When the President of the French Republic said that he wanted to see a “resilient” economy, on his declaration of the 13th of April, private and public-sector actors, as well as citizens, felt concerned and questioned their role in taking this new course. If there is one sector that needs to seize this opportunity to review its role, it is the digital sector. Faced with growing uses of digital technology, companies in the sector must reconsider their models and combine green transition with sustainable growth, both for themselves and their users.
Sensible data governance: a new Gordian knot
As an essential tool in our daily lives, digital accounts for 4% of greenhouse gas emissions, producing more than the air industry does today. It is set to reach 8% of global emissions between now and 2025. Our uses of digital technology continue to intensify, without consideration for the limits of our energy resources. Behind the term ‘Big Data’ lies a growing amount of data, sometimes stored in distant data centres. Ultimately, however, very little use is made of this data, considering the huge amounts that are gathered. New technologies, such as 5G, will soon lead to a further increase in our mobile data consumption. Uses of digital technology naturally keep pace with the sector’s growth curve, but there are few digital companies asking questions about the overuse of natural resources involved.
Digital remains a major part of our personal and work lives, and there is no point in denying this and advocating anti-consumption. However, stakeholders in the sector must work to adjust its current course, enable sustainable growth, and put digital in the service of a global and systemic transition.
Consumers in the driving seat
Another crucial factor to take into account, in order to move towards this new paradigm, is clearly the voice of consumers. The Covid-19 crisis has been a wake-up call and there are signs that consumers’ attitudes are beginning to change. Short supply chains and local consumption were major winners during the lockdown period and certain consumption models have been shaken up. E-commerce is a striking example of this. Buyers have started to look differently at the ease of buying products, which are not always essential, with a click. Faced with the encouragement to always buy more things, and more new things in particular, platforms that are able to link buyers and sellers more locally and sustainably have been achieving success, such as the second-hand goods platform ‘Leboncoin’, which has been very popular in recent weeks in France and the electronic device reconditioning website ‘Backmarket’.
If finite natural resources are not reason enough, digital companies that refuse to evolve will have to face another obstacle: consumer decisions. And consumers rarely do brands any favours when they take decisions. When consumers change, service providers must change too.
Beyond being the problem, digital must become the solution
If it continues along its current path, digital will rapidly become a major environmental problem that is difficult to control. Some people even fear a black-out of the Internet and mobile networks in the coming years due to the rapid growth in their use. Beyond this, however, digital has the potential to speed up the transition towards more sensible and resilient growth.
While consumers clearly have a role to play in meeting the challenge of preserving our resources, it is first and foremost digital companies that must reconsider their models. Their main weakness today is a failure to integrate the negative environmental externalities of digital technologies and their uses, including growing electricity consumption and the inability to recycle certain components. As service providers, they need to be able to advise their customers and users, while offering new business and growth models, which are more transparent regarding the negative externalities they may cause, in order to help raise awareness. Design Thinking, an innovation method that uses design tools, can integrate new, more global and systemic criteria (such as pollution, water access and electricity consumption) into these models, in order to understand the negative impacts of digital products throughout their lifecycle. It can become the foundation of ethical design, which is needed now more than ever.
It is up to today’s digital companies to grasp their role in this new growth, in order to transform it into a sustainable and resilient dynamic.
The Shift project
 The Shift project
CEO – SQLI