Digital sustainability: Basic conditions for sustainable digital artifacts and their ecosystems

The modern age has heralded a shift from the industrial society, in which natural resources are crucial input factors for the economy, towards a knowledge society. To date, sustainability literature has treated knowledge—and in particular digital artifacts—mainly as a means to the end of achieving sustainable development. In this conceptual paper, we argue that digital artifacts themselves ought also to be considered as resources, which also need to be sustainable. While over-consumption is a problem facing natural resources, with sustainable digital artifacts, underproduction, and underuse are the biggest challenges. In our view, the sustainability of digital artifacts improves their potential impact on sustainable development. A theoretical foundation for digital artifacts and their ecosystem allows us to present the relevant research on digital information, knowledge management, digital goods, and innovation literature. Based on these insights, we propose ten basic conditions for sustainable digital artifacts and their ecosystem to ensure that they provide the greatest possible benefit for sustainable development. We then apply those characteristics to four exemplary cases: Linux kernel development, Bitcoin cryptocurrency, the Wikipedia project, and the Linking Open Drug Data repositories. The paper concludes with a research agenda identifying topics for sustainability scholars and information systems academics, as well as practitioners. A number of suggestions for future studies on digital sustainability are also put forward.

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