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Remote workers are greener, but their tech still has a real carbon cost

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The massive shift to remote work due to COVID-19 has resulted in a huge reduction in emissions from vehicles and other sources, but it comes with costs of its own. A new study puts tentative carbon costs on the connectivity and data infrastructure that make working from home possible — and gives you an excuse to leave the camera off.

The researchers, from Perdue, Yale, and MIT, attempted to analyze the carbon, land, and water costs of internet infrastructure.

“In order to build a sustainable digital world, it is imperative to carefully assess the environmental footprints of the Internet and identify the individual and collective actions that most affect its growth,” they write in the paper’s introduction.

Using a single metric is too reductive, they argue: carbon emissions are a useful metric, but it’s also important to track the sources of the power, the water cost (derived from what’s needed to cool and operate datacenters), and the theoretical “land cost” needed to produce the product. If it sounds a little hand-wavy, that’s because any estimate along these lines is.

“In any calculation of this type at this global scale, you need to make a lot of assumptions and a lot of the data that you need are missing,” said lead study author, Yale’s Kaveh Madani, in an email to TechCrunch. “But it is a good start and best we could do using the available data.” (Madani noted that a lack of transparency in the industry, rather than a lack of statistical and scientific rigor, is the greater hindrance to the study’s accuracy.)

An example of their findings is that an hour of HD video streaming produces up to 440 grams of Carbon Dioxide emissions — up to 1,000g for YouTube or 160g for Zoom and video conferencing due differing video quality. For comparison, the EPA says a modern car produces 8,887 grams per gallon of gas. If you’re taking an hour of video meetings a day instead of commuting 20 miles to work, you’re definitely in the green, as it were, by an order of magnitude or more.

Chart showing costs of digital services in carbon emissions

Image Credits: Madani et al

But no one is arguing that the work from home shift or increase in digital consumption is a bad thing. “Of course, a virtual meeting is better for the environment than driving to a meeting location, but we can still do better,” said Madani.

The issue is more that we think of moving bits around as having marginal environmental cost — after all, it’s bits being flipped or sent along fiber, right? Yes, but it’s also powered by enormous datacenters, transmission infrastructure, and of course the wasteful eternal cycle of replacing our devices — though that last one doesn’t figure into the paper’s estimates.

If we don’t know the costs of our choices, we can’t make them in an informed way, the researchers warn.

“Banking systems tell you the positive environmental impact of going paperless, but no one tells you the benefit of turning off your camera or reducing your streaming quality. So without your consent, these platforms are increasing your environmental footprint,” Madani said in a Perdue news release.

Leaving your camera off for a call you don’t need to be visible for makes for a small — but not trivial — savings in carbon emissions. Similarly, lowering the quality on your streaming show from HD to SD could save almost 90 percent of the energy used to transmit it (though of course your TV and speakers won’t draw any less power).

That doomscrolling habit, already a problem, seems even worse when you think that every flick of the thumb indirectly leads to a puff of hot, gross air out of a datacenter somewhere and a slight uptick in the air conditioning bill. Social media in general doesn’t use as much data as HD streaming, but the rise of video-focused networks like TikTok means they could soon catch up.

Madani explained that, puff pieces writing misleading summaries of their research aside, the study does not prescribe any simple remedies like turning off your camera. Sure, you can and should, he argues, but the change we should be looking for is systemic, not individual. What are the chances millions of people will independently and regularly decide to turn off their cameras or lower the streaming quality from 4K to 720p? Pretty low.

But on the other hand, if the costs of these services are made clear, as Madani and his team attempt to do in a preliminary way, perhaps pressure can be applied to the companies in question to make changes on the infrastructure side that save more energy in a day with an improved algorithm than 50 million people would with conscious decisions that they faintly resent.

“Consumers deserve to know more about what is happening. People currently don’t know what is going on when they press the Enter button on their computers. When they don’t know, we can’t expect them to change behavior,” Madani said. “[Policy makers] should step in, raise concerns about this sector, try to regulate it, force increased transparency, impose pollution taxes and develop incentive mechanisms if they do not want to see another unsustainable, uncontrollable sector in the future.”

