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Interview with Olivier Vergeynst, Director of ISIT-BE: thinking responsibly about the digital future

ISIT-BE (the Belgian Institute For Sustainable IT) was founded in 2020 and is a non-profit association working to create a more responsible digital future. Read the interview with its Executive Director, Olivier Vergeynst.

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Olivier Vergeynst (ISIT)

Q: How would you define responsible digital technology, if you had to do so?

Digital technology is now omnipresent in our lives and has profoundly changed our society in just a few decades. While it makes our lives easier in many respects and delivers phenomenal productivity gains, it also has many negative impacts of which few people are aware. Significant environmental impacts (consumption of metals, rare-earth elements and water, various forms of pollution) linked to the manufacture of equipment and the energy required to operate it, as well as social impacts such as the digital divide, accessibility problems, screen addiction and ethical issues, for example. Responsible digital technology aims to create a balance between technological advancement and societal and environmental well-being, ensuring that technologies are developed and used ethically, sustainably and inclusively.

Q: How can we apply these responsible digital technology principles to regions, businesses and individuals?

To achieve this, we first need to understand where the impacts come from, so that we know how to reduce them. From an environmental point of view, the most significant impact comes from the manufacture of equipment, before it is even used. Several levers can be used in this respect.

The first lever, at home and in the office, is to ask ourselves what is essential or useful, resist marketing and excessive equipment, think about replacement frequency and consider alternatives such as buying reconditioned products.

The second lever concerns the quantity and quality of the data we produce and transmit, whether in video, photo, audio or text format. It is important to rationalise media use, for example by avoiding watching videos when audio alone is enough for our needs, thus reducing unnecessary data consumption.

The third lever is specific to companies and is eco-design or the responsible design of digital services. The aim is to integrate environmental considerations from the design stage of the digital services offered to users, such as digital kiosks, smartphone applications and websites. Although this approach is often perceived as a bit more expensive, it can not only reduce design, development and maintenance costs but also increase accessibility and inclusion (and therefore the number of potential users), as well as being more sustainable from an environmental point of view.

The fourth lever, also specific to organisations, concerns governance. This means defining a responsible digital strategy and an action plan that includes support for change, with an emphasis on reducing the negative impacts inherent in digitalisation.

From my point of view, the Green ITOpens in new windowExternal link perspective and the focus on accessibility and digital inclusion are becoming unavoidable priorities for organisations.

Q: How does ISIT-BEOpens in new windowExternal link position itself in relation to the levers and challenges of responsible digital technology?

ISIT-BE is committed to four key areas. Raising awareness is an essential first step, with events designed to inform the public about the challenges of responsible digital technology. This involves the provision of tools, training and resources to support and guide companies in adopting responsible approaches. Research also plays a key role, with a focus on exploring the challenges of responsible digital technology and identifying best practices for its implementation. Lastly, our influence can be seen in our advocacy of changes in public policy and regulations, with the goal of actively promoting the development of responsible digital technology in our society.

Q: Can you tell us about the concrete actions you are taking?

We regularly organise conferences and events like the Digital Clean'Up Day, helping to raise awareness and educate the public. ISIT-BE welcomes anyone interested in promoting a more responsible digital environment. Our website offers an extensive range of free resources, including tools, best practice guides and online training. One of these tools is the NR CalculatorOpens in new windowExternal link, which makes it easy to estimate the greenhouse gas footprint of your digital equipment and its use, and compare it with the impact of your business travel. A much more detailed version also exists, the WeNROpens in new windowExternal link, which enables organisations to more accurately measure the carbon footprint of their digital services. Lastly, we offer the Responsible Digital Technology Charter, a voluntary commitment for companies wanting to adopt a responsible approach to their digital practices, and the NR Label for organisations wanting to go further in demonstrating their commitment.

Q: You mentioned that ISIT-BE focuses more on organisations than on the public. Why is this?

