Adélie Conan-Nguyen, ESSEC Business School winner of the 2021 CoBS student CSR article competition, reveals the arguments, challenges and solutions for interoperability – an overlooked means of achieving tangible and rapid results for sustainability.
Sustainability and Interoperability. Piece by Piece by Adélie Conan-Nguyen.
When we look at the innovations made by companies over the last decades, it is not hard to believe that organizations could leverage their innovative capabilities to reduce their environmental impact. After all, over the span of my (quite short) lifetime, the world has seen technological revolutions and industry prowess such as the rise of the Internet or the birth of the smartphone. If some can dream to be the firsts to spend a night in a space hotel orbiting around the Earth, is it really such a stretch to believe that organizations could hold the key to a more sustainable future? That the solution to our race against climate change is hidden within the confines of R&D departments?
Sadly, the problem does not lie in organizations’ innovative capabilities: the core issue of hoping that companies will find a solution is time. We cannot afford to wait for a miraculous invention that will simultaneously satisfy all our needs, stop exploiting the Earth’s non-renewable resources and protect the environment around the world. Such an innovation may exist, but in the meantime, what can organizations do to work towards a sustainable future?
Part of the answer to that question may lie, as so many things do these days, in the world of software, big data and the Internet. It is called: interoperability.
Sustainability and Interoperability: To compatibility… and beyond!
Interoperability is defined as the ability of a system or a product, of which all interfaces are known, to function with other systems and products, present or future, without hindrance. It is a transversal notion that goes beyond simple compatibility: interoperability requires different systems to respect a set number of norms that create a base upon which they can all function, apart or with one another.
Nowadays, interoperability is mostly applied to software, as a way to enable organizations all over the world to work together. As you can imagine, it would be pretty hard for a global economy to function without the appropriate means to share information with your partners abroad. As S.R. Ray and A.T. Jones state in Manufacturing interoperability (Journal of Intelligent Manufacturing, 2006), “because no single company can dictate that all its partners use the same software, standards for how the information is represented become critical for error-free transmission and translation.”
We cannot afford to wait for a miraculous invention that will simultaneously satisfy all our needs
Much criticism has been made against interoperability in our modern, global and oh-so-polluting economy. Some seem to fear that setting strict norms will hinder creativity and innovations by constricting companies within the confines of their standards. Others warn of the threat interoperability may pose to intellectual property rights and patents since interfaces must be known to make interoperability a possibility. Lastly, some companies have clearly shown, over the years, their opposition to interoperability as a way to capture and hold customers within the confines of their brand and increase their profit. Apple may be the most famous example for such behaviour, with their specific charger and the removal of the headphone jack on the iPhone 7.
These fears, however, are unfounded and misguided. Setting norms may be constricting but they are simply the base upon which companies must innovate. Interoperability may require some interfaces to be known for products to work together, but some may remain trade secrets. And last, but not least, interoperability may be necessary to increase profits: for instance, a 2015 McKinsey study (The Internet of Things: Mapping the value beyond the Hype) has shown that interoperability is required to capture 40% of the potential total value of the Internet of Things.
Sustainability and Interoperability: From software to hardware
You are now probably thinking: “That is all nice and well, but what good is it for the environment?” The answer is not hard to grasp. We can start with a small exercise: how many chargers do you have? Before you read ahead, take a moment to count all of them. Three? Five? More? You have at least one for your phone and one for your laptop. Maybe another for your digital camera, your headphones, your smartwatch… And the reason you have so many is because they are not interchangeable, and this small exercise works for many other objects of our everyday life.
This is the reason why we need interoperability to leave the sphere of the immaterial, to go from a principle in software creation to a necessity in hardware production. As Isabelle Delannoy describes (L’Economie symbiotique, Actes Sud – Domaines du Possible, 2017), interoperability could become a fundamental rule of industrial components. Instead of buying a product, we would be buying the parts of a product, with the ability to change the some of them without changing the whole. If you have ever broken the screen of your smartphone and tried to repair it, you may have balked at the sight of the bill. At that price, why not buy an entirely new smartphone?
Interoperability could apply to a lot of everyday products, from our computers to our cars. If we only need to change one small part of an object instead of buying a new one and tossing the old one in the bin, it would help improve our ability to repair and reuse the numerous appliances that surround us, but it would also reduce the amount of resources we exploit.
This principle already exists, and its most notorious application is Fairphone, a Dutch company which aims to produce sustainable smartphone. One of the top selling-point of the Fairphone is the ease with which each of its components can be replaced if needed: the battery, the camera, the screen, the loudspeaker… According to tests, it takes around half-an-hour and between 30 and 90 euros to replace a defective part (On a testé… le Fairphone 3, le smartphone qui se veut éthique, N. Six, Le Monde, 2019). In short, you only need to buy the parts you need, nothing more, and what you obtain is the sum of parts your buy.
However, to properly serve interoperability, the Fairphone model would need to be extended to entire industries, each building its own norms in accordance with related sectors.
The new commons
Interoperability, as a means to unlock a more sustainable economic model, requires companies within a specific industry to work together and to agree on their own norms. These norms may evolve, to keep up with innovations, but they need to form an agreed upon base for all organizations. These norms, accessible to all and shared with everyone, will form the new commons.
As Nobel Prize laureate Elinor Ostrom states in her book Governing the commons (Cambridge University Press, 1990), there are 8 rules to define a common: clear group boundaries, governance rules matching local needs and conditions, the insurance that those affected by the rules can participate in modifying them, and that the rules will be respected by outside authorities, an official system to monitor members’ behaviour, a set of graduated sanctions for rules violators, accessible and low-cost means for dispute resolution, and shared responsibility for governance through the entire interconnected system. These principals can, and have already been adapted to software governance around the world, with figures such as Richard Stallman, who launched