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Investing in sustainable infrastructure for the future of digital transformation

Investing in sustainable infrastructure for the future of digital transformation

This article was originally posted on the UCISA website as the first in a series of four blogs by Simon Furber, Education Sector Lead at ITGL, providing valuable insight to the sector from his experience on both sides of the client/specialist divide. The original blog can be found here.

The concept of digital transformation and its potential to revolutionise the education sector is no longer shiny and new. Over the last decade, and particularly since the pandemic, there has been a seismic shift in institutions towards the adoption of platforms as a service, making the campus and applications increasingly digitally-enabled. This continuing trend brings with it a vast array of new technologies, all promising to transform the way we work and learn. There’s no doubt that it has been an exciting time to be involved in these developments, many of which offer a myriad of benefits for staff and students – but such rapid progress can also present challenges.

For universities today, the question is not so much whether to invest in new technology – we all understand that institutions need to continue to evolve to survive, not least to meet the ever-increasing expectation of today’s digitally capable students. Indeed, most organisations will have already taken small steps or giant leaps along their digital transformation journey. Instead, the burning question has become whether that investment is sustainable – in every sense of the word. In the face of rising costs and shrinking budgets, can continued digital transformation ever be financially sustainable? Do institutions have the resources and personnel to make it physically sustainable? Are we building the fundamental base on which to deliver all this highly complex innovation? And what of our green credentials as we cyclically upgrade our hardware and systems in order to keep up – can digital transformation ever be financially and ecologically sustainable?

Achieving truly sustainable transformation must start with building the right foundations – investing in infrastructure that is not only fit for purpose, but future-proof. Many education leaders in recent years have focused on short-term solutions to address immediate needs, but we are now recognising that further digitalisation needs to be strategically driven to ensure that operational efficiency, security, flexibility, and environmental sustainability are all built in – and it starts by working from the ground up. Rather than viewing an investment in or renewal of infrastructure as an unwelcome cost, we should instead see it as an opportunity to enable change, and to embed resilience in our architecture that business can benefit from.

Investment in the right infrastructure enables flexibility, and with it, greater financial predictability in the long-term. The ability to accommodate emerging technologies, scalable cloud solutions, and high-speed connectivity will ensure that universities maximise the value of their investments for years to come. Universities can proactively plan for innovation, with confidence in their capabilities, and respond to new developments and opportunities as they arise. Focusing on the foundations affords universities this flexibility going forward, rather than adding solutions on top of imperfect architecture, which can progressively narrow the possibility space and increase complexity of future innovation. Prioritising efficiency and green initiatives such as server virtualisation, energy-efficient hardware, and electronic waste management systems will also contribute to reducing long-term costs, as well as minimising an organisation’s carbon footprint.

The benefits of such investment are not only felt in the financial and carbon budgets, however – investing in sustainable infrastructure has the power to transform staff and student experience. The adoption of emerging technologies fosters creativity in teaching and learning. Enhanced access to resources and applications, and an increased capacity to provide more varied and inclusive learning environments, can empower more students to greater success. Improved operational efficiencies not only optimise resource utilisation and streamline administrative processes, but in turn allow for a greater focus on student support, wellbeing, and improvements to the environment for everyone on campus. Robust architecture of course also enhances an institution’s cybersecurity capabilities, which we know is an increasing concern in the sector – so much so that we’ll devote a full blog to this topic next time! With institutions nationwide struggling to fill vacant roles, a university that positions itself as a digital leader will set itself apart in the education sphere, helping to attract and retain both staff and students, allowing for further innovation and the ability to physically maintain the drive toward new strategic goals.

But how can this all be achieved? If we know that investment in sustainable solutions is the way forward, how can we make sure we get those foundations right?

Firstly, it is now more critical than ever before that technology is on everyone’s agenda – not just that of the IT team. The benefits are there for everyone, across the institution, and so all stakeholders need to be involved with the conversation about digital strategy, and know how the right infrastructure can work for them, their needs, and their ambitions. Finding the right partners to collaborate with is also key. Working with experienced, trusted consultants can help ensure that the resulting infrastructure designs not only meet your current needs, but are also flexible, scalable, and future-proof. Finally, we need to ensure that sustainability is a key principle built into our procurement processes, driving the conversation between institutions and their suppliers from the very start of engagement.

Just as the world is currently striving for improved sustainability in the face of diminishing resources and changing climates, there was always going to come a time when the education sector likewise would need to question how we can sustain such rapid progress, alongside similarly squeezed resources and an often unpredictable financial, political, and environmental climate. But it is possible. Sustainability is not just a buzzword – it should and can be an integral part of the way we design networks for the future, providing us with the foundation on which to build the roadmap for the next stages of our digital transformation journeys. By building sustainability into the foundations of our network designs, we create a better educational experience for all.

Published by Simon Furber

May 22, 2024