Opinions & Interviews

2020-05-26 Paolo Pasini

From Sustainable Digital Technologies to CDR

The underlying objective of Corporate Digital Responsibility, working within Corporate Social Responsibility, is to foster awareness in top management of the impact and opportunities of ICT and digital with respect to issues of sustainability, and to outline a possible path of maturity that has only just begun today

The importance of sustainability has received increasing attention in recent years. The international debate on this issue (environment, shipping, food, the wellbeing of human beings and animals, energy consumption, the waste of food and resources in general, and so on) has inevitably regarded the ICT/digital sector as well.

Years ago, there was talk of "green ICT" with particular reference to the energy consumption and CO2 production by ICT systems, especially of large computing centers of public and private companies and large multinational corporations. To give just a few examples, various analysts have calculated that, as of today, world ICT consumes 2 to 4 percent of global energy, that in Italy ICT contributes between 8 and 10 percent of CO2 emissions, and that the global bitcoin networks consumes as much as the whole country of Austria every year (64TWh).

Over time, "sustainable ICT" practices have taken hold in modern form to establish server farms and ICT infrastructure with low environmental impact. To give some examples, the "consolidation of physical servers" and the "virtualization of multiple logical servers" into a single physical hardware unit reduces carbon emissions because it significantly reduces power requirements and the need for air conditioning. Cloud computing generates environmental advantages with the centralization of ICT resources for processing and storage, that are shared by multiple organizations via internet, with significant benefits in terms of energy efficiency. Thin client computing consists of principally input/output PCs, often without local storage capacity and with reduced central memory size, that tend to consume less energy than traditional desktops, but that naturally must always be connected to a central server, up to modern notebooks that are always connected to the cloud (chromebooks, for example). Eco-friendly monitors, like LCD monitors, consume up to 80 percent less energy than cathode ray tube monitors (CRT), that by now are being phased out. Today there are also LED monitors that have a longer life, offer better quality color and images, and consume less energy than LCD monitors without using mercury, a toxic chemical used in LCD and CRT monitors.

The subsequent level of awareness of sustainability in the ICT field has been, and is, that of sustainable ICT management, i.e. the ICT policies and processes defined principally by the IT function/information systems of companies. The goal in this case is to find consistency with the company's sustainability strategy; to guarantee compliance with laws, regulations, ISO standards, and certifications in the field of sustainability; to design an IT financial management process that demonstrates the ICT costs reduction obtained thanks to the sustainable ICT described above, or that allocates ICT costs to centers of imputation of sustainability in the company (reduction of costs of energy or shipping); and to calculate new sustainable IT KPIs (IT energy savings, and customer & social value of IT).

The shift to the third level of sustainability in the ICT/digital field introduces strong attention to the applicative components, in addition to the infrastructure aspects, and thus to business processes, moving towards a broader concept of sustainable information systems. These are applications that can substitute the trips and physical transfer of company personnel or reduce the need for in-person meetings, thus diminishing both the travel costs and associated carbon emissions: video-audio-teleconferences, collaboration systems, virtual presence, virtual and augmented reality, and computer vision & intelligent video recognition, are examples of ICT applications and tools that are useful for these aims. Another category of solutions and software platforms includes ERP, SCM, multichannel CRM, on-premise or cloud systems, or vertical packages, configured so as to support sustainable business management processes (such as the tracing and control of the expiration of perishable products or for the optimization of goods movement paths or multichannel e-commerce); but data analytics systems as well, to support the company's sustainability decisions (the decisions on predictive maintenance of production systems to reduce waste and energy consumption). A final category of applicative systems refers to the support and development of sustainable ecosystems, often based on mobile apps and API (connection interfaces), and oriented towards the management of supply chain processes or integration with external ecosystems for the reduction of food waste, the interconnection to ONP, e-health systems, or energy and transport/logistics systems.

The last level of sustainability in the ICT/digital field embraces the entire sustainable business from the standpoint of its strategies: policies, infrastructure/facilities, sustainable and thus responsible behavior and digital practices.

For about ten years now, there has been discussion of Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), but in more recent times (and even more so now with the current health emergency), the context of the international institutional, political, social, economic, environmental, and medical-health debate is seeing the emergence of a significant component within CSR that we can define as Corporate Digital Responsibility (CDR). An very recent emblematic contribution[1] has proposed an initial systematization of the concepts and the underlying social, environmental, economic, and technological aspects of the same. A brief illustration of the four categories of aspects can help understand the need for awareness and accountability of CDR at the company management level.

1. The social aspects can regard guaranteeing the protection of the private data of personnel, clients, and all of the company's stakeholders (in compliance with the GDPR), the promotion of digital inclusion and reducing the digital divide between different categories of company personnel, and the promotion of socially ethical practices with technology.

2. The environmental aspects (as we have seen above) regard the practices of responsible recycling of technologies, amortization and rational use of technological resources (saturation, virtualization, clouding, sustainable consumables), and the adoption of responsible energy consumption policies.

3. The economic aspects refer to the spread of digital applications that rationalize the movement of persons and objects (though smart internal processes and ecosystems, as seen before) or that promote responsible automation, especially in the substitution or augmentation of human labor, or that refer to practices of responsible use of digital-based forms of externalization of company activities, such as those of the Gig economy, or respect for property rights of digital assets or equal and fair sharing of the benefits of digital business with society, for example through fair international taxation.

4. Lastly, the technological aspects refer to ensuring the production and use of ethical AI algorithms, not using technologies (sensors) and solutions (mobile apps) in a way that can harm individuals or businesses, the implementation of responsible cybersecurity practices, the design of correct and responsible data collection, data validation, and data storage and data distribution processes, in particular of clients and company personnel.

The underlying objective of Corporate Digital Responsibility, working within Corporate Social Responsibility, is to foster awareness in top management of the impact and opportunities of ICT and digital in a broader, systemic vision of responsibility and sustainability, outlining a possible path of maturity that has only just begun today.

[1] M. Wade, "Corporate responsibility in the digital era", MIT Sloan Management Review, April 28, 2020.