Sustainable “Digital Universe”: How Should Firms Organize Business and it Strategy for a Better World?

* Haluk Demirkan, Arizona State University
Robert R. Harmon, Portland State University

Did you know the “internet of things” will expand to encompass around 16 billion devices by 2020? IDC Research indicates that the creation and replication of new digital information set a record in 2009 by growing to 800 billion gigabytes, 62 percent over the previous year; and between 2009 and 2020, the information in the Digital Universe will grow by a factor of 44 to 35 trillion gigabytes, the number of files in it to be managed will grow by a factor of 67, and the storage capacity will grow by a factor of 30. The growth of the digital universe in last five years will have a measurable impact on the environment, in terms of both power consumed and electronic waste. Power consumption that was 1kW per server rack in 2000 is now closer to 10kW. Customers building new datacenters are planning for 20kW per rack. Also, electronic waste is already accumulating at more than 1 billion units a year — mostly computers, laptops, mobile phones, but also personal digital electronics. This will make it clear to business executives and CIOs that much of next 10 years of their careers will be spent dealing with challenge of the mismatch of these growth rates and the sustainability of digital universe.

The emerging emphasis on a broader corporate social responsibility (CSR)-based definition of sustainable IT is likely to leave corporate IT groups ill prepared to deal with the full range of issues that make up the knowledge sphere and practice of CSR. Furthermore, the existing gap between IT groups and customers, both internal and external, and the lack of alignment between IT and business strategy should give one pause as IT tries to navigate the CSR/CS strategic waters without a full appreciation for the social responsibility dimensions and potential impacts on IT.

As the new discipline of sustainable IT grows and assumes, by choice or by mandate, a broader societal mission, there will be increasing pressure for integration with corporate sustainability and social responsibility strategies. The purpose of this paper is to define the CSR dimensions that impact IT, review the current state of sustainable IT, provide a sustainable IT strategy and innovation framework, and review the sustainable IT initiatives of a number of companies (such as Intel, IBM and HP) that are viewed as leaders in CSR as they plan for the future of sustainable IT.


* Corresponding Author

Demirkan, H. and Harmon, R., “Sustainable “Digital Universe”: How should firms organize business and IT strategy for a better world?” Working paper, Arizona State University, 2011.