KU Leuven wins Fair ICT Flanders Award 2020

Winner of the first Fair ICT Flanders Award

On December 15, KU Leuven received the Fair ICT Award 2020. A reward for a process that already started in 2009. Step by step, KU Leuven is implementing sustainability and human rights aspects into their ICT policy. We are happy to share Catapa's interview with the winner here.
The Fair ICT Flanders Award is an initiative of Fair ICT Flanders (a project of CATAPA, Bond Beter Leefmilieu, ondernemers voor ondernemers) and Circular Flanders.

Sustainable and fair ICT procurement

Bram Vermeir, ICT procurement officer at KU Leuven: “The past 2 years we have taken major steps towards making the procurement of our ICT material more sustainable, both in terms of sustainability and human rights. Our biggest leverage in this is our 'Clients file': the purchase of desktop computers and laptops, about 5,000 devices per year in total. We paid attention to sustainability labels, but also looked at the repair options and the warranty period. These factors contributed to the assessment of suppliers. We tried to do the same for copiers and multifunctionals. That was more difficult: the market is less prepared for such criteria as is the case for client equipment."

“The human rights clause will now be included in all hardware specifications. Specifically, we ask suppliers to engage with us in a dialogue about human rights in the supply chain. That is the minimum requirement ”, Bram Vermeir, KU Leuven

“Our commitment to human rights is the most recent addition to the proces. We are still learning a lot about. We have already added a human rights clause to the contract with the copier supplier. To set this up, we asked for help from HIVA, the Research Institute for Work and Society, a research unit of KU Leuven that has started various processes on human rights in the university's supply chains, including an ICT process.

“That clause will now be included in all hardware specifications. Specifically, we ask suppliers to enter into a dialogue with us. That is the minimum requirement. We also request reporting on the human rights situation in their own supply chain, how they deal with obstacles and what actions they will take. Every year we come together to review their action points. They must also appoint a contact person. Not a salesman, but someone who is involved in the subject. In addition, we ask for transparency regarding the products that are supplied to KU Leuven, such as the locations of the assembly plants and the details of their own suppliers.

“Even for our suppliers it is not always easy to get all this information: we hope to raise awareness among them as well. In addition, we ourselves learn a lot about supply chains and the processes that accompany them. When we last awarded our most important contract - the 'Clients file' - that clause was unfortunately not yet included. This contract will not be renewed until 2023. That was too long for us to wait. So we have already asked the current supplier (HP) for a dialogue. We are pleased that they have agreed and we have already obtained a lot of additional transparency about how they deal with human rights." 

“To begin with, we sent them a detailed questionnaire about the problem.To be fair, at first we got the typical high-level answer to our questions. This marketing tale was not enough for us. During our last meeting, we really engaged with the HP employees who perform the audits themselves at HP's manufacturing sites. They released their audit reports, including the associated points for improvement. Based on that, we managed to ask much more concrete questions and get better answers. HIVA and Electronics Watch really helped us with this."

“We also asked the supplier what we can do ourselves to ease the pressure on the supply chains” Bram Vermeir, KU Leuven.

“We were also critical for our own organisation. We asked the supplier what we could do to ease the pressure on supply chains. The process works both ways. Suppliers are clearly not used to this type of questions and have to learn how to handle them. We are both learning from this project, and we will certainly repeat this with other suppliers in the future.”

Fair and sustainable use of ICT 

Jan De Baere, head of  Local Infrastructure and Support Service at ICTS (KU Leuven): “In 2009 we already started all kinds of initiatives to tackle ICT management in a more sustainable way. The first question we asked ourselves was: 'How can we extend the lifetime of our equipment?' To answer this, we devised a concept of primary and secondary use scenarios.

“We manage about 6,000 PCs. These should last for 4 years as standard, and are replaced in the course of the fifth year, just like servers. But we aim for 8 years for screens, keyboards, mice, routers, switches and WiFi access points. After 4 to 5 years, a laptop or PC starts a second life as a kiosk, lending or lab PC. 10% of our hardware is now in such a second phase."

“10% of our hardware is now in a second life phase” Jan De Baere, KU Leuven.

“If a security problem arises, or if a device can no longer handle certain software, it will be out of use. These devices get a second chance in a less risky context, such as education or for a student association that needs its own server."

“If these options run out, we look outside of the university. KU Leuven staff can purchase depreciated hardware at its residual value. Via Close The Gap we donate devices that we can no longer sell. In the last 2 years we have done 1,900 donations. 75% was given an extra lifetime, 25% was processed as e-waste. Sometimes we can also return them to the supplier in exchange for a discount on a subsequent order. Product that are absolutely end-of-life are send to Renewi or Coolrec, but we keep that to the absolute minimum."