The change to digital has created some amazing efficiencies and reduced or eliminated many wasteful practices, but in the process it has introduced new ones. That’s just how progress works — you hope the new problems are better than the old ones.

The study was published in the journal Resources, Conservation, and Recylcling.

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Lime unveils new ebike as part of $50 million investment to expand to more 25 cities

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Lime said Monday it has allocated $50 million towards its bike-share operation, an investment that has been used to develop a new ebike and will fund its expansion this year to another 25 cities in North America, Europe, and Australia and New Zealand. 

If the company hits its goal, Lime’s bike-share service will be operational in 50 cities globally by the end of 2021.

The latest generation e-bike, known internally as 6.0, has a swappable battery that is interchangeable with Lime’s newest scooter. Additional upgrades to the e-bike include increased motor power, a phone holder, a new handlebar display, an electric lock that replaces the former generation’s cable lock and an automatic two-speed transmission. The new bikes are expected to launch and scale this summer. 

The hardware upgrade builds off of the 5.8, a bike developed by Jump that was supposed to be deployed in 2020. That never happened at scale because Uber, which owned Jump, offloaded the unit to Lime as part of a complex $170 million investment round announced in May.

“Jump made great hardware,” Lime President Joe Kraus said in a recent interview. “And we made some further improvements on top with the new bike.”

The hardware upgrades and expansion were funded from its own operational funds, not new financing from outside investors, Kraus said. The funding was possible as a result of Lime achieving its first full quarter of profitability in 2020, according to the company.

“We have figured out how to be profitable and we are funding this,” Kraus said.

Lime not only added a new motor to the bike, it moved its location in an aim to make it easier to handle at low speeds and enough power to climb hills, Kraus said. The swappable battery was perhaps its most important upgrade directly tied to its drive towards profitability, Kraus added.

“When our operations teams is roaming around the city, they take can care of bikes and the scooter fleet, which allows us to both operate profitably and continue to have affordable pricing,” he added.

Lime’s investment in its ebike operation comes a month after it announced plans to add electric mopeds to its micromobility platform as the startup aims to own the spectrum of inner city travel from jaunts to the corner store to longer distance trips up to five miles. Lime is launching the effort by deploying 600 electric mopeds on its platform this spring in Washington D.C. The company is also working with officials to pilot the mopeds in Paris. Eventually, the mopeds will be offered in a “handful of cities” over the next several months.

“This idea of how to service more trips five miles within a city is part of why we continue to do multi modality,” Kraus said. “When we add a new modality like bikes into a scooter city, or when we add scooters to a bike city both modalities go up in usage.”

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Istanbul’s Dream Games snaps up $50M and launches its first game, the puzzle-based Royal Match

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On the back of Zynga acquiring Turkey’s Peak Games for $1.8 billion last year and then following it up with another gaming acquisition in the country, Turkey has been making a name for itself as a hub for mobile gaming startups, and specifically those building casual puzzle games, the wildly popular and very sticky format that takes players through successive graphic challenges that test their logic, memory and ability to think under time pressure.

Today, one of the more promising of those startups, Istanbul-based, Peak alum-founded Dream Games, is announcing the GA launch of its first title, Royal Match (on both iOS and Android), along with $50 million in funding to double down on the opportunity ahead — the largest Series A raised by a startup in Turkey to date.

While Dream Games will focus for the moment on building out the audience for puzzle games with more innovative ideas, it also has its sights set on a bigger goal.

“We’re building this as an entertainment company,” CEO Soner Aydemir said in an interview, where he described Pixar as a key inspiration not just for size but for quality in its category. “What they did for animated movies, we want to do for mobile gaming. We are focusing on casual puzzle games first because everyone plays these, but we will also move forward with other genres. We want to be a huge interactive entertainment company that builds high quality games.”

