Digitalization for the Greater Good: The Roles and Responsibilities of European Businesses

ROUNDTABLE

This roundtable brings together eight individuals that engage with the topic of corporate digital responsibility (CDR) in their daily business with the goal of critically and constructively examining the phenomenon of CDR at the interface of digital transformation and sustainability. The discussion focuses around several key areas but most importantly: How to shape a European approach to the responsibilities of businesses in times of digital transformation.


PARTICIPANTS

Participants

The participants are experts from diverse fields and communities including:

  • Business stakeholders who deal with CDR on a day-to-day basis in their organizations.

  • Technological enthusiasts.

  • City officials and political actors.

  • Startup founders.

  • Representatives of civil society organizations.

  • Change management professionals.

TOPICS

Topics and Questions

  • How CDR interfaces with and impacts on digital transformation and sustainability.

  • How different companies and sectors approach CDR.

  • How to broaden the understanding of CDR beyond data protection and privacy.

  • How collected and shared data can support sustainability topics.

  • How to shape a European approach to the responsibilities of businesses in times of digital transformation.

HOSTS

Hosts

CONTEXT

Roundtable Context

  • Digitalization and sustainability are two major trends in the 21st century.

  • These trends influence and steer business strategy and activities—but the two trends themselves are also influenced by the actions that businesses take.

  • Digitalization is most often associated with disruptive technologies, the power of major tech businesses and platforms, increasing datafication, and customer demands around convenience and personalization.

  • Regulations, including the General Data Protection Regulation (GDPR), shape business requirements, actions, and demands for standards and guidelines for digital transformation.

Sustainability as a Frame of Reference for Economic Success

  • Environmental and social problems require that businesses must comply with a growing number of policies and regulations to ensure sustainability.

  • Businesses have to report on their environmental and social impact and on how they contribute to sustainable development. 

  • Consumers expect businesses to communicate transparently and clearly about their efforts and their sustainable products, while maintaining low prices.

  • Putting sustainability front and center can drive new business models and innovative products, and can expose businesses to new, profitable markets.

Corporate Digital Responsibility as the Interface Between Digitalization and Sustainability

  • CDR is becoming increasingly important to policy, consumer protection, and other government agencies and NGOs.

  • The debate over CDR is not new—there are already established standards and guidelines for sustainability management, and limited frameworks for understanding business responsibilities do exist. 

  • There is confusion over what CDR constitutes, and CDR governance, management, and topics vary greatly from business to business.

  • In some cases, sustainability departments are in charge of CDR, whereas in others the management board or the data protection officers are responsible.

RESULTS

Roundtable Results

Digital Ethics Matter

  • The modern world means that most people are continuously digitally connected to each other while living side by side.

  • Wolfgang Gründiger, political scientist and author, calls this connectivity the “onlive” modus—the combination of being alive while being online.

  • Emerging technologies and datafication are creating dilemmas, for example:

  • Data protection versus the analysis of medical data for predicting diseases.

  • Health and safety decisions made by the AI of autonomous vehicles.

  • Datasets that inadvertently minimize or exclude individuals from certain backgrounds or cultures.

  • Gründiger suggests that instead of trying to solve these dilemmas, we should focus on the possibilities and opportunities presented by digital technologies.

  • Gründiger also argues that regulations and discourses are necessary to save society from damage.

  • While debating over laws and regulations, nations such as Germany can lose the chance to innovate and support companies that can compete in the international market.

  • A focus on debating rather than taking action means that standards and innovations could be lacking for international markets.

  • This means we could miss out on the chance to shape a “third way”—between monopolies on one side (e.g. Facebook and Amazon) and state control on the other (e.g. China).

Corporate Digital and Social Responsibility Require Strong Buy-In and a Cross-Business Approach

  • The participants of the workshop largely associate CDR with keywords including Ethics, Digital Wellbeing, Responsible Data, Digital Inclusion, Transparency, and ecological topics.

  • Important ecological topics for CDR include Energy Consumption, the Environmental Consequences of Technology, and Resource Use.

  • Transparency is an important foundation for informed discussion and incentivizes companies to go further than the minimum lawful requirements and standards. 

Simultaneously, the amount of data that is collected by companies has to be limited to minimize the resources needed to store that data and make it accessible for both companies and customers. 

The production and supply chain of products should be transparent, and product processes should be accessible and participatory. This leads to open innovation, open source, and open science.

  • Participants were concerned about relationships and comparisons between corporate digital responsibility (CDR) and corporate social responsibility (CSR).

  • It has been a challenge to get businesses and consumers to take CSR seriously, with accusations of “greenwashing” and its application to difficult social and ecological activities. 

  • Participants agreed that CDR is important and that it must be supported and driven by top management and not devolved into a small, distinct, uninfluential department. 

  • A holistic approach to CDR requires departments across the business to build a cross-functional team that can build and share CDR knowledge resources. 

  • Cross-business networks that bring together enterprise leaders, SMEs, and startups are also essential. 

  • These networks will allow for sector-wide discussions and approaches to drive common frameworks, best practices, and case studies on successfully integrating CDR into organizational structures.

  • There was concern that dependency on monopolistic companies and technology platforms could be limiting and that a debate on state-owned, secure communication tools is needed to make digital communication possible for everyone.

Starting Points for Implementing Change

  • The focus on CDR should include positive examples of digital technologies solving sustainability problems. 

  • Scientific and economic stakeholders must gather and present cases and evidence to support good practices.

  • Stakeholders involved with CDR must be taken seriously.

  • Stakeholders involved with CDR must stress how important it is.

Key Messages

  • CDR needs to be prioritized in strategic decisions.

  • A European path between the American (monopolistic) and Chinese (state-controlled) models is needed.

  • Companies and government stakeholders must make CDR approachable for incumbents, startups, and SMEs.

Questions for Further Consideration

  • Who is in charge of developing CDR standards, from both a European and an international perspective?

  • How can CDR be integrated into higher education programs to give future managers and employees the relevant knowledge and skills?

  • How can we prevent a marginalization of CDR and support managers and executives to prioritize CDR in business strategies?