According to 550 digital designers, developers and content professionals, sustainable digital design is about shifting from short-term thinking selling superficial wants to long-term thinking solving deep needs. Their top tasks are:

  1. Solve deep needs, not superficial wants.
  2. Promote long-term thinking: 10 years, 20 years, 50 years.
  3. Make things easy to be found, reused.
  4. Everything created must have an owner who is responsible to care for, maintain and delete it.
  5. Reduce consumption through design, change overconsumption behaviors.
  6. Calculate true and total cost: the cost to the ecosystem, the Earth.
  7. Center the voices of those who are directly impacted by the outcomes of the product, service, process.
  8. Continuous improvement, governance, ongoing optimization.

While the top two tasks are almost philosophical in nature, the third is very practical. It calls for a shift in thinking away from non-stop creativity and innovation towards maintenance and reusability. That would be a revolutionary change. To focus energies on making stuff findable and reusable would significantly reduce resource and energy requirements.

The fourth top task is about owning and looking after the digital asset throughout its entire lifecycle. This is a big one. A huge one. We must take ownership. We must maintain. We must ultimately archive and delete. This is so critical.

Reducing consumption through design is the fifth top task. Getting people to slow down, to consume less of the Earth’s resources, and instead burn their own energy by thinking more, walking more, cycling more — these are big and exciting challenges for the digital designer, developer and content professional.

Our new metrics must be much more holistic. They need to measure the impact of our decisions on the Earth’s ecosystems over time. We need to think in a connected way with everything around us. Our laptops and smartphones have a thousand materials from all over the Earth. In fact, many digital materials are only found in remote habitats that are in crisis because of the extraction of these materials. When we operate in digital, we touch ecosystems in multiple different ways. We must ensure that we are good ancestors.

Learning Opportunities

Centering the voices of those who are directly impacted by the outcomes of the product, service, process is critical. If there’s one big message coming from the survey it’s that we must think broadly, holistically, in a more expansive and long-term manner. The people impacted by a digital service may not always be the users of that service. They can also be the family or community in which they live. Ethical, fair working conditions are essential. A great experience for the customer should never result in a terrible experience for the employee. We need a digital that builds a fairer society.

Continuous improvement, governance, ongoing optimization was the final top task. It circles back to ownership, maintenance, reuse. The survey’s top tasks show a very clear path forward, one that is more frugal, more practical, more conscious of saving resources and energy. The survey respondents are telling us that we need to look after things, that we should move more slowly, think more deeply.

There is a hopeful path here. A practical path. It may seem impossible, locked in as we are to the current economic system. Yet, as someone wise once said, there is nothing created by humans that can’t be changed by humans.

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