From living through the toilet paper panic of 2020 to this summer’s hot sauce hysteria – seriously, google Sriracha – we’ve become accustomed to short term shortages directly affecting us. Right now in the northern hemisphere, water dominates the headlines with many countries rationing it.
What happens when supply shrinks rapidly? Prices go up and we must wait longer for what we think we need. But at the extreme end we see conflicts emerging.
The tech realm watched in grim fascination as the global chip shortage ground assembly lines to a halt during lockdown, and now looks on as semiconductor supply chains remain entangled in political tensions.
We all know the geopolitics of oil and gas, but more complex political manoeuvring happens behind the scenes. China responded to the recent US visit to Taiwan by halting the supply of quartz sand, a critical ingredient in semiconductor manufacturing.
The ongoing positioning of China and the US over the status of Taiwan will have a direct impact on whether or not we see a consistent improvement in lead times for technology, since Taiwan is a major supplier of the US tech industry.
The tech industry could be in for a worse ride than most since the resources it needs are already on the critical list – we already anticipate running out of these metals and minerals.
Think about that, quite simply not having any more of the material you need to make something. Which means that product you want can no longer be made.
To make matters significantly worse, one of the top actions required to combat climate change is completing the energy transition – a process that ironically relies on the same finite resources as tech. Whether creating renewable energy or the electrification of pretty much everything, all materials needed to make this transition happen (think aluminium, copper, silicon) are almost exactly those already in demand to produce our IT equipment.
In short, the strategies needed for this urgent transition will break the already stretched supply chains for IT. On a planet of finite resources, this is an inevitability. The competition is only going to intensify as demand exceeds supply; prices will go up, lead times will lengthen, and unfortunately conflicts will escalate.
THE SOLUTION IS CIRCULAR
Ongoing supply and demand conditions paint a grim picture of the future. How can we avoid this outcome? Sure, at some point science fiction could become reality, but mining other planets and meteorites is many years away.
We can say with certainty that temporary shortages we’re seeing now will become permanent shortages in our lifetime. So although it would be cool to rely on NASA to solve this for us, we have to get real and start rethinking our approach right now.
The good news is there’s a lot we can do now which could relieve supply chain pressure:
A crucial part of the solution is to unlearn harmful norms and assumptions we’ve come to take for granted. Do we ‘need’ a new product or is it just ‘nice to have’? Pausing for thought before following ‘normal’ replacement cycles has real positive impact, not only on the climate but on supply chain stress.
When we no longer need technology, we must preserve not just the resources but all of the embodied energy. Whilst it’s an important backstop, recycling really must be the last resort. Reuse of tech is key to the climate struggle.
Software efficiency is another key consideration, as that drives hardware demand and energy use. That’s your website, core software, mobile apps... And yes, even if it is in “the cloud” it’s gobbling environmentally costly energy. Just hidden from view.
It’s well past time to stop relying on linear supply models. Circular solutions insulate the IT world from the precocity of geopolitics, and the inevitability of long term shortages.