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Sustainable digital development starts with design: “Even small decisions matter in-scale”

Published in Sustainability, Design

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February 12, 2024 · 5 min read time

Sustainable digital development covers many aspects from future-proof strategies to carefully selected technologies and well-thought solutions that endure the test of time. But before development can begin, it all starts with designers – the heroes championing sustainability of digital products and services.

Sustainable design essentially means considering environmental, social, economic, and ethical factors in designing products or services. While sustainable design is especially fruitful at the very beginning of developing something new, it can be practised at any life cycle stage to optimise already existing solutions towards better outcomes.

“All the key elements are already included in the design process. We consider available solutions and technologies from many perspectives before diving into development, and sustainability can and should be one of the factors. Even seemingly small decisions lead to large impact in scale, making them well worthwhile,” Annika Madejska, Senior Designer at Nitor, explains.

For example, enabling users to switch between light and dark modes would aid visual comfort and increase energy efficiency. While the high-level leadership may sometimes consider dark mode as a secondary feature less worthy of the effort, it only requires a moderate amount of hours to deliver a major lasting impact to the environment and the users working in front of screens all day. It is crucial to include designer perspective in decision-making and impact-effort priorisation to ensure sustainability factors are considered, too.

“Most importantly, sustainability needs to be treated as a journey rather than a one-off project. This is where the designers can play a key role. Designers have the golden opportunity to bring in new perspectives and create a lasting impact. Plenty of tools and frameworks exist to enable sustainable design, and new ways are constantly explored. To me, working as a consultant is a great way to stay on top of the latest insights from various industries. This benefits our customers, too,” Senior Designer Liisa-Maija Keinänen points out.

Sustainability is good business, but the concept of value needs an update

The main drivers for adopting sustainable design come from customers and employees, who prioritise their personal values more and more often in their decision-making processes. Building the company brand on trustworthiness becomes a competitive edge as the net of regulations from the EU tightens around tech companies.

“The regulators have truly woken up to the need for more ethical and sustainable technology. The European Union is big enough for global companies to pay attention and comply with local regulations, and that makes it the forerunner of sustainability,” Madejska says.

To comply, organisations need to start paying attention to the sustainability of their entire supply chain. This sets demands for partners and vendors, who may now find themselves losing customers if the criteria aren’t met. Companies working with the public sector, for example, are already used to seeing sustainability-related criteria next to tender requests.

Although it is clear that more sustainable operations bring in tangible business benefits from energy cost savings to more satisfied employees and customers, many companies are still missing out on the opportunity. The main blocker isn’t the lack of information or expertise, but the way our society defines success.

“In today’s world, value is measured in money. Maybe we need to redefine it and start measuring companies on how valuable they are in acres of forests or how sustainable their employees’ work pace is. We know that society screams for sustainability, but it’s a tough nut to crack if success is only measured in the bottom line,” Madejska explains.

Are slower pace and mindful use of technology the trends we need?

Social and economic aspects guide organisations to consider the impact of their services, products, and operations from a people-centric perspective. Creating software and tools that are sustainable for people to use is one aspect of sustainable design that could tackle a much wider issue: rising burnout percentages that go hand-in-hand with increased workload.

“We expect immediate action from our online services, as if by magic, and have zero patience for load times. The same thinking has seeped into all aspects of life, and us humans are expected to deliver at nearly equal speed. Software is so fast these days that we don’t have natural breaks in waiting for results to run or something to load. But humans don’t have the same capabilities, and promoting a more mindful use of technology would help in changing those expectations,” Keinänen says.

While carbon footprint reduction to reach net zero, energy efficiency, and developing long-term solutions are major trends in sustainable design, social factors are on the rise. Recognising when and where to digitalise in the era of digitalisation becomes a key component. Automating repetitive manual tasks is well justified, as it frees people’s time for something more meaningful. But replacing human connection with AI, for instance, can also cause harm.

“We are digital designers doing digital services, and I still believe not everything needs to be digitalised. Chatbots are great in solving simple everyday needs, like booking healthcare appointments. But closing accounts and services for a loved one who’s recently passed away requires an actual human being on the other end,” Madejska points out.

But the human factor isn’t the only reason to take a step back before embracing digitalisation. The AI revolution is an undeniable trend for the coming years, but it is also important to keep the price of electricity and water consumption in mind. Every interaction, query, or prompt we choose to set in motion does its part in increasing the CO2 emissions associated with the service. Yet it’s completely invisible to the user who is tempted to simply rerun their query every time they are unsatisfied with the images tools like Midjourney generate for them. Through sustainable, transparent design, users could be made aware of the actual cost to the environment.

This doesn’t mean organisations and individuals shouldn’t embrace digitalisation. On the contrary, new technologies such as AI and quantum computing, offer great benefits towards more sustainable digital development. But smart, considerate use of technology ensures we don’t waste resources excessively – one carefully crafted prompt at a time.

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