The Series A is being led by Index Ventures, with participation also from Balderton Capital and Makers Fund. The latter two backed Dream Games previously, in a $7.5 million seed round in 2019. Index, meanwhile, is a notable VC to have on board: other successful gaming startups it has backed include Discord, King, Roblox and Supercell.

Interestingly, this is not Index’s first investment in a gaming startup founded by Peak Games alums: in December it led a $6 million round for another Istanbul mobile casual puzzle gaming startup founded by ex-Peak employees: Bigger Games.

Dream Games is not disclosing its valuation with this round.

Dream Games raising $57.5 million ahead of launching any games — or proving whether they get any traction — may sound like a risky bet, but there is some context to the story that sets up the odds in this startup’s favor.

The founding team all come from Peak Games, the Istanbul gaming startup that was so nice, Zynga bought it twice — first, in the form of one small acquisition of some specific titles, and then the whole company some years later.

CEO Soner Aydemir is Peak’s former director of product who built the company’s two biggest hits, Toy Blast and Toon Blast. Ikbal Namli and Hakan Saglam were Peak’s former engineering leads. And Peak product manager Eren Sengul and an ex-Peak 3D artist Serdar Yilmaz round out the rest of the founding team.

(Aydemir notes that the team left and formed Dream Games in 2019, about a year before Zynga’s full acquisition.)

The other indicators that Dream Games is on to something are its metrics for its limited test run of Royal Match.

Royal Match — in which players are tasked with helping King Robert restore his royal castle “to its former glory” by rebuilding it through a series of match-3 levels and obstacles, with new rooms, royal chambers and gardens making up the different levels of the game — was launched first as a limited test on iOS and Android in the U.K. and Canada in July leading up to this launch. In that time, Aydemir said it saw 1 million downloads and 200,000 daily average users.

“We think the numbers are very promising compared to previous experiences,” he said.

While Aydemir likes to describe Dream as an “entertainment” company, there is a lot of technology going into the product, from the graphics and the mechanics of the puzzles themselves through to the data science behind them.

“If you want to create an iconic game, you need to combine engineering, art and data science together with high quality user acquisition and a strong marketing approach,” he said.

And he believes that when you focus on these it will inevitably lead to quality, which means you no longer have to focus on simply trying to find a hit.

“We don’t like that approach,” he said. “We don’t want to find a hit.”

That was also the mix that Index also wanted to back.

“Building iconic titles requires a harmonious mix of craft, science and flawless execution,” said Index Ventures partner Stephane Kurgan, who led the round together with Index’s Sofia Dolfe. “The Dream Games team has perfected this mix over many years of working together, and has put it on full display in Royal Match. We could not be more excited to work with them in their journey to build the next global casual champion.”

While Dream Games’ long-term ambition is to build out interactive experiences around different audiences and genres, Aydemir said that casual games, and puzzles in particular, have proven to be a huge hit with consumers.

The strength of that trend has up to now meant that puzzle games generally have proven to have more staying power than other genres in mobile games, which have soared in popularity but also somewhat fizzled out.

“Every year we see the bigger market of users growing by 20%,” he said. “It will remain for decades.”

Interestingly, the focus on casual gaming startups in Turkey seems like a perfect storm of sorts. Undeniably, the proven success of Peak has brought in more punters, but it has also shown the way to developers: you can build a successful and global consumer tech startup out of Turkey, and perhaps puzzles — which focus on shapes — are especially good at transcending different language barriers.. Alongside that, Aydemir pointed out that the country is strong on engineers and developers but slim on opportunities with bigger tech companies.

“Mobile gaming is a younger industry, so that presents an opportunity,” he said.

Updated to correct that Index is not an investor in Rovio, and that the limited test had 200,000, not 200, DAUs.

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Qualcomm veteran to replace Alain Crozier as Microsoft Greater China boss

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Microsoft gets a new leader for its Greater China business. Yang Hou, a former executive at Qualcomm, will take over Alain Crozier as the chairman and chief executive officer for Microsoft Greater China Region, according to a company announcement released Monday.

More to come…

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