“…and sustainability” Digital Strategy just greenwashing?

Posted on April 16, 2008


Lazowska described Green computing as the next space race. Yesterday the NZ Government released the draft Digital Strategy 2.0. In it, sustainability is listed as a key outcome but other than a few scattered statements, the document seems to have ignored both the potential impact and the opportunity. If green computing is indeed the next space race, we’ll be left behind – economically, socially and environmentally.

The Digital Strategy is supposed to be a call to action to deliver an ICT based sustainable future, but from my perspective they’ve failed completely. The authors ask us to submit action ideas, but I think they’ve done little to advance the call. Instead the use of “…and sustainable” added to each goal without delivering detailed aims, priorities or actions smacks of greenwashing of the worst kind.

You may remember the first Digital Strategy, we certainly do – our SimPa collaboration helping develop capability in Iwi digital content is funded by it. DS2.0 continues the aim of “delivering our vision of a knowledge-rich, tech-savvy society”. I entirely agree with the authors of DS2 that it is an important document – all the more reason to get it right.

David Cunliffe mentions sustainability in the introduction: “Looking to a time in the near future where ubiquitous fast broadband and the fully interactive web are taken as a given” what are the key challenges?

> productivity
> sustainability, and
> community (including our unique identity).

Cunliffe challenges us to think about we “can contribute to improving productivity, enriching our communities and ensuring a sustainable future for New Zealanders”. Sustainability is both a driver for change and an opportunity:

We now understand more clearly how digital technologies can raise economic productivity by improving business processes. Digital technologies have driven growth in many OECD countries and will be a powerful tool in New Zealand’s economic transformation. At the same time, these technologies can help capture commercial opportunities arising from the strong and ongoing pressure for environmental sustainability.

In the text the three Cs of the first Digital Strategy (connection, confidence and content) are joined by collaboration as the “enablers of the digital strategy”.

Then six challenges are posed:

The agents of change must collaborate:
“The more effectively that central government, local government, businesses and communities work
together, the faster broadband connectivity will happen. How can we work together more effectively?”
We need faster and cheaper broadband:
“Fast, affordable and broadly available internet access is essential for us to make the transition to a digital economy. What immediate practical steps can be taken to make this happen?”
Make better use of digital technology across the economy:
“Increasing productivity and innovation is key to transforming our economy. How can digital technologies be leveraged in the quest for higher productivity?”
Think differently about digital technology:
“A mindset change to adopt technology and ‘be digital’ is needed across New Zealand to take us forward. How do we do this?”
Ensure that everyone benefits from being digital:
“The digital revolution is not being shared equally across all ages, regions, ethnic groups and other communities in New Zealand. How can the digital divide be bridged?”
Make better use of digital technology for sustainability:
“The issue of sustainability is affecting every part of our economy and society. How can digital solutions be leveraged to help us achieve our sustainability goals?”

Sustainability is mentioned again as part of “The New Goal” in the Confidence section:

Digitally capable and confident New Zealanders transforming our economy, strengthening national identity and enhancing sustainability.

Unfortunately, the sustainability implications of this goal are almost entirely missing from the subsequent capability priorities and challenges. Now, I’m not criticising the need to equip managers with skills to increase productivity and innovation, skills shortages nor digital literacy. But none of these address sustainability, nor do any of the capability actions (with the possible exception of mention of closing the digital divide through addressing under-represented demographics).

Again, in the Content section, the “New Goal” has “sustainable development” on the end of the sentence but not in the body:

New Zealanders are worldclass at creating, discovering and using digital content to create value, improve their lives and communities, and enable sustainable development.

I could accept an argument that protecting cultural heritage has a sustainability angle (indeed I frequently do!). But I’m again grasping at straws, that is it. Now, don’t get me wrong, I applaud moves to support sharing content, managing and preserving content and especially building understanding of content – but, where’s the question: what would it take for ICT content to be a vehicle for promoting a sustainable society?

Bizarrely there is an action point here for sustainability, except that, from the title at least, it has little to do with sustainability as we know it:

Implementing the Digital Sustainability Strategy: A strategy to ensure that electronic public records are appropriately maintained by government agencies and are accessible as public archives for as long as they are needed.

Again, I’m not going to argue with the value of archives – but to call this sustainability seems a little far-fetched. Yet again, sustainability seems to have been tacked on the end.

At last, the new C: “Collaboration” seems to have been written by someone who has some knowledge of sustainability. The strategy recognises the special role of ICT in supporting and enhancing Maori knowledge.

Mäori are tangata whenua of New Zealand and as the indigenous people contribute a unique world view, knowledge and culture that differentiates New Zealand from any other country. The potential for Mäori development using digital technology is high – and of critical importance to our digital future.

Hence, Mäori are described as “important collaboration partners”:

Mäori are significant and growing contributors to the New Zealand economy and are well positioned to meet the challenges and opportunities of the digital environment. Mäori have shown a strong uptake of digital technology, which has the potential to be harnessed for wider social, economic and cultural wellbeing.

Along with mätauranga Mäori, this wider social, economic and cultural wellbeing is the closest we come in the whole document to recognising any holistic view of sustainability.

Environmental sustainability gets its only mention in the whole document in a section which describes work from the Local Government sector: the Digital Communities Action Plan. In a strange sentence that seems to have missed editing, DS2.0 themes are aligned to key points in the local government plan. One bullet point from local government has “ICT supporting efficiency and conservation of resources”.

In the last few pages of the document Chapter 7 is “Achieving our digital potential”. There’s a nice graphic with sustainability as one of the three Digital Strategy Outcomes,

and a few appropriate statements:

Digital content and digital tools can enable us to do many things faster, with better quality information, using fewer resources. But we must also consider the increase in ewaste and electricity consumption created through the digital revolution. The challenge is to improve the environmental sustainability of the digital technologies we use and to use technology effectively to reduce resource consumption.

Like the other Outcomes, the Action table is all but blank. I understand this approach – seed ideas and ask for contributions. In this case, however, the rest of the document has given me no soil at all – nothing to work with – instead of a clever device for consultation it appears more as desperation.

I’ve just reread through this post.  Don’t be fooled into thinking that this looks like a lot of sustainability. What I cover here is it – blood out of a turnip. As one of the three Outcomes of the Digital Strategy, Sustainability should be embedded in a third of the content, a third of the ideas, a third of the priorities. Not the couple of pages I’ve reported here (out of 56).

The Digital Strategy team has done right though, there’s a version of the strategy in a wiki. Not so right is the the online discussion: “View the Draft Digital Strategy 2.0 online and participate in the online discussions provided at the end of each chapter”.  I can see a post comment field, but I can’t find an online discussion – let me know if you find it.