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Sustainable digital transformation

This article gives a view to sustainable digital transformation. It clarifies what is ‘Digitalisation for sustainability’ and ‘Sustainable digitalisation’ – and presents an actionable principles for the later one.

Disclaimer: the figures referenced herein are mostly based on statistics from 2020-2023.
Given the constant emergence of new data on the sustainability of digitalisation, particularly in measuring energy consumption and emissions, please note that the facts might have already changed to way or another.


Is digitalisation a part of the solution or a part of the problem?

Digitalisation can serve as a catalyst for sustainability transformation, addressing the imperative of navigating towards net-zero futures characterised by heightened efficiency and regenerative, climate-positive objectives (Source: Tieke, 2024).

In practical terms, it means for example:

  • Competing against the runaway climate change and biodiversity loss.
  • Reducing greenhouse gas emissions in various sectors.
  • Facilitating environmental protection and nature conservation.
  • Promoting circularity and economic resilience.
  • Decreasing social polarisation and an erosion of democracy.
  • Fostering digital sovereignty, and social diversity, equity, and inclusivity.

Concrete examples of digitalisation for sustainability include initiatives such as sustainable agriculture, circular economy innovations, and transitioning towards cleaner energy sources.

However, despite all the great possibilities and ability to make the future look better, we must admit that digitalisation is not a neutral tool. Digitalisation, in its current and mainstream form, is not sustainable by nature. In many ways, digital systems have made it even easier to extract, consume and waste resources as the material world becomes masked behind a digital interface. Technological advancements such as 5G, IoT, electric vehicles, robotics, and AI have accelerated the digitisation of virtually every aspect of modern life and as the development is mind-blowingly amazing, it’s pretty evident that sustainability thinking is missing.

What is needed is a digital reset —a fundamental realignment of digital technologies towards fostering deep sustainability transformation (Source: D4S, 2022).  This requires actins from organisations, governments and individuals. Organisations are to adopt sustainable design principles, in order to reduce their environmental impact and promote circular economy practices. Governments can push for environmental regulations and support the green shift in businesses as well as in research and innovation. Individuals should move away from pointless overconsumption and throwawayism and find ways to digital minimalism; choosing sustainable products and reducing the digital footprint.

So to answer the question, digitalisation is definitely part of the solution as it han help the in sustainable transformation, but it also includes some serious challenges.

Challenges of Digitalisation

  1. Users. The global internet user base has more than doubled since 2010, reaching 5.35 billion in 2024, with an annual growth rate estimated at 1.9% (Source: Statista, 2024).
  2. End-user devices. The disposal of end-user devices contributes significantly to electronic waste generation, amounting to a staggering 50 million tons annually, with only 20% being recycled (Source: UNEP, 2024).
  3. Data. Data traffic peaks, primarily driven by video streaming and online gaming, exert immense pressure on energy-intensive data centers (Source: IEA, 2024).
  4. Energy. The ICT sector accounted for approximately 4% of global electricity consumption in 2020, with end-user devices consuming approximately 60% of this energy (Source: The Impact of Networks in the Greenhouse Gas Emissions of a Major European CSP. 2023).
  5. Emissions. Digital technologies contribute approximately 2% of energy-related greenhouse gas emissions, with data centers, transmission networks, and connected devices accounting for about 0.9% of these emissions (Source: IEA, 2023).

To summarise: the growth in internet users and end-user devices has fuelled the expansion of online services, consequently escalating energy demands and greenhouse gas emissions. The silver lining is that since 2010, emissions have grown only modestly despite rapidly growing demand for digital services. This is thanks to energy efficiency improvements, renewable energy purchases by ICT companies and broader decarbonisation of electricity grids in many regions. However, to get on track with the Net Zero Emissions by 2050 Scenario, emissions must halve by 2030. (Source: IEA, 2023).

So, one could say that digitalisation is itself part of the problem. The next question is: how might we fix digitalisation?

Principles for Sustainable Digitalisation

To address the environmental impacts of digitalization and pave the way for sustainable practices, several principles must be embedded into the ways we think and work.

  1. Ensure that digitalisation prioritises social responsibility, leaving no one behind. Focus on fostering inclusion, accessibility, and social innovation to create equitable digital experiences for all.
  2. Incorporate environmental sustainability via various tools, e.g. circular thinking, doughnut economics, non-human stakeholders.
  3. Design digital outcomes that prioritize efficiency, simplicity, and responsiveness while nudging users towards sustainable behaviors. Avoid employing dark patterns that manipulate users, instead nudge for positive behaviours.
  4. Foster awareness of environmental impacts, including emissions to climate, biodiversity, air, water, and soil.
  5. Embrace green coding practices to optimize energy consumption in programming. By writing efficient and resource-conscious code, we can minimize energy usage and reduce the environmental footprint of digital technologies
  6. Select hosting partners that prioritize renewable energy sources for data centers. Check the certificates or partnerships, look for transparent reporting on energy usage and emissions and choose data centers located in regions with renewable energy sources.
  7. Prioritize sufficiency, repairability, circularity, and efficiency in digital infrastructure and devices.
  8. Endineering. Don’t forget the end of the lice-cycle. Design better endings for the digital services by helping the user to clear up the data.

By adhering to these principles, we can navigate towards a more sustainable digital future, where technological advancements align with environmental stewardship and social equity.

To move from principles towards action, I highly recommend checking out at least these online resources and networks.

I also happen to be one of the co-founders of the Sustinaires Collective, so don’t hesitate to contact me if you have questions in relation to that one.

The Sustainable UX Network offers a podcast, collection of methods from strategic to service, concept and UX/UI design, and slack-community.

Green Software Foundation is builds standards, offers best practices, tools and hackathons for tech people, PM’s and UX Designers. It also offers a free certificate.

Sustinaires Collective is Finland based network of thinkers and professionals with the aim to boost sustainable digitalisation and transformation.

To conclude: ‘Digitalization for Sustainability’ is all about designing and developing digital innovations to meet and maximise the ambitious sustainability goals and targets of other sectors.

The other side of the coin, and what digital designers and developers should become more aware of, is ‘Sustainable digitalisation’. It is approachable and actionable issue which can be tackled and has already a lot of methods and tools available.

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