Not a day passes for me without seeing the many ways in which digital technology can advance peace, human rights and sustainable development for all.” – António Guterres, Secretary-General – United Nations
Digitalization and Sustainability are no longer buzzwords, and most likely you have started initiatives in your business already. But how well are they connected?
Image you’re on a walk in nature to carefully seek animals like cows, horses, foxes, deer, crows or blackbirds. As your stroll comes to an end, you note that you have encountered all animals on your imaginary list. Back home, your partner asks you: “What flowers and trees have you seen?”
Guess what – you can’t remember.
When you started your walk, your inner program (your awareness) was focussing on animals – not plants.
This little thought experiment is exactly what happens in organizations all day. While our awareness is currently focused on such major disruptions like digitalization or the corona pandemic, another disruptive transformation is off our focus as business leaders:
Plastic waste, toxic materials or emitted carbon destroys ecological equilibrium, changes climate, extinct species and turns our planet into an inhabitable place. We’ve been knowing that for ages, but is our awareness focused on this issue when we make business decisions?
In the majority of cases, the answer is “no”.
At its’ core, sustainability is made up on three pillars: social, environmental and economical sustainability. Organizations taking sustainability as a call for fundamental transformation will have to re-design all parts of the business, from production over logistics down the road to customer service, but also consider culture, leadership and organizational structures.
Though, in most businesses, the ‘Sustainability’ function sits in a certain department or team, not necessarily within the C-Suite, and far away from the teams driving digitalization. That becomes a problem since most organizations have started a transformation already but don’t have social and ecological issues in its focus yet.
Challenged by new demand (XaaS, CX), new competition (e.g. Platform Business, App Business), enabled by Technology (Big Data, AI, Machine Learning, IoT) and new structures & methods (SCRUM, Design Thinking, Lean), companies break their businesses into pieces and search for new value creation through digitizing processes, design new data-driven services or even invent new business models. But:
Society and its needs do not typically appear in considerations. Neither does our environment and ecology. There is also no dedicated space for ethical or moral considerations. Yet when budgets are limited, timelines are short, decisions get rushed, and hierarchies impose external powers — they fall out of sight. – Sebastian Mueller from MING Labs on ‘Expanding Design Thinking’
When our team at triangility does Business Transformation workshops with leaders, they reflect the tremendous influencing forces, mega trends, disruptions and so forth, also considering climate change and societal instabilities – and how these forces will impact their business.
But when leaders start re-designing services, business models, implementing new capabilities and building transformation roadmaps, their focus is bouncing back to the traditional objectives: revenue streams, time to market, customer satisfaction, quality, cost reduction etc.
What if for each new service or capability, we’d design them towards reducing the ecologic footprint, increasing peoples’ wellbeing, and extending product lifecycles through an equally new set of objectives or KPI’s? As we ideate, design, prototype, test and implement new services, capabilities or technologies in a holistic way, including our approaches for measuring success, we create space for opportunities to align economic with social and environmental prosperity.
Old thinking: “How is social/ecological crisis affecting my business?”
New thinking: “How can I avoid being the cause forsocial/ecological crisis?“
The role of technology
For business to become sustainable and responsible, they need to extend their toolsets and become masters of digital technology. Technology is the main driver of the current digital transformation. The growth of data, connected things, the capabilities of analytics and artificial intelligence, the near-to-zero marginal cost for compute or storage, the exponential growth of processor power and the step into quantum computing and other emerging technologies – all are great tools to create a future.
But like any tool, it’s just a tool. What you craft with it depends on your focussed awareness.
All the mentioned capabilities of digital technology are mandatory for the sustainable transformation as well. Keep going with your digital transformation, but turn it into a sustainable. While working on incremental value creation, just include environment and society in your value-thinking. By doing so, leaders will create greater synergetic effects without additional efforts.
A way to extend awareness is ‚thinking together’ in a dialogue (William Isaacs). That doesn’t necessarily mean sitting literally in a circle, but having a dialogic mindset while starting to connect the various teams working on Digitalization and Sustainability. Leaders may use dialogic structures (e.g. Liberating Structures) to connect teams not connected yet, foster transparency about the immediate issues, learn from each other, ideate and search for solutions and remain in a constant co-creation process.
Make the digital transformation a sustainable one
Based on the awareness that sustainability is something that may require short-term investments, but will lead to long term benefits for all stakeholders, connected leaders can explore the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and various supporting frameworks like Stakeholder Capitalism, Doughnut Economy, CSR, Circular Economy and many more to learn how to integrate those into their transformation. And they can explore how digital capabilities will help them.