Our main impact is through organisations. Although we occasionally organise conferences for the public, our most effective leverage is within companies. This is partly due to the scale of the impact we can generate with limited resources and a small team. For example, when we work with large companies like Belfius, or major public bodies like Paradigm, our actions have a direct impact on hundreds or even thousands of users, far more than at a public conference.

Q: How does ISIT-BE fit into organisations?

Our mission is to sow the seeds of responsible digital technology within organisations. We offer tools, knowledge and feedback to help companies develop their own responsible solutions tailored to their specific needs. By encouraging exchanges within our community, we encourage a collaborative approach and the adoption of more sustainable digital practices. Our four-strong team works closely with our members, who form the backbone of our community. This collaboration allows us to collect and analyse their feedback so that we can prepare best practice guides and tools which are then shared with the whole community. This co-creation process enables us to design solutions tailored to each organisation.

Q: Is there any regional coordination on responsible digital issues?

Yes, regional coordination plays a vital role, and it is important to emphasise this aspect. The Brussels Region is exceptional in its innovative initiatives in this field and has established itself as a pioneer. This commitment involves both the Brussels Region and the City of Brussels, forming a functional ecosystem that fosters close collaboration between regional and local authorities and various other players.

Q: What progress is the Brussels Region making in relation to the challenges of responsible digital technology?

Our tangible commitment to responsible digital technology is reflected in our active support for startups and companies that implement a responsible approach. The Brussels Region actively encourages administrations and businesses to adopt responsible digital practices. This can take the form of incentives, awareness-raising campaigns and dedicated support programmes for businesses. This is something that, in my opinion, is not yet as prevalent in other regions. This drive for responsible digital technology is strongly supported by the cabinets of Minister Clerfayt and Secretary of State Trachte, among others. There is a definite political will as well as sustained involvement by government departments in this approach, which reinforces the drive towards a more responsible digital environment. It also promotes the creation of an ecosystem conducive to sustainable innovation. 

Q: Is the Digital Collage a tool you use to raise awareness of responsible digital technology?

The Digital CollageOpens in new windowExternal link is a tool that was initially developed in France and available first in French, then in English, and more recently in Dutch. We worked with Brussels Environment, using the Digital Fresco to organise an event in Brussels to present the Dutch-language version. There are now leaders in Belgium who can present it in all three languages.

So, yes, we support the Digital Collage, and all ISIT-BE employees have participated in at least one Collage. However, our aim is not to replace the Digital Collage leaders; we collaborate and exchange ideas with them and with organisers in France on a regular basis. Our intention is to facilitate links and increase the visibility of these different experts. We put them in touch with companies who want to use this tool.

Q: What is your vision for the future of responsible digital technology?

It may sound crazy, but I would like to make ISIT-BE obsolete (laughs)! Not because there would be a better support offer, but because taking into account the environmental and social footprint of digital technology would be a natural part of the IT management of all organisations. My aim is to make this practice the norm. At that point, ISIT-BE would no longer have a raison d'être. I would like to be able to dismantle the association because its purpose had achieved.

Q: What advice would you give to individuals wanting to contribute to responsible digital technology?

In addition to basic best practices (buying less equipment, keeping it longer, etc.), I would advise individuals to consider the leverage effects they can have through their profession and activities, whatever these may be. This is a first step towards greater sustainability and inclusion, not just in the digital sector, but in all areas. In terms of their digital practices, they need to think about how they can positively influence their organisation's actions to promote a more responsible digital environment, whether in communications, human resources or any other relevant area. In addition, I would recommend in-depth training to create a better technical understanding of the digital tools we use on a daily basis.

Lastly, it is crucial that we question our own dependence on digital technology. This means thinking about how we use these tools, how often we use them, and the impact of our digital choices beyond our personal sphere. Awareness of the real impact of digital equipment and usage is essential for more responsible use.

Digital Spring Brussels 2024 will take place on Friday 22 and Saturday 23 March 2024.For this new edition, organized by Paradigm, Digital Spring Brussels will move into Tour & Taxis and once again showcase the best of the Brussels Region's IT ecosystem. To register for this event, click here.

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