Building the case for sustainability in a digital world – An Introduction

Emergent themes analysis of sustainable innovations in digital start ups in the Silicon Roundabout

The post below is part of a series based on my Master’s Thesis.

The Master’s Thesis aimed to “Evaluate whether a digital economy helps or hinders sustainable development within a start-up environment”.  The findings are largely based on expert interviews which I conducted with digital start up founders in East London’s Silicon Roundabout.

Data.anatomy by Ryoji Ikeda

Technological accelerators of change are fundamentally driving new expressions of responsibility, democracy, transparency, self-organisation and cooperation. In seeking efficiency technology is widening access, making organisations leaner, increasing profitability, productivity and competitiveness. Digital technologies are disrupting industries and driving innovation in sectors, settings and disciplines where the market and state are not as effective – and this is where the greatest scope for contributing to social change and sustainable development exists.

A decade ago CEOs were skeptical that the ‘sustainability’ agenda could benefit their business or the bottom line. But the business landscape has changed. Now, the United Nations Global Compact-Accenture 2010 CEO study has shown that 93% of CEOs believe sustainability will be critical to the future success of their companies. 80% believe a tipping point will be reached within the next 10 years [2025] – the point when sustainability will be embedded in the core business strategies of most companies. 54% believe this point could occur within the next 5 years.

We are living on the verge between the analogue and the digital, “every business is now a digital business”. Digital representations are simply an approximation of analogue events in the form of digital media, “electronic media that works on digital codes”. Digitalisation – digital systems increasing information intensity and connectedness of physical resources thus creating information that is easy to store, manipulate and share virtually – is largely changing the performance, value and cost of resources.

Datamatics, Image by Ryoji Ikeda via Anna Monteverdi

The thesis revealed that “start-ups and small enterprises are intrinsically better at melding “the sustainable” and “the digital” and that an entrepreneurial environment is intrinsically better for implementing sustainable strategies. Indeed it is also easier to create a sustainable company “from scratch” as opposed to implementing a CSR strategy within an established corporation.  The systems thinking method supports that there is not one model, system or solution – but there are principles to be followed, there are “leverage points” within a system that can enable behavioural changes and paradigm shifts.

The two trends, of sustainable development becoming an integral part of business and digitalisation becoming ubiquitous, albeit their differing nature, are occurring simultaneously and shaping businesses.

What are the ways in which they can act synergistically – by reinforcing and collaborating with each other? What are the lessons to be learned for and from small enterprises?

In the next post I will lay out four simplified principles which intend to build on the case for embedding sustainability within a digitalised world. Based on a systems thinking approach, they are also complemented by management and policy tools recommendations.


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