Sustainability in the digital space

Sustainability, already a multi-layered topic in itself, becomes a multi-dimensional consideration of IT against the backdrop of the digital space in addition to the common division into the sustainability dimensions of ecology, social and economy. Two of the three perspectives in particular are currently being discussed more broadly in business but also in research. Therefore, we will first briefly describe these two before concentrating on the third, so far largely neglected perspective.

Sustainability of IT

The consideration of IT companies, their production conditions and ultimately their IT products from the perspective of sustainability is obvious, since this can happen analogously to any other industry. Questions such as those about sick pay, production-related emissions or the ecological footprint of the product at the end of its life cycle must be asked in the IT environment just as in other business contexts, even if the complexity is incomparably higher due to the flexibility of IT. No non-IT product, for example, can be provided with new functions remotely years after its acquisition without being returned to the manufacturer. This also gives rise to the legitimate claim that hardware can be supplied with the latest software even years after its market launch and thus, for example, be operated more and more energy-efficiently over the years.

Sustainability through IT

IT controls and optimises production, logistics, planning, etc. processes in countless devices and even entire organisations. IT decides whether a diesel engine cleans the exhaust gases or not, it ensures improved travel flows for delivery companies, controls the ventilation/heating of entire buildings, etc. IT-based sustainability measures of this kind usually use familiar methods, but the use of sensors and IT can make them easier, more precise, faster and more error-free. This improved measurement and control of processes opens up new possibilities for optimising sustainability, not only in economic and ecological terms, but also in social terms, for example via IT-based early detection of overwork, burnouts or outbreaks of illness, or via individual training plans designed by IT systems.

Sustainability of digital artefacts

In contrast to the two previous perspectives, the sustainability of digital artefacts[1] does not address the question of the footprint of IT operations or what digital artefacts are used for, but rather their nature. Most of the time, users as well as companies are interested in one or more specific functions of a digital artefact, but pay little attention to its wider nature. However, in a world in which digital artefacts influence or even completely regulate more and more areas of our economic and social life, this exclusive focus on desired properties at the expense of knowledge of the effectively acquired properties can have far-reaching consequences, e.g:

  • Thousands of people in Germany cannot unlock or lock their house or flat door after the cloud of the smart lock they use goes bankrupt and offline. All locks have to be broken into and replaced.
  • Tens of thousands of front doors in the UK are unlocked for a day because all locks use the same crypto key and a user has found this out by simple trial and error. As no updates are planned, all locks have to be changed.
  • Hundreds of (also international) companies in Venezuela lose access to their Adobe cloud and thus to all their data and applications stored there from one day to the next when Adobe discontinues the service from one day to the next.

Condensed to five points, the following factors determine the degree of sustainability of a digital artefact:

  1. Modularity of architecture and quality of programming (access to source code)
  2. Transparency of the data structures and formats used
  3. Access to semantic data (meta-data) and usage knowledge
  4. Access restrictions and security (information & co-design)
  5. Transparency of intention and functionality

Digital artefacts that are open to all, can be used in a modular fashion and freely developed further, are institutionally anchored in several places and compatible with many other digital artefacts, and whose knowledge of use and semantic data are freely available, are therefore the ideal to strive for both for the economy and society. However, many of the digital artefacts in widespread use today are diametrically opposed to this ideal, as the idea of lock-in[2] is often at their core. As a result, this approach undermines competition among digital artefacts, which does not work to the advantage of users. There is no technical reason why, for example, a Skype client and a Zoom client cannot communicate with each other. This feature does not exist because it gives users too much freedom and private corporations too little control, because the relevant, open protocols have existed for years. From the point of view of society and the customers of these IT products, however, it seems more than questionable whether a future of centralised power concentration with large corporations and decreasing user freedoms can be considered sustainable and desirable. Nevertheless, in practice, the sustainability of digital artefacts or their orientation towards the specific needs of a company hardly play a role, for the following reasons, among others:

  • The in-depth consideration of the nature of a digital artefact sometimes involves considerable effort and can require deep expertise that cannot be assumed everywhere.
  • Even with expertise and considerable resources, a full analysis can be hindered or prevented by the design of the digital artefact.
  • Many buyers/digital officers/CIOs do not see it as part of their job to know a digital artefact as fully as possible beyond the desired functions.
  • Especially in the enterprise context, isomorphism is a popular substitute for expertise and thus a strong driver of IT-related decisions. Considerations such as: “if I use the same tool as my competitors, I can’t be at a disadvantage” are not wrong, but lead to IT strategies that do not aim to improve one’s own IT, but rather not to make it worse in comparison to the competition.

Finally, it should be noted on the one hand that a sustainable orientation of IT offers great potential, especially for smaller, more flexible companies and organisations, which on the other hand is regrettably only poorly utilised today due to a frequent lack of orientation and expertise. This is precisely where the research on digital sustainability at the Institute for Sustainable Business comes in and develops analysis and decision-making strategies that allow companies to shape their own IT and cooperation strategies independently of the guidelines of a (mostly American) corporation.


1] In this context, a digital artefact is anything that has been intentionally created in digital form, i.e. any software that has been programmed and any file that has been stored in a file format. In this article, this term refers primarily to the research of Matthias Stürmer (2017) and Felix von Leitner (2019). [2] A digital artefact is designed to prevent the use of “foreign” digital artefacts. The user is thus locked in by the digital artefact and forced to use a predefined selection of digital artefacts.

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AUTHOR: Jan Frecè

Prof. Dr. Jan T. Frecè conducts research at the Institute Sustainable Business at BFH Wirtschaft, particularly on the topics of corporate sustainability, corporate values and sustainability in the digital space.

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