A positive outlook: Is COVID-19 paving the way for sustainable digital development?

In widely affecting our current way of living, the pandemic makes us question the status quo (e.g. How can the resilience of the economy against crises be improved, so that existing structures would be less threatened? Why are so many system-relevant institutions so ill-equipped?). Similarly, the sustainability paradigm demands fundamental changes of the status quo. Necessary transformations are formalised in the UN Sustainable Development Goals (2015) [1]. Different questions arise on the responsibility of different actors (e.g. How has a system/ an individuum contributed to environmental degradation? How could this be turned into a positive contribution?). Within economy, new digital technologies and the paradigm shift away from “business-as-usual” yield new competitors and transform business models, including services, products and processes. Accordingly, market disruptions need to be expected through which some products or services, single businesses or even sectors are expelled by innovations.

Actions taken in answer to the current pandemic, sustainability debates, and the research field on Green Information Systems (Green IS), investigating how technology could support environmentally sustainable development and be designed sustainably in itself [3], have one thing in common; They apply “purposefulness” as a guiding principle. Particularly because it puts current ways of thinking and doing things to the test, it should consistently be introduced into the adaption and invention of new technologies and societal transformations targeting sustainability. 

Global issues demand (strategically planned) actions, pooling of competences, and innovations. 

All three developments cause global insecurities; Pandemics and environmental issues cause a threat to human life. Digital technologies affect former habits and mostly have a negative environmental footprint. This is why a sustainable digitalisation process is required. Reactions to these challenges range from anxiety to sheer excitement about possible positive outcomes. Actions from Germany are positive examples for crisis management: While the crisis has put a massive workload on food retail, Aldi and McDonald’s cooperated on sharing their workforce. The German Federal Government started a Hackathon (#WirVsVirus) [3], in which civil society developed creative solutions within three days. 

Learnings: Positive developments rely on well-informed interventions (as much as time allows), pooled competences, new ways of thinking and trying out new ways of doing things that can lead to innovations. The possibility of data collection, big data analysis, and digital management systems are important tools to monitor, assess, and control developments. It also allows for decentralised collaboration of interdisciplinary teams beyond conventional institutional and organizational borders. 

The economy should create awareness in civil society to increase macro-level impact.

Many companies communicate adapted processes or their contribution to the pandemic crisis, along with recommendations and actions required of each individuum in society (e.g. getting involved in hygiene education, stressing the importance of social distancing). Similarly, companies can increase awareness of environmental issues among their customers through communicating actions taken to lower the environmental impacts of their products, or external sustainability initiatives they are supporting. Even more, by calling consumers to return and recycle their products in stores, companies involve them in sustainability transformations which might influence their overall attitude towards the environment. 

Learnings: The indication on the responsibilities of different actors (e.g. businesses and private persons) implies that businesses should use their power to become ambassadors for societal issues to support positive developments beyond business boundaries. Information and Communication Technologies (IoT) and the Internet of Things (IoT) present many opportunities for communication and collaboration between businesses and consumers. This expands the economy’s potential to raise awareness and increase the individual sense of responsibility for societal issues. 


[1] UN (2019). About the Sustainable Development Goals. https://www.un.org/sustainabledevelopment/

[2] Dedrick, J. (2010). Green IS: Concepts and Issues for Information Systems Research, Communications of the Association for Information Systems, 27 (11). https://aisel.aisnet.org/cais/vol27/iss1/11 

[3] German Federal Government (2020). Hackathon 20-22 March 2020. https://www.bundesregierung.de/breg-de/themen/coronavirus/wir-vs-virus-1731968