So what might Digital Sustainability be?

There is a group of Swiss parliamentarians who are organized in a group for “Digital Sustainability” for which I’ve been asked to participate as part of an expert group that consists of¬†¬†practitioners in a variety of fields, including Free Software and Open Standards. But while German Wikipedia at least has an article about Digital Sustainability, most people simply seem to apply the “I know it when I see it” test, which is somewhat less than satisfactory. What can be said is that most people intuitively seem to agree that Digital Sustainability would include aspects such as Free Software, Open Standards, Open Governmental Data, Privacy and a couple of other aspects. But how to define or describe it in a simple and transferable way?

So I recently found myself in a room with several other people trying to understand what we expect from Digital Sustainability and how to express it. In this discussion, after several other attempts, we narrowed it down to three aspects:

Trying to sketch Digital Sustainability

Digital Sustainability: Your digital relationship to society

So what you want for Digital Sustainability is:

  • Transparency: Access to know and understand the world around you, its power structures, and to the data & information to form your own opinion;
  • Participation: You are not limited to watching events unfold, can participate in the political process, shape opinions and provide processed information on the grounds of the data that is available to you and others;
  • Self-Determination: You define your own privacy, including for your digital environment, and determine how much of your information you are providing, and to whom.

In order for something to be digitally sustainable,  none of the above three principles may be violated.

Another way to think about it might be to see self-determination as the natural limitation towards how transparent your person should be to others and how much they should participate in your life, based on a principle of reciprocity since this is valid for every individual in society. The agglomeration of all of this then forms a consensus within and throughout society as to what things shall be governed jointly, and with equal participation of all.

So all three aspects need some form of balance, as your right to request influence is linked to the limits you set for your own self-determination. But pushing the limits of your own self-determination eventually causes friction once it comes in conflict with the self-determination of another person. That is when transparency and participation need to help to find a workable balance.

Or, as Richard coined it for the reciprocity principle behind the GNU General Public License: “Your freedom to swing your fist ends at my nose.”

Naturally this still represents work in progress, so I am not sure it is the answer to all questions in this area. But it seems to meet some of the criteria that I’d set for such a conceptual definition. Most importantly it is simple, understandable without technical knowledge, and allows to check existing services or situations for violation of these principles, and the result comes out at the right side of what I’d consider digitally sustainable.

So for me, this seems workable for the moment.

And if you like it, the next time someone asks you what is Digital Sustainability, you can draw them a picture.


About Georg Greve

Georg Greve is a technologist and entrepreneur. Background as a software developer and physicist. Head of product development and Chairman at Vereign AG. Founding president of the Free Software Foundation Europe (FSFE). Previously president and CEO at Kolab Systems AG, a Swiss Open Source ISV. In 2009 Georg was awarded the Federal Cross of Merit on Ribbon by the Federal Republic of Germany for his contributions to Open Source and Open Standards.
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