Sustainability Gamification

Sustainability Gamification

Sustainability Gamification is a type of interactive experience that aims to both educate people about sustainability issues, and motivate and guide them to act

Craig Palmer
Amazon Employee
Published Feb 27, 2024


Through the daily news and sometimes first hand, the world is witnessing events links to climate change at a scale of destruction and devastation that is both new and frightening. These include heatwaves, floods, droughts, and fires. With the amount of carbon dioxide in the world’s atmosphere at the highest level seen in 3 million years, sustainability is increasingly recognised as a critical and integral aspect of businesses across various industries. According to the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change (IPCC), global temperature increases must stay below 1.5 degrees Celsius to avoid the worst effects of climate change on humans and our planet. At the present rate, global temperatures would reach 1.5°C around 2040.
Source: https://www.ipcc.ch/sr15/faq/faq-chapter-1/
Source IPCC
One area where businesses can reduce their environmental impact, including the reduction of their carbon footprint, reducing embodied carbon, driving a circular economy and enabling sustainability for customers (more detail here) - is by deploying their IT workloads to the cloud. Research shows AWS customers can lower their workload carbon footprints by nearly 80% compared to on-premises workloads and up to 96% once AWS is powered with 100% renewable energy - a target AWS is on a path to meet by 2025. This is often referred to as Sustainability OF the cloud.
While renewable energy is good news for sustainability, it’s always better to avoid generating carbon where possible. For this reason, businesses like Amazon, have net zero carbon goals across their operations. One way businesses can actively contribute towards these goals is by applying sustainable cloud infrastructure design. By optimising your deployed infrastructure within the cloud to minimise your use of resources that contribute to environmental impact, then you are further improving your sustainability posture. One example of this is to decommission infrastructure such as development environments that are not being used during weekends. This is often referred to as Sustainability IN the Cloud.
Sustainability Gamification, the focus of this document, is an approach to help motivate, educate and guide your staff to drive your sustainability changes IN the cloud.

The Business Benefits of Improved Sustainability

Sustainability optimisation is important for a range of reasons, not only for environmental responsibility, such as reducing carbon footprint, but also to help in several other areas. These can include driving cost savings, aligning with corporate social responsibility initiatives, attracting talented environmentally conscious staff, differentiating yourself in the market for consumers concerned about the environmental and social impacts of their purchasing decisions, and achieving possible future regulatory obligations. An example of these obligations is the agreed corporate sustainability due diligence directive (CSDDD) in the EU requiring companies to adopt a plan ensuring their business model is compatible with the Paris agreement with fines and injunction measures for non-compliance.
Cost optimisation often drives business investment as returns can be readily realised. While initially, optimisations are more noticeable, regular and disciplined optimising for reduced operating spend may typically fail to be prioritised by software engineers and project managers who instead are more focused on the delivery of new functionality. In contrast, optimisations that lead to measurable carbon emission reductions and can be related to in a meaningful way leads to much greater interest and appreciation. Since cost is a close proxy for sustainability (e.g. less computation requires less electricity), then encouraging a drive to improve sustainability can also greatly contribute to cost reduction goals.

Driving Sustainability Improvements - Sustainability Gamification

Sustainability Gamification is type of interactive experience that aims to both educate people about sustainability issues, and motivate and guide them to act. It is unique in that it doesn’t just harness the innate calling of your staff to achieve better sustainability outcomes, but friendly competitive game-playing can further boost intrinsic motivation. There are several key elements to support this experience:
  • Data and tooling to provide sustainability metrics: this needs to be both rapid and visible, and enable participants to understand past, current and the forecasted future state of the whole and parts of their sustainability posture.
  • Goals, challenges, rewards and a sense of fairness: gaming should be a positive and inclusive experience for all regardless of capability. Challenges align gamification efforts with the broader sustainability agenda and these may vary widely to incorporate a range of roles and skills. The may also incorporate real-world interactions and potentially progression levels. Participants should have choice to suit their personal situation.
  • Social engagement: drive collaboration and comradery with an interactive, personalised and user-friendly interface with leader boards that foster a sense of competition as well as a platform that allows participants to share their achievements and progress in their own narrative.
  • Learning: play has always been a powerful tool for learning and most employers appreciate continuous enablement which could also apply to employee’s daily life. Gamification enables learning content to be personalised and adapted, encouraging cooperation, exchanging of ideas, and working together to solve problems.
  • Freedom to fail: participants have the ability to experiment and fail without the fear of irreversible damage. For example, a challenge reward for an infrastructure improvement could be for a PoC outcome in an experiment account and not directly related to a production level change.

The Greenest Carbon – The Carbon You Do Not Use

AWS is on target to running all data centres worldwide on 100% renewable energy by 2025. This means that while all electricity consumed by its data centres from the local grid will incur varying degrees of carbon emissions depending on the region, investments in renewable energy in other locations produce equal or greater electricity with no carbon emissions. This includes the deployment of wind farms or rooftop solar. Subsequently, choosing a region with less carbon emissions means less offsetting is required (see here). This offsetting is called Market-Based carbon reporting and is used for AWS’ carbon reporting in customer’s accounts. The effect of this type of reporting is that it does not highlight your reductions in carbon emissions from your infrastructure optimisations since all carbon emissions are already offset.
The other type of reporting is Location-Based carbon reporting. While investing in renewable energy is a highly beneficial endeavour, Location-Based carbon reporting focuses on the carbon emissions produced at source regardless of off-setting and it is this carbon we want to measure and reduce. Not using carbon at all is better than offsetting from other sources. Sustainability Proxy Metrics provides one way to measure this.

