When sustainability is discussed within the digital tech industry, the conversation often revolves around electricity use. Typically “how can we reduce electrical consumption in data centers or on end-user devices, and how can we decarbonise it?”.

This is great progress, but the industry is in danger of overlooking the big, more difficult questions.

Questions like: what exactly are those paradigms, systems and root causes that have got us into a rapidly warming climate? And how has this industry been culpable? And how does it continue to be culpable? What do we need to change?

It’s easy to get tunnel vision and focus on a particular one of the possible subjects – in my case lowering the carbon of websites and reducing data usage. But there is so much more to digital sustainability in tech.

— Nick Lewis, Founder of the-sustainable.dev

Doing the Doughnut.tech was conceived to support people within the digital tech industry to:

  • explore a broad definition of sustainability;
  • look deeper into the root causes of what is going wrong;
  • imagine a better future for the industry.

We are developing ways to break the conversation out from optimising electricity use and decarbonisation, and towards a more holistic appreciation.

The workshop emphasised the interconnectedness of the topics and brought home how the issues of social justice and sustainability relate to each other.

— Michelle Barker, Senior Front End Developer at Ada Mode and technical writer

We’re using the excellent Doughnut Economics framework as a vehicle to generate these discussions and understanding with the digital tech sector.

We present to you, the tech Doughnut!

Doughnut Economics describes the economy as two rings:

  1. An outer ring of 9 “planetary boundaries”, the earth’s natural limits for sustainable life;
  2. An inner ring of 12 “social foundations”, representing human life’s essentials.
The Doughnut Economics model describes two rings, the inner a social foundation, the outer the ecological ceiling.

The sweet spot is the space in which we must all live to stay within the planet’s natural limits and to ensure all humans not just survive, but thrive. The zone of not taking too much and not sharing too little. The zone in which we all must live if we are all not just to survive, but to be joyful in doing so.

In early 2022, we facilitated three pilot workshops to explore the Doughnut Economics model in relation to the digital tech sector.

We invited twenty-nine people working in various roles in and around the tech sector, and already interested in digital sustainability in some regard, to come together and discuss these questions:

  • What would it mean for the digital tech workforce to thrive?
  • What would it mean for the digital tech industry to respect the wellbeing of people worldwide?
  • What would it mean for the digital tech industry to respect the health of the whole planet?

I was familiar with Doughnut Economics but I never thought about applying it to the tech industry, so I found the overall concept really interesting.

— Alja Isaković, Founder ResponsibleTech.work

The findings from our pilot workshops suggest a willingness to discuss sustainability more broadly and deeply is far more present in the tech sector than we had imagined.

We felt the social dimension was so present in all our workshop conversations that addressing work cultures, toxic behaviour and exclusion became understood to be every bit as central to sustainability as carbon emissions and energy by our attendees.

In summary, there were four common tech strategies that stood out as things that should shift if the digital tech industry is serious about becoming more sustainable:

  • Stop the relentless consumption/depletion of resources – attention based revenue is driving the wrong behaviours.
  • Pointless – and endless – growth is getting us nowhere – the exponential growth bubble needs to burst.
  • Build things that last and can be reused – the strategy of planned obsolescence only serves shareholders and not society.
  • Detoxify tech culture – replace with fairness, inclusion and better ways of working.

It was really encouraging to see a lot of interest around diversity in the tech sector……”Default male culture” and the link between exploitative and extractive mindsets jumped out.

Graham Lally, Sustainable developer and consultant

An additional output from our pilot workshops is the Digital Tech Industry Doughnut Flower diagram – a visual representation of the conversation amongst our attendees from the pilot workshops.

Click to see a larger version of the Digital Tech Industry Doughnut Flower.

The outer petals represent the ecological boundaries. The darker the shade of green the more this came up as a pain point during the discussion.

The inner stamens represent the social foundations and the longer and darker the stamen the more this issue featured in the workshop discussions.

To find out more about our key takeaways and what the doughnut flower tells us, have a look at our insights page.

In terms of what’s next for this project, we will continue to improve our format so it is easy to capture and standardise findings from future workshops. Over time we will build up a data-rich picture of how the tech sector can and is addressing sustainability in a fundamental way. We will continue to share these findings and insights freely.

There is so much potential here to change things, we just have to make sure that – among other things – the people with the power and interest to do it are informed and equipped with the knowledge and tools to foster positive change.

Michael J. Oghia, Sustainability Advocate

We see two clear audiences who will benefit from the existing workshop, and from development of further workshop formats:

  1. Tech Companies
  1. Not-for-profit “CivicTech” organisations

If you’re interested in experiencing one of our workshops for yourselves, get in touch and let’s see what how we can help you.

This was an amazing workshop! I was so impressed with the amount of preparation, the different layers of exploration.

— Dr. Fieke Jansen, Post doc @DataJusticeLab