I recently interviewed Warren East, CEO of the Cambridge-based microprocessor designer ARM Holdings, as part of the BBC/OU co-production, The Bottom Line. ARM has an unusual business model, based around a web of collaborative partnerships with over 300 firms. It’s excellence in engineering design is reflected in the fact that almost 8 billion ARM-designed chips were shipped last year. That’s a staggering number by any measure, and it is reflected in some other startling statistics. For example, more than 95% of the world’s mobile phones contain chips that were designed by this British company.
Warren East spoke eloquently about ARM’s growth and development over the last two decades, highlighting some of its distinctive features and capabilities. We also talked about the environmental sustainability issues associated with the global information and computing technology industries. Clearly, any activity that results in the creation of 8 billion processors, however tiny they might be individually, is going to have a significant impact on the natural world – there are issues around resource extraction, energy use in production and consumption, and associated environmental pollution. The counter-argument revolves around the way in which these materials are used, and in the positive contribution they can make in economic, social and environmental terms. It is also very easy to lose sight of the human ingenuity at work here – the people who slave away to design and manufacture chips that can run electric motors far more efficiently, reduce the power consumption of servers by up to 75%, or help us to make ‘smarter’ use of energy in our homes and workplaces. Of course, such efficiency improvements can often be trumped by increases in volume or throughput – think air travel, for example. They do not, in themselves, remove the imperative for operating within natural constraints, and for mitigating the damage that we continue to inflict on our fragile eco-systems. However, it is also heartening to see just how ingenious our fellow human beings can be, and to acknowledge some dramatic technological innovations that are often taken for granted.