How can Europe become a frontrunner of sustainable digitalization?

Sustainability is often associated with the environment, but in another context it can also refer to the economy or society as a whole. So, what exactly does sustainability mean when it comes to digitalization?

When we talk about sustainable digitalization, we refer to the process that takes place in a friendly, green, organic way as part of Europe’s transition to a green and digital economy - writes the European Digital SME Alliance on their website.

A concept that largely builds on innovative SMEs (small and medium enterprises), sustainable digitalization can strengthen European sovereignty in the long term. But what are the three main pillars that support this process?

1. Sustainable B2B digitalization

To get a clear idea of what we mean by sustainable digitalization, we need to define what unsustainable “short-term digitalization” means. Imagine a business that uses its Covid-19 liquidity to purchase a Zoom subscription!

This means they become a minimally-skilled end-user of other companies’ products. With this mentality, a business can not expect to become a digital frontrunner, and will most probably lag behind in the digital race.

According to DIGITAL SME President Dr Oliver Grün, “Sustainable B2B digitalization starts when a traditional business approaches an ICT enterprise to acquire specialized software solutions to transform their business model from analogue to digital. (…) The companies which facilitate this process are often SMEs. We call these SMEs ‘digital enablers.”

SMEs require talent and skills to digitalize sustainably. This means going beyond simply learning to use digital tools: employees need to be trained in emerging technologies, enabling them to develop and innovate.

On a European level, this requires closing the gap of over one million missing workers in ICT. In order to achieve digital sovereignty and foster sustainable digitalization, Europe must build on its strong digital ecosystems. When universities, clusters and large enterprises co-operate with innovative SMEs and startups, Europe’s whole economy can become systematically digitalized.

2. Green(er) technologies and a circular economy

Europe’s ambitious climate goals largely rely on the digital sector. The fourth industrial (digital) revolution can bring about crucial environmental changes: innovations such as big data analysis or 3D printing can significantly reduce pollution as well as our reliance on resources.

LabShare is another good example of a green and innovative concept: our platform helps to regulate market processes and optimize the use of capacities, further decreasing our dependence on physical assets.

On the other hand, existing physical supply chains need to become more circular. One element of a circular economy is the repairability of products. Repairing is not only environmentally sustainable by tackling the “throwaway economy”, it also ensures a growing repair sector and provides a way for people to save money.

The effect of environmental measures can be spread and accelerated by technologies such as artificial intelligence, 5G or blockchain. Such a flourishing digital ecosystem creates the appropriate economic climate for innovative green companies.

3. Innovation-enabling policy and regulatory framework

European policymakers have to allow businesses to use circular economic models and innovate in greener technologies. The so-called “right to repair” is crucial to enable innovation, resource-saving, and save money for citizens.

In turn, repairability dovetails into software- and hardware openness by allowing tech-savvy players to access information for free. Open hardware does the same for physical products; if electronic devices are unlocked for third-party software, businesses can compete and develop better applications to run on them.

If Europe wants digital sovereignty, we need to understand and enable sustainable digitalization. By investing in green technologies, and smart policy, we can enable Europe to become a leading force in the digital age, a force that doesn’t just buy technology from abroad but sells it to the rest of the world.