Digital business and sustainability are often viewed as mutually exclusive. However, as the global climate crisis spirals and sustainability butt heads with digital transformation for prime placement on business’ boardroom agendas, both domains should be seen as complementary growth drivers.
The efficiencies gained through digital automation and the expanded reach made available through digital services can help companies reach their sustainability goals faster. However, the way in which these digital solutions are built are just as important, to ensure new problems aren’t introduced.
Sustainable digital transformation is about doing the right thing by building the thing right. It involves thinking about the stakeholder impact of not only what you build, but how you build it. To be a responsible business, we must make use of tools and platforms to track the actual impacts of the digital solutions themselves. We must ask sustainability-driven questions at every point in the process to make sure the end products do more good than harm.
There are five key pillars for sustainable digital transformation that will help organizations to stay on track with their environment, social and governance (ESG) goals and achieve effective and long-term impact from their digital investments:
Prioritize measurement: We can’t manage what we can’t measure.
Measurement is fundamental when misinformation is rampant, and there’s a crucial need for people to be informed. By keeping stakeholders, decision makers and the public up to date with goals and achievements, expectations and perceptions can be better managed. This helps a business to understand the ecological landscape, and it serves as testament to positive impact.
Approximately 77% of IT decision-makers don't completely trust the data in their organization for timely and accurate decision making. Building data integrity is crucial, as it allows companies to construct, articulate, and visualize what "good" looks like.
Build infrastructure: If done right, digital holds the key to a sustainable future.
Fragmentation is the biggest challenge facing businesses across sectors, with organizations facing architectural difficulties arising from complex mixes of legacy and enterprise systems. To flatten the disparity curve, there’s a need for a unifying digital tool to make energy and resource distribution more efficient in terms of energy, cost, and labor.
The pandemic was a catalyst for rapid digitization. Businesses are now expected to rethink the principles of technology used at internal and external levels. Digital tools that can capture the value of data and drive more sustainable solutions remain fairly untapped and should be more widely adopted. For example, artificial intelligence intervention in food waste could save up to $127 billion a year by 2030.
Reduce impact: Design for circularity and flexibility to mitigate obsolescence.
The linear system hasn't worked. As legacy systems are rendered obsolete, they inevitably turn into e-waste. That waste amounted to approximately 54 million metric tons worldwide in 2019. But e-waste isn’t just generated through hardware; the energy used to backup data comes with its own environmental footprint. This is only snowballing as cloud storage surges in popularity.
With AI, machine learning, and real-time data as society's transformative forces, it's imperative we balance sustainability benefits with the environmental cost of technology. Designing for circularity is one way to reduce waste. Transitioning to regenerative thinking, circular flows, and continuous production loops can mitigate hardware and software obsolescence. Flexible architecture that prioritizes connectivity, compatibility, and modularity can help businesses adapt to ever-evolving markets without compromising on additional resources.
Democratize responsibility: Make sustainability everyone's business problem.
For long-lasting sustainable transformation, the initiative needs to come from the top down and the ground up. While it's the C-suite that creates road maps, the workforce needs to be galvanized for effective change, establishing mutual accountability and democratized stewardship.
As ecological justice enters mainstream discourse, conversations around the need to offset carbon have taken the front seat. Despite this cognitive turn, there's still a need for governments, institutions, and businesses to back the people spearheading change to drive this movement home. Digital tools can democratize power and give all employees the opportunity to make a difference.
Mindful use: Be intentional and mindful about how and when we use technology
The use of technology is unavoidable but setting boundaries around how and when it is used can help make sure its impact on wellbeing is positive. By helping people make better decisions, optimize behavior, and correct the environments they live and work in, technology can have a positive impact on everyday life. Data can be used to monitor physical and mental wellness, with an abundance of apps built to analyze and advise on health plans.
Yet with all this access to data and technology, there’s a need to be mindful of how and when it’s deployed. When designing new systems and interfaces, empathy for employees and customers will be key to getting buy-in and it will also set businesses and their products apart from competitors.
Communicating the importance of integrating sustainability strategies into digital transformation roadmaps means thinking beyond profit and putting social and environmental concerns on equal footing with financial goals. C-suite executives must begin to move away from the short-term thinking often driven by the focus on quarterly reporting, and instead consider the long-term impact and value of the decisions they are making.