In 2004, the European Commission ordered a study to examine the impact of information technologies on the environment. The result - published under "The future impact of ICTs on environmental sustainability" - was quite clear at that time: only a strategically far-sighted use of information technologies would have a lasting positive effect.
However, digitization, digitalization and transformation led to much more than expected sixteen years ago: the economical and ecological changes also have effects on our society, where they do not always meet with approval. Optimizing resources and increasing efficiency can have a sustainable effect, but only if well managed.
The book "Sustainability in a Digital World", written by Thomas Osburg and Christiane Lohrman describes in a very comprehensible way what effects the digital revolution might have on our (social) future. One of the prefaces includes the following:
"We are only at the beginning of learning about, let alone understanding, the consequences digitalization will have on the environment, on workplaces, and on education, to name just a few key areas. Combined with ongoing globalization and immense economic challenges, we need to find solutions that enable us to sustain not only the planet we live on but also the societies we live in."
A digital ejection seat without a parachute
The existing political, economic and social challenges caused by digital change already are unprecedented. Educational content and learning formats no longer fit the needs of citizens, laws were difficult to apply, entire industries no longer were secure in the long term - also, the effects of change on our environment often remained difficult to offset.
The fact that (global) crises - like the one happening now - are significantly accelerating all areas of these challenges thus offers us, in addition to many opportunities, also some risks. These risks can be minimized if especially those who accompany technological and cultural change are aware of their responsibility. Watch the following video from the German Advisory Council on Global Change --> watch the video.
Basics of sustainable digitization, digitalization and innovation
To describe the link between digital change and sustainability, the following four terms are particularly relevant and should be addressed:
- Rebound Effect. Example: Online shopping reduces all effort we have with visiting a supermarket or shop in town. Meanwhile, energy consumption rises through order, and (worldwide) delivery of any product we buy - because we do it much more often than "regular shopping" - while huge amounts of products are returned and end up in the trash. This effect describes how efficiency gains are more likely to lead to much higher and unnoticed resource consumption through incorrect or unknowing behavior. However, the term can now also be applied to social areas - and preventing such "transformational rebound effects" therefore become a challenge.
- Induction Effect. Example: Studies prove that shared car services do not generally reduce traffic in cities – because those who do not have cars now can also use them. So the induction effect describes how, through the development of new technologies, services and products, complementary consumption options are added, finally reducing sustainability.
- Digital Inclusion. The concept of "digital inclusion" is becoming increasingly important as a new factor in matters of sustainability. A working group of the German "Federal Agency for Civic Education" speaks of "inclusion with digital media as well as inclusion in the digital society", while the European Commission makes an "effort to ensure that everybody can contribute to and benefit from the digital economy and society" by giving 700 million EUR for learning programs.
- Digital sufficiency. The principle of (digital) sufficiency describes: "as much innovation as possible, only as much as necessary" - and so could counteract the rebound and induction effects. While digitization, digitalization and change are aimed at increasing efficiency and promoting innovation, care should and must be taken to ensure that possible and unnoticed side effects are taken into account - as far as possible.
The question arises: is accelerated change due to the existing crisis asking too much of our society, or do those who are driving change need to take on more responsibility here? The development of current technologies already is accelerating quite unchecked, while in the distant future there are new technologies waiting to be used. Fact is: it would not be too time-consuming to apply more foresight in strategic, conceptual or creative tasks. Tools, methods and approaches do exist - we just need to use them more regularly.
Thoughts on a sustainable implementation of digital projects: bring your parachute
So how can those who shape this development take over responsibility in everyday life? While we are designing business models, defining digital concepts for consumption, creating services, apps, skills and programming the technologies behind - can we improve? I think there are several options for more sustainable change even on a small scale.
Our methods of developing innovations already are very well suited. We only need to add the relevant questions regarding sustainability and finally, make more responsible decisions. Even if we only develop single, digital services and products, we already might influence various areas of the environment and society. New work processes may mean that people around us need to be trained differently. New business models change the energy consumption of users, we need to learn more about privacy, ethics and responsibility, and understand the consequences of our actions.
Not only should we think of future target groups, but also of professional users, employees and workers. To only mention few examples and possibilities how to do so in every day project-life:
- Include questions of sustainability into the development of digital and transformation strategies. Make use of the "Sustainable Business Model Canvas or the Sustainability Impact Canvas" - it adds relevant factors like eco-social costs or eco-social benefits to the common Business Model Canvas (see below).
- Always add relevant communication strategies for both internal and external stakeholders to make sure everyone feels safe during all stages, to take away worries and to be able to answer questions in terms of the new change. Explain all decisions to the people, make them part of it. Many fear change.
- In addition to communication, further development, the expansion and development of knowledge and skills are important to take your employees with you through change.
- Of course, we don't want to slow down any innovation or transformation - this is the only way we humans have developed so far. But in order not to lose control about what happens to our environment and society, the choice of technologies we use must always be well thought out and critically scrutinized. "Green IT" is an exciting field!
- When using methods such as innovation labs, garage models, or other ways of lean service design, include someone to keep an eye on mentioned sustainability matters. In all areas of digital business, you will find employees who are familiar with sustainable options of their tasks. It is important to encourage and learn from them to scale their approaches.
- In terms of product or service design make sure to use sustainable practices, like e.g. sustainable design methods.
"All wills — clients / end users, designers, etc. — converge towards a complete and string expectation addressed to the digital services: human and environmental efficiency must be taken into account starting by their design. This is what digital sustainable design is all about."
There might be lots of more or even much better ideas to add.
Finally: some guiding principles for sustainable work
As mentioned above, innovation, change and transformation all reshape the world we live in - the following ideas are suggestions, of course, but perhaps the first step for an unbiased discussion:
- We consider the overall consequences of the digital strategies, products and services we develop.
- We take into account the consequences for all people involved.
- We take care to promote good options for action, personal development and new opportunities.
- We consider the need for inclusion, equal treatment and equality.
- We consider the consequences on the environment and energy consumption.
- We plan in a resource-oriented, sustainable manner and think along with complementary compensation concepts.
- We use our technological potential conscientiously.
Contact us for questions concerning how we do our responsible work at IBM iX / Aperto.
Dominik Multhaupt is Senior Director Digital Strategy & Business Design at Aperto, the IBM iX studio in Berlin. In cooperation with the project teams, his task is the development of strategic measures as well as strategic support in agile service design. Since 2016, Dominik has been working mainly with clients and projects from the public sector.