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Standards and norms trigger mixed feelings in many people. The terms sound dry, dull and like they entail little room for manoeuvre. And especially when it comes to time-sensitive challenges, such as combating climate change, bureaucratised processes do not seem to be the means of choice at first glance. But as long as it is a matter of voluntary commitment, uniform requirements can provide orientation and security. They can also – in the specific case of sustainability – contribute to avoiding greenwashing. In my blog post, I will look at how the industry is progressing with regard to establishing a standard and what aspects of digital sustainability are being discussed in the process.

Do we need even more standards?

In terms of sustainability, this is highly likely. This is because standards do not necessarily mean regulations; and they certainly do not mean obligation. In my blog post on digital sustainability, I showed how important sustainability is in the context of digitalisation. And in addressing the development of accessibility as an aspect of usability, I showed that standardisation can have positive effects. Ever since accessibility was included in ISO 25010 in 2002, many players in the market have made it a point of focus. Google issues lower page rankings if content and pages are not accessible, and many public tenders make accessibility a required criterion for new developments. Classic examples such as the nine per cent of all men who have red-green colour blindness or the 12 per cent of functional illiterates in Germany have led to socially relevant issues being ascribed corresponding frameworks to which those in positions of responsibility can orient themselves. We as a society, and especially future generations, are affected by the environmental impact of digital solutions to at least the same degree, which is why dedicated stakeholders are working to propose a framework for action for digital sustainability.

There are fortunately many dedicated people in the field, and to name them all would go beyond the scope of this blog post. I would, however, like to give you a rough overview of which approaches are promising and which could possibly aid in shaping a future standard. Therefore, the following sections present some criteria catalogues and frameworks for digital sustainability. The list is far from complete, and there are dozens of complementary approaches, especially in the academic environment.

German Informatics Society (GI)

The German Informatics Society’s (Gesellschaft für Informatik, GI) sustainability working group presented the first version of the sustainability criteria (in German) for digital platforms at the end of 2021. As you will notice in the course of this post, very few of those involved have an isolated view of sustainability in terms of environmental impacts. Instead, their views are mostly holistic and also take social aspects into account, such as digital participation or the common interest of society. Criteria such as appropriate default settings, accessibility and user autonomy are also particularly required in addition to the more technical aspects, such as platform independence, low energy consumption or software longevity. Other aspects suggested by the criteria catalogue include freely accessible software, data economy, minimal tracking and appropriate online advertising.

Green Software Foundation

The Green Software Foundation was founded in spring 2022 and has summarised some of the key measures for ecologically sustainable software development in its Principles of Green Software Engineering. Although the principles are currently at a level that does not fully do justice to the topic in the long term, the foundation already has a working group, the goal of which is to develop a set of standards for sustainable software. The working group’s initial results can be found in standards such as the Software Carbon Intensity Specification.

Sustainable Digital Infrastructure Alliance

The Sustainable Digital Infrastructure Alliance (SDIA) is a representative from the German-speaking world that is focused on infrastructure and data centres and is also working on a criteria catalogue. The goal of the SDIA is to develop a label that can be used to evaluate cloud infrastructure providers, especially in the context of the ongoing trend towards cloud migration. Since servers account for around 14 per cent of the emissions generated by accessing a website, the cloud infrastructure must become more transparent. Another positive potential effect of such a label includes exposing dangerous and vague claims about allegedly ‘green’ hosting that border on greenwashing. The development of the label still seems to be in a very early stage, but the first challenges identified (such as the fact that servers are currently selected primarily on the basis of performance) indicate that the process could prove to be very difficult.

Blue Angel

Even though as of June 2022 only one software product has received certification, the Blue Angel ecolabel for resource and energy-efficient software is arguably the most promising approach in Germany. Unfortunately, at this point, the label is limited to only traditional desktop applications. However, a working group with the Ökoinstitut (German Institute for Applied Ecology) is actively working to expand it to include mobile and distributed systems. Over ten criteria must be met in order to receive the label, all of which must be broken down transparently. Some exciting and possibly controversial aspects include things such as the requirement of being uninstallable, having offline capability and the freedom to advertise. Blue Angel functions as an international lighthouse and is very likely to help shape the definition of a future standard.

Référentiel general d’écoconception de services numériques (RGESN)

Perhaps the most comprehensive and detailed collection of sustainability criteria can be found on the website of an interministerial working group with the French Ministry of Ecology, Sustainable Development and Energy. The green IT community in France has historically had a noticeable head start in building up knowledge in the field of digital sustainability. And unfortunately, a lack of translations has meant that this knowledge is only slowly starting to spread to the rest of the world now. Ideas about the connections between digitalisation and sustainability emerged quite early on in France. There, the focus regarding digital sustainability tends to be somewhat more on hardware aspects, which is a reasonable contrast to many of the other approaches presented.

Loosely translated, the unwieldy title Référentiel general d’écoconception de services numériques means ‘collection of knowledge for the environmentally friendly design of digital services’. And that is exactly how you can understand it, too. The collection of 79 questions can be used as a checklist to guide the planning, implementation and evaluation of digital solutions. The questions are subdivided into new overarching themes, such as architecture, user interfaces and hosting, that make it easier for readers to identify the fields of action relevant to them. The questions are briefly formulated, and each question is accompanied by a description of the goal it is aimed at, how implementation might look and possible ways to measure success.

Unfortunately, the website is only available in French at the time of writing this blog post. However, common browsers often automatically suggest translations of the page for those who do not speak French.

Where should the standard for digital sustainability come from?

In the case of the Web Content Accessibility Guidelines, the World Wide Web Consortium at the time initially drew up a recommendation that was later adopted by the European Union and ISO and declared a standard. Of course, in the case of sustainability, no one can say with certainty how things will pan out and whether ISO will ever actually standardise sustainability as a requirement. It is plausible, however, that sustainability will be integrated into ISO 25010 as an additional quality criterion for software. To this end, sub-criteria that is more specific could be used to define a rather abstract requirement (sustainability), as has been the case so far. At any rate, a working group has just been established at the World Wide Web Consortium, the aim of which is to develop guidelines and principles to incorporate environmental sustainability into the workflows and practices of web experts and digital specialists.

Conclusion

Some approaches that have not been mentioned so far but are no less important include SustainableWebDesign.org or a related German approach which can be found at nachhaltiges-webdesign.jetzt (in German). These are loose guidelines to provide developers and designers with practical recommendations for action.

The direction in which the industry and its standards will develop in the medium term can only be roughly estimated in the very dynamic situation currently at hand. However, it is to be expected that in a few years, more structure will be discernible amidst the vast number of approaches and that more stakeholders thinking about the sustainability of the digital economy can only do the topic good.

On our website, we will show you what goals we at adesso have set for ourselves with regard to sustainability, what measures we want to implement and what the associated opportunities and challenges are for our company.

You will find more exciting topics from the adesso world in our latest blog posts.

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Picture Yelle Lieder

Author Yelle Lieder

Yelle Lieder works on the planning and implementation of sustainable digital products and services. In the context of digital sustainability, he advises on the identification and reduction of environmental impacts as well as on the product management of digital solutions.

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