5 Questions about Digital Sustainability to… Mariane ter Veen, INNOPAY

Mariane Ter Veen

As Director and Lead Data Sharing at INNOPAY, Mariane ter Veen helps organisations to fully embrace the opportunities of the digital transactions era by adopting a more open outlook, collaborating across ecosystems and creating new value based on trusted data exchange. Here, touching on recent developments ranging from the rise of Mastodon to the Hollywood actors’ strike, she explains how organisations can start proactively incorporating digital sustainability into their data management strategies and practices, and why the topic can no longer be put off until tomorrow. 

“Don’t wait until digital sustainability is actionable, because it already is. You can – and should – start today!”

How do you define digital sustainability?

Digital sustainability is about more than just the ecological footprint of technology. The digital era has also created social and economic issues, such as inequality in the ‘data benefit balance’ at all levels. There are countless examples of people being persuaded to surrender their data in return for meagre perks. And I don’t only mean in monetary terms but also in terms of the experience. Cory Doctorow captured this perfectly when he called it the ‘enshittification’ of platforms such as TikTok, Amazon and Facebook. He described how the benefits are first shared with users, usually in the form of free services. Then, once uses are locked in, the benefits go to suppliers in terms of revenue. Then once the suppliers are locked in, the benefits are handed to shareholders and the platform inevitably becomes “a useless pile of shit”, as he calls it – and then users eventually start to look elsewhere. Although he primarily explained this mechanism in the context of the larger social platforms, a similar train of thought can be applied to organisations. After all, if your business model is based on one-sidedly reaping benefits from the data of your customers and/or supply chain partners, you will hollow out the relationship and jeopardise their trust. In view of the growing awareness of data sovereignty, i.e. control over one’s own data, this will harm your business in the long run.

Digital sustainability offers a solution to this. It’s about fostering the much-needed trust so that we can unlock the power of data sharing. This will generate long-term value, transparency and equity for all stakeholders involved, and will also enable digital transformation that truly addresses society’s pressing challenges, such as safeguarding democracy, promoting equality and combating climate change. 

In what way is the awareness of digital sustainability changing?

I get the sense that things are moving very quickly now, and there are signs of a similar shift as has occurred in ‘traditional’ sustainability thinking. People are increasingly considering the climate implications when deciding how to spend their money – and we’re not only seeing this among consumers, but in the business context also among investors. But whereas it has taken businesses around 40 years to catch on to this idea and to move beyond ‘greenwashing’ to offer people truly more environmentally friendly choices, I now see signs that the same thing is happening in the digital sustainability arena at a remarkably faster pace.

People are increasingly distrusting of organisations that exploit their data and attention, and are actively seeking more agency; they’re looking for digitally sustainable alternatives. The rise of Mastodon as an alternative to Twitter – now known as X – is just one example at the consumer level. And when it boils down to it, you could say that even the Hollywood actors’ strike is really about trust, data sovereignty and the data benefit balance rather than ‘just’ wages. Actors don’t feel that they are getting a fair deal due to streaming services’ refusal to provide transparency about streaming data, for example, or a studio’s desire to have the right to infinitely reuse AI-generated replicas of the human actors without paying them for it. 

Besides the bottom-up pressure of this growing pushback from all directions, organisations are increasingly being held accountable from the top down. For example, consumers have been invited to join various class-action lawsuits challenging the illegal use of their data by the BigTech platforms under the EU data laws, which are aimed at a more human-centric data sharing vision. Meanwhile, in the USA, regulators have accused various platforms of anticompetitive behaviour under the antitrust laws. Although this approaches the issue from a completely different angle, it nevertheless signifies a dawning realisation that the current treatment of people’s data is not really a sustainable situation. Based on the combination of this top-down and bottom-up pressure, plus the growing number of use cases, I truly believe that we are rapidly moving closer to the tipping point for digital sustainability.

Can you share any good examples of how digital sustainability is already being put into practice?

In recognition of the significance of data sovereignty and digital sustainability, the EU is putting a lot of effort into the concept of ‘data spaces’: secure and trusted decentralised data ecosystems in which people and organisations can control how they share their data, knowing that their data rights and privacy are protected. 

