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Operationalising Sustainable Digitalisation in a Business Context

Digitalisation has become a major transformational force affecting all areas of life. For companies, this change opens up new opportunities, intensifies interaction with customers and enables efficiency gains. However, this does not come without conditions: carbon footprint and rebound effects, privacy and data protection concerns, discriminatory practices, and digital and (social) exclusion are just some of the worrying aspects.

Businesses are both drivers and driven by digitalisation. They have to digitalise their processes in order to remain competitive and, in the process, with their digital products and services they shape society. Consumer surveys show that companies are expected to shape digitalisation responsibly and sustainably. Pioneers are using a clear value positioning in the digital transformation to increase their attractiveness as employers in the competition for skilled employees. Ground-breaking elaborations on the European level such as the GDPR, the European Green Deal, the Digital Strategy of the EU, the European Data Strategy and upcoming regulation on Artificial Intelligence, are clear signals that European policymakers are adamant about anchoring sustainability as an indispensable prerequisite in business and society. At the German level, the Implementation Strategy for shaping the digital transformation, the Artificial Intelligence Strategy, and the Data Strategy also provide clear insights: the prospects for a better life thanks to digital technologies are manifold, but shaping them from a sustainability perspective is a joint task.

While the necessity to consider sustainability and digitalisation together has reached the attention of many business leaders, there is a lack of practical knowledge and good practices that cut through the complexity and provide guidance. This is particularly the case for small and medium-sized enterprises (SMEs). In projects such as CSR.digital, Charter Sustainable Digitalisation, Competence Centre eStandards or by networking initiatives like GeSI, we are collaborating to weave sustainability into digitalisation development and processes, turning the latter into a force for good. We are aiming to drive positive change by providing businesses with answers to questions such as:

  • What are the advantages of linking sustainability and digitalisation efforts?
  • Which concrete fields of action are there?
  • Which pain points can a company solve with digital technologies?
  • How can a company remain competitive by using fitting digital technologies for its own core business areas?
  • How to best get started in a company’s specific business context?
  • What are the good examples out there for the specific challenge a company has?

In this article, we highlight our work within the Competence Centre eStandards, with a focus on Artificial Intelligence (AI), Platforms and Blockchain.

The Competence Centre eStandards’ core objective is to support SMEs in digitalising their business processes. From information and awareness-raising via guides, brochures and checklists, to qualification via bilateral consultations, focus groups, online seminars and workshops and all the way to hands-on support in business-specific projects, we are accompanying SMEs throughout the entire journey.

Artificial Intelligence (AI)

With regard to Artificial Intelligence, we research and showcase where and how AI applications can lead to achieving business and sustainability goals at the same time. We provide guidance on how companies can integrate sustainability criteria when developing AI inhouse or purchase AI-as-a-Service offerings. Our close cooperation with the seven AI-Trainers at the Competence Centre eStandards and the insights shared by the broader community of over 50 AI-Trainers within the Mittelstand 4.0 Competence Centres ensures that our approach is rooted in practical experience and SME-relevant use cases. Insights on why and how SMEs should integrate sustainability in their AI endeavours can be found in this recently-published AI Cook Book.

Blockchain

Many SMEs already integrate sustainability in their core business. At the same time, they are more than ever challenged but also motivated to ensure sustainability in their supply chains. After all, a large proportion of social and environmental problems originate there. Throughout our work, we analyse if and how Blockchain or other distributed ledger technologies can help companies to meet social and ecological due diligence requirements along the supply chain (for example as required by EMAS, ISO 14001, OHSAS 18001 or SA 8000). While not being a panacea, the blockchain technology has the potential to positively contribute to a broad variety of sustainability issues and support concepts such as the circular and sharing economy.  Our approach is to carefully evaluate the pros and cons of specific use cases aiming at a net positive contribution on sustainability.

Platforms

In the context of digital platforms, we map sustainability chances as well as associated risks along different platform types such as Open-Source Data, Industry 4.0, Peer-Innovation and Cooperative Platforms and platforms for the Digital Sharing Economy. For SMEs, we see promising cases in the B2B sharing economy, such as improving resource efficiency through sharing of production or mobility resources. Other promising use cases are the enablement of decentralised regional value creation networks and the financing of sustainability projects via sustainable investment and especially crowdfunding platforms.

Are you also interested in driving sustainable digitalisation while making the most of it for you organisation? Please contact Patrick Bottermann for an exchange.