless and cellular infrastructure, coupled with new technologies like 5G will necessitate even more complex hardware to be built and delivered. The Covid-19 pandemic is testing the internet infrastructure acutely with wide variation across countries that are constantly being monitored. There will undoubtedly be a need for further internet infrastructure in years to come.

In order to work from home over wifi, we need a vast infrastructure of raw, hard material.

Dozens of materials protect the internet from harsh currents, earthquakes and the occasional shark bite. There are over 380 internet cable lines around the world, spanning more than 1.2 million kilometers. That is almost three times the distance from the Earth to the Moon. Satellites carry a small but crucial share of communication and have their own material needs.  The solar panels on these satellites require exotic metals such as indium, cadmium and tellurium to keep them running. Back on earth, there is a massive network of internet servers running behind the scenes; storing and transmitting every video chat, social media post, and email.  And just like your phone or computer, every server requires an impressive list of raw materials.

In January 2020, just as the pandemic was starting I had a rare opportunity to visit the remote South Atlantic island of Saint Helena. The inhabitants of this British outpost, where Napoleon was exiled and died, are a sturdy crew of around 5000 souls. High speed internet has eluded the isle so far and the residents yearn for its advent to boost their economy and quality of life.

Countries in sub-Saharan Africa with the most material resources for working from home infrastructure have a high susceptibility to pandemics and may also have the slowest internet. Internet speed is the game-changer for development not just for remote islands like Saint Helena but also countries such as the Democratic Republic of Congo to Australia.

Our investments in raw materials have paid off well. Despite record unemployment, the internet made economies more resilient than any other pandemic in history. However, access to the internet is not evenly distributed. Consider the school districts that lack household internet in the US; the map is quite stark, particularly in rural and Native American districts.

The developing world still has a massive digital divide. There are almost a billion people on the planet without access to electricity, let alone the internet. In order to survive the nextpandemic, we will need to expand the networks that helped us get through this one. This will likely mean mining, fabricating and powering more raw materials. 

The United Nations recognised this when it announced the Sustainable Development Goals for the planet in 2015 with Goal 12 being for “Sustainable Production and Consumption.” This goal has 11 specific targets on improving the sourcing materials for economic development. Often these targets are focused on direct consumption goods like houses or cars, but the underlying material needs of the service sector such as the internet can get neglected.  As we move to the post-pandemic world, let us not forget the materials behind the scenes. Let us dig deep into the supply chains of these technologies and ensure they are responsibly-sourced and equitably distributed.

Saleem is Blue and Gold Distinguished Professor of Energy and the Environment at the University of Delaware and a member of the United Nations International Resource Panel.

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  • I would happily trade off reduced car pollution and environmental issues for an increase in material use for under ground cables etc. Digital growth will take place as the population grows (it will be unevenly distributed, I agree, but that's basically a political decision) and St Helena will eventually attract some entrepreneurial digital activity. I'd expect this to be at a high cost, as it's a tricky location - so the ruling government has a decision to make on access.

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