Part of the solution? CIOs’ influence on sustainability 

As part of our series on the role of CIOs and tech trends for international development organisations and non-governmental organisations (NGOs), this article explores how CIOs impact and drive sustainability in their organisations.

The raison d'être for most non-profit and non-governmental organisations is to drive one or more of the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). Digital innovation and technology are widely recognised to play a crucial role in the world’s ability to reach the SDGs by 2030.

As the main driver of digital transformation in their organisations, CIOs have the important task of identifying those innovations that can best help progress towards the SDGs and translate them into tangible and impactful digital solutions. However, those same digital solutions can also harm the environment, society and the economy as highlighted below. They may bring us one step closer to one of the SDGs, but one step away from achieving another.

To realise the full potential of digital innovation, CIOs need to comprehensively understand the impact of technology on sustainability, both positive and negative, as well as how to mitigate any potential downsides.

Digital innovation: a double-edged sword for sustainability

It is estimated that the information and communication technologies (ICT) sector will contribute to 20% of all progress towards the SDGs, but with this comes sustainability challenges:

IT contributes to over 4% of the EU’s total greenhouse gas emissions: that is more than the aviation industry, which makes up 3.8% of emissions. On a global scale, connected devices are estimated to consume the same amount of energy as the entire country of France did in 2020 according to research done by the International Energy Agency.

Data centres, computing power, and applications all demand energy to function. Energy is also required to build the infrastructure and produce the hardware behind those digital solutions. While many tech players are switching to renewable energy to power their data centres for example, the impact of digital technologies is still far from being carbon neutral.

In 2021, an estimated 57.4 million tonnes of e-waste was discarded by humans, more than the weight of the Great Wall of China. With short lifespans and limited recycling of electronic devices, at today’s rate, waste is supposed to hit 74 million tonnes by 2030 which will impact our ability to achieve responsible consumption and production, i.e., SDG 12.

IData centre server infrastructure can contain up to 50 different elements and materials, many of which are rare earth metals classified as critical by the European Commission. And embedded in 1 million cell phones are 24 kilogrammes of gold, 16,000 kilogrammes of copper, 350 kilogrammes of silver and 14 kilogrammes of palladium – all resources that could be returned to the production cycle. Such mineral extraction is not only harmful to the environmental, but can also be linked to human rights violations. Efforts to cut labour costs and inconsistency in labour laws across the globe puts workers in precarious conditions.

Data is valuable, and as we gather more data from different sources, the risks associated with data breaches increase considerably. Increased digitalisation with limited cybersecurity measures in place threatens the resilience of these systems. The result: a cyberattack can paralyse banks, ministries, post offices, and metro systems, making it hard to perform even the simplest task.

Economic growth is not always coupled with increased equality. Digital innovation poses a similar problem: continuously innovating and investing in digital solutions, without providing basic connectivity to those populations not yet connected, will contribute to the global digital divide and exclude 2.9 billion people from many of the benefits that such innovations can provide.


Nonprofits deal with multiple external stakeholders, such as public and private donors, beneficiaries and the wider public, as well as with internal employees and volunteers. Technology and innovation can help them engage better. For instance, Customer Relationship Management solutions enable organisations proactively to build better relationships with donors. Digital channels, such as social media and owned or third-party websites, provide many opportunities for engagement with a wide ecosystem of stakeholders across the globe in a structured and effective way. For example, the WEF, supported by Deloitte, has developed UpLink, a digital platform bringing together innovators and funders to tackle some of the world’s toughest challenges. Through UpLink, innovators and social entrepreneurs can submit their solutions to global pressing issues and, if selected, get access to WEF events and network which help them scale their impact. A Salesforce-based, intuitive digital platform, together with engagement and communication on social media, is what made UpLink a success.

But without CIOs’ guidance and support on processes and state of the art solutions, it would not be possible to leverage the possibilities of innovative target user engagement.

CIOs in the non-profit sector as ICT sustainability champions

With non-profit organisations focused on helping the world advance towards the SDGs, CIOs working in this sector should be at the forefront of creating a responsible and sustainable ICT sector. How? By embedding sustainability in their department’s strategy and becoming sustainability advocates in and outside of their organisations. Specific actions include:

  1. Assess and monitor. A solid sustainability strategy starts with assessing the status quo, understanding where your operations have the most impact and setting relevant targets to measure progress. Topics to consider could include hardware procurement and disposal, choice of software providers and data centres, data generation and consumption, as well as energy use. Data monitoring systems should be implemented to measure progress over time and to report on your organisation’s sustainability objectives.
  2. Take action. Whether it’s new policies to select software vendors, optimising your digital solutions’ (data) efficiency, internal campaigns to ensure the responsible use of electronic devices, or initiatives to increase the circularity of your ICT operations, many actions can be taken to progress towards your sustainability goals. These actions can extend outside of your organisation to boost systemic change such as recycling e-waste while creating safe jobs in a developing country.
  3. Educate. Raising awareness on the link between technology and sustainability can help to accelerate action. CIOs can act as champions to initiate awareness programmes and ensure sustainable practices are adopted within their organisation and among their broader network.

While acting as digital innovation catalysts, CIOs in non-profit organisations should ensure that they’re doing so responsibly as their donors and their beneficiaries will increasingly expect this of them. They must be aware of the positive and negative impacts of digital solutions on sustainability and lead the way to where digital forms part of the solution rather than adding to the problem.

Thank you to Biancamaria Tedesco for her valuable contribution to this article.

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