Sustainability Proxy Metrics – a Basis for Sustainability Measurement

Before I move on to a conceptual and technical Sustainability Gamification solution, it is important to understand the concept of sustainability proxy metrics.
It is currently impractical to accurately model carbon emissions in real time. There are many fluctuating factors that impact carbon emissions such as the carbon load of the local electricity grid and the CPU/GPU load you are placing on the underlying compute infrastructure – both of which change frequently. Audited and reported carbon emission measurements are not published until well after the usage event. Additionally, we need to be working with location-based carbon emission metrics rather than market-based carbon emission metrics.
To move forward given the lack of real-time emissions data and the need for location-based carbon emission metrics, I refer to a concept called sustainability proxy metrics. These are the metrics that can measure in near real-time and help drive our sustainability-driven design decisions leading to the reduction of carbon emissions. They generally focus on the reduction of the following (reference blogs and proxy metrics ref):
  • Compute – e.g. vCPU hours
  • Storage – e.g. GB provisioned
  • Network – e.g. packets transferred
Sustainability proxy metrics point toward the resources that are generating carbon emissions and the metered quantities of these. These measured quantities are available through AWS Cost and Usage Reports (CUR) which can be easily accessed using SQL queries through Amazon Athena. You can also access the Sustainability Proxy Metrics Dashboard (available from here with further guidance here), as part of the Cloud Intelligence Dashboards.
Cloud Intelligence Sustainability Proxy Metrics Dashboard example showing vCPU hour by account with other proxies and views available

Carbon Emissions Modelling

For the purposes of gamification, in particular the motivation to participate and contribute, participants need to be able to relate to the impact their specific infrastructure optimisations are causing and they require fast feedback. However, will reducing compute vCPU by 3 hours or shifting 100MB of data between Amazon S3 tiers have a significant sustainability impact? To most people, they probably do not know.
This is where carbon emission models can help. They provide conversions from one sustainability proxy metric to another. For example:
  • Converting the reduced vCPU on a m7g.medium EC2 instance to metric tonnes of CO2 equivalent (MTCO2e) in Scope 1, 2 and 3 emissions
  • Further converting the above to the equivalent of trees planted and that then grow for 10 years (refer to EPA Trees Sustainability Proxy Metrics). For example, using this model, 2000 kWh is equivalent to 14.3 tree seedlings grown for 10 years
Being able to comprehend the gains of your changes as a measurement of trees, or even flights saved, can therefore be relatable to most people and become more motiving. For example, a gamification challenge could award a prize to the team that plants the largest virtual forest or saves a flight to the moon!
Caution needs to be applied to the use of these models as they are based on assumptions and simplifications and that could skew and distort your metric profiles. You need to examine the published methodology and make sure it is reputable. However, whether its 11 trees, or 16, what is most important is that you are applying the right enhancements in the right areas.

An Approach to Implementing Sustainability Gamification

Gamification, including projects, leader boards and social interactions, is a complex concept and needs to be tailored to the needs of each enterprise. In the next blog part (watch this space), I will outline an approach to implementing sustainability gamification using these technologies:
The advantages of these technologies include:
  • Backstage:
    • Provides a flexible way of presenting and engaging with users. Concepts of teams, metrics tracking, leader boards, projects and related documentation are core capabilities
    • It can be deployed in a reliable way within Amazon Elastic Kubernetes Service (Amazon EKS) or Amazon Elastic Container Service (Amazon ECS)
  • The CCF tool:
    • It is designed to integrate and work with AWS via Amazon Athena to query cost and usage reports as well as AWS Cost Explorer for EC2 right sizing recommendations
    • It provides emissions metrics of CO2e (metric tonnes) as well as model-based conversions to trees, phones and flights
    • Metrics can be queried directly from the server and used for other purposes such as ML-based trend forecasting
The steps we will take, outlined in the next blog part, will be:
  • Set up Amazon cost and usage reporting, AWS Glue Data Catalogue and Amazon Athena
  • Build the Backstage Docker image with the CCF configuration options to connect to Athena to query AWS service usage
  • Set up Amazon EKS using the Backstage add-on for Amazon EKS Blueprints with the Docker image
  • Configure a simple Backstage sustainability gamification solution


In this post, I’ve outlined the basis for sustainability gamification including the additional benefits, such as cost reductions, that help to inspire business investment. I also outlined the concept of sustainability proxy metrics and carbon emissions modelling as a way of measuring the impact of changes both visibly and rapidly which is key to effective gamification.
For further information about ways to optimise your workloads, please refer to Sustainable Software Development Life Cycle post as well as the AWS Well Architected Sustainability Pillar and the AWS re:Invent 2022 session Delivering sustainable, high-performing architectures

Any opinions in this post are those of the individual author and may not reflect the opinions of AWS.