At INNOPAY, we guide different types of stakeholders on this journey. One of the projects we are currently involved in is to create a data space called DSGO for the built environment industry. This sector has major challenges, one of which is to reduce nitrogen emissions. It’s clear that the sector needs to digitally transform, but there first needs to be a certain amount of trust. After all, businesses operating in complex supply chains are often cautious about sharing their data – in a digital twin or BIM model, for instance – without assurances of how the data will be used and by whom. In the new DSGO data space, based on a set of uniform agreements, all stakeholders active in the various phases throughout the lifecycle of a project will benefit from an infrastructure that enables them to share data in a safe, trustworthy and controlled manner. This will overcome the data-sharing complexities associated with the industry and will help to scale successful initiatives. Enhanced collaboration among stakeholders will increase operational efficiency and enable them to tackle urgent issues such as nitrogen emissions, accelerated housing development and predictive maintenance. 

The project entails multiple concrete use cases with various companies. One use case revolves around digitalising building permits and making the permit requirements machine-readable in a uniform way across all municipalities so that they can be automatically fed into the BIM model for easier assessment and sharing. Another use case relates to the need for availability of certain product data not only in the design phase, but also throughout a building’s lifecycle – such as in the asset management phase, for the reporting of ESG goals, or even in the demolition phase to support recycling. These first use cases are attracting a lot of interest from all kinds of industry stakeholders.

What is your message for organisations?

It may be tempting to see digital sustainability as just another buzzword, but it really is much more than that and it’s time to take it seriously. Just as businesses have discovered with environmental sustainability, embarking on the digital sustainability journey can have a positive economic impact as well as a social one. And by that I don’t only mean altruistically, in the sense of growing the pie for all. Organisations will experience direct benefits themselves too.

The window of opportunity is currently wide open for organisations who actively offer digitally sustainable choices. If you make sure you’re doing things right in your ecosystem – in other words, if people can trust you with their data and everyone receives a fair share of the benefits – then partners will want to work with you. So if you want to secure an all-important competitive edge, the topic of digital sustainability can no longer be put off until ‘tomorrow’.

Therefore, in the same way that corporate social responsibility or ‘CSR’ has become a strategically critical factor and theme for all C-suite executives, the topic of digital sustainable data management should also be on the boardroom agenda. It should be embedded in the organisational strategy so that all senior executives are not only aware of it, but also held responsible for acting in line with principles of digital sustainability – from the trust needed for customer intimacy, to the information obtained from supply chain partners. So in a nutshell, my message is don’t wait until digital sustainability is actionable, because it already is. You can – and should – start today!

So how exactly can organisations get started with digital sustainability? 

In today’s world, nearly all projects struggle to get off the ground unless they have internal support and can deliver a clear return on investment. My advice is to look for concrete use cases – and every organisation will have them! Think closely about the current issues you face, and the data needed to solve these issues; with whom do you need to work to get this data, what benefits will it bring everyone involved, and what could be the accompanying business model?  

This often means broadening your perspective to think about the ecosystem in which you’re operating and what role you want to play in that ecosystem. Sometimes it means rethinking existing business models. Another starting point is to align with a data space if one has already been created for your sector. Because, in effect, a data space is simply a ready-made ecosystem in which parties share data more efficiently in line with agreements that have been developed by, and for, their specific industry – such as health, energy, mobility, skills and so on. 

But the bottom line is: always start with a use case in mind. This enables you to overcome one of the biggest difficulties, which is to bridge the gap between your organisation’s long-term vision and the short-term results. Once you have demonstrated the intrinsic value of digital sustainability by showing that it gives your organisation a big-buck benefit, it will make your senior executives, employees, stakeholders and investors hungry for more. Becoming digitally sustainable – i.e. offering digitally sustainable products and services – will enable your organisation to tap into the countless advantages associated with improved collaboration and ‘ecosystem thinking’. These include strong, mutually beneficial relationships with customers and partners, innovative new revenue models, a competitive edge and, ultimately, long-term survival. I’ve yet to meet an organisation that doesn’t want that!

On 16 November, DSGO will extensively focus on the use cases mentioned in this interview during D-Days 2023. For event details and to register, please visit the DSGO website.

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