My sustainability wish list for the ICT industry

My sustainability wish list for the ICT industry

Image by Andresr via Shutterstock.

One of the great things about working at BSR is being immersed in so many sustainability challenges at different companies, on various topics and in diverse geographies. The risk of this exhilarating lifestyle is that the details of each engagement obscure the big picture. So, from time to time, I like to step back, survey the scene around me and try to figure out what is really going on.

Over the past six months, I've had experiences that have both inspired and depressed me, particularly in the industry I spend most of my time working with: information and communications technology, or ICT. Recently, I've found myself reflecting on these experiences and reaching a point of view on the big-picture priorities that I think ICT companies should be making better progress on these days.

1. Ethics and technology: It is often said that the impact of technology is overestimated in the short term and underestimated in the long term. There are huge innovations taking place that raise complex ethical questions for which notions of right and wrong, and responsible and irresponsible, are difficult to define. Just think of the ethical issues raised by the 3-D printing of weapons, artificial intelligence, Big Data and molecular nanotechnology.

What I'd love to see: ICT companies commissioning whitepapers that scope out the contours of these questions and increase our collective ability to understand them and make informed judgments. Pharmaceutical companies often have ethics committees to address issues of medical ethics  should ICT companies do the same?

2. Product-level human rights impact assessments: One of the key lessons we have learned in working with ICT companies to apply the Guiding Principles on Business and Human Rights is that the these impacts are often most significant at the product (rather than corporate or operational) level.

What I'd love to see: ICT companies undertaking human rights assessments of their products and services that combine in powerful ways the insights of human rights experts (who tend to know less about technology) and technology experts (who tend to know less about human rights).

3. Myanmar: Having visited the country and engaged on a few Myanmar-related projects, I'm struck by the caution about ICT risks (such as privacy and surveillance) emphasized by those outside Myanmar and the huge excitement about ICT opportunities (such as greater access) emphasized by those living there. Both, of course, are real.

What I'd love to see: More deliberate collaboration among ICT companies and other stakeholders on how to invest responsibly in Myanmar, address the risks and coordinate social investments for maximum positive impact given the unique local circumstances.

4. Sustainable product design "supplier readiness": Recently, major telecommunications brands have made tremendous progress integrating sustainability criteria into the design of mobile devices. I hope and expect that other brands will follow suit. However, I've also heard concerns by companies in the supply chain about their lack of preparedness for these new expectations.

What I'd love to see: More brands and suppliers (such as plastics, components or chips) working together to improve readiness for sustainable product design.

5. Integrated reporting: The ICT industry has a powerful story to tell about the relationship between business success and sustainability. There are so many revenue-generating applications of technology that address big sustainability challenges such as energy use, access to finance, and gender equality. New integrated reporting frameworks help companies convey this story to investors, yet examples are few and far between  and those that do exist tend to do little more than combine previously separate reports with a giant stapler.

What I'd love to see: ICT companies experimenting with new approaches to integrated reporting and shaping this new reporting agenda through experimentation, rather than waiting for it to be shaped for them.

What strikes me about these items is that they all require proactive leadership by companies. This is not about responding to outside pressures or demands, but about shaping the future through experimentation, innovation and investment  attributes that define the ICT industry.

This article originally appeared at BSR Insight and is reprinted with permission.

Computer image by Andresr via Shutterstock