“In 2014, we started a process to reduce the university's printing and copying volume. The first step was to reduce the number of printers. Now we manage about 50 printers. Most devices are connected to a network. This allows us to synchronize sustainable settings, such as standard two-sided printing, across all printers. “We also switched to laser printers and installed a system where a printer job is only executed when you log in to the printer with your staff or student card and release the job on site. This way, printing will never be done accidentally or on the wrong printer. We offer this to all IT services of KU Leuven. In total, it is active on more than 2,500 printers. 6% of the pages sent to our printers are never printed. Whit our way of working this accounts for tremendous paper savings:while printing 33 million pages  per year, we save 1.3 million pages."

“We made scanning free of charge in libraries and learning centers.while copying and printing are paying. Already 5% of all jobs are scan jobs; a number that is increasing year after year."


“Also on the rise: video conferencing and online education. COVID-19 is of course partly to blame for this. Some software was already available before the Corona cris, such as Skype for Business for video conferencing and Kaltura for class recording and streaming. We expanded this  with Microsoft Teams and Blackboard Collaborate for online meetings and education, and with our own streaming platform: livestream.kuleuven.be. With offices from Bruges to Hasselt, this means we save  lot of commuting. During the Corona crisis, usage exploded. Skype for Business went from 2,600 meetings/month to 31,800 during the initial lockdown. In Blackboard Collaborate, we see an average of 3,500 sessions/day (on class days, end of September)  with circa 15,000 unique users continuously connected. From the beginning of November this increased to an average of 5,000 sessions per day for more than 30,000 unique visitors per day due to strict Covid policy. On the streaming platform an average of 3,000 simultaneous viewers appear all day long. On average, between 60,000 and 70,000 lesson recordings and knowledge clips are viewed every day. Of course, we also provide the necessary compatible hardware in as many places as possible. This impressive transformation into a hybrid and online university has since been awarded the 'Covid-19 Project of the Year 2020' by Data News on December 2.

“Finally, we are also working on our data centers. Between 2009 and 2015, we went from 60 - often not very efficient - computer rooms to 8 rooms spread over the campus. We also built a brand new central data center, with extensive attention for Green IT. We make the most progress through server virtualization: we replace physical servers with virtual servers, which we then run together on one piece of hardware. 90% of our 2,700 servers are virtual."

“Energy saving is the largest construction site in this area. Data centers create a lot of heat and must be cooled. But this air doesn't have to be as fresh as in the classrooms or offices. Because we work with relatively high cooling water temperatures, passive cooling via simple ventilation of the outside air is sufficient for most of the year. Only in the warm summer months additional active cooling is necessary. We also keep cold and warm zones in the data center strictly separated, so that 100% cold air is used for cooling servers. We do not dump the heat produced by the servers into the environment, we use a heat pump to recycle this residual heat for heating our offices. ”

How to start your Fair ICT project

Sofie Pieraerd, Head of Customer and Service Center at ICTS (KU Leuven): “There are no magical solutions for sustainable IT purchases. There is not a single certificate or clausethat guarantees 'If I include this in my specifications, I am working sustainably or fairly'. Moreover, the usefulness of those labels and certificates varies greatly from product to product. It worked for laptops and desktops, but it turned out to be a lot more difficult for printers."

“There are no magical solutions for sustainable IT purchases. There is not a single certificate or clause of which guarantees "If I include this in my specifications, I am working sustainably or fairly", Sofie Pieraerd, KU Leuven.

“As a first tip, I would like to say that it is important to prepare well: obtain information, question suppliers, conduct research, etc. This way you avoid unpleasant surprises later in the process. If you blindly demand certificates that, for example, are not current in a certain market segment, you will get stuck. But you also don't have to choose labels that all candidate suppliers already meet: you have to be able to differentiate. And beware of greenwashing."

“Extra difficulty: the latest technologies - often more sustainable than older technologies - are sometimes not yet certified at the time of your tender. Then it is best not to set those requirements until the implementation phase."

“In addition to good preparation, you also need a certain expertise. That's my second tip. When it comes to human rights, you are entering a domain that is much broader than IT: there are also legal, legal and socio-economic aspects. As IT professionals, we often have less knowledge of this. Fortunately, you don't necessarily need to have that expertise in-house, there are organizations that can help you with that."

“Another tip: start from the bottom up. Especially with large organizations, it is not always easy to implement changes in one go. But you don't have to wait for important policy changes: start with the matters for which you are responsible yourself."

“As a fourth tip, I would recommend not compromising on security, operational reliability or user comfort. We want to see our sustainable initiatives assured in the long term. That is difficult when you ask for big sacrifices in return."

“Finally, I would like to say that it is best to compare costs in the long term. If you want your hardware to last longer, it must first be properly built. End-user products are often glued, which precludes subsequent memory updates or the replacement of broken parts. Housing with screws does allow that and therefore lasts longer."

“We will continue to work on the path we have already traveled. As an association, we have the power to get other entities and universities of applied sciences into our structure ”, Sofie Pieraerd, KU Leuven.

“We will continue to work on the path we have already traveled. The market and technologies are constantly changing. We would like to share what we have learned ourselves with others. But we are equally open to receiving input from other organizations. As KU Leuven Association, we also have the power to bring other entities and universities of applied sciences into our structure. We achieve the best results by working together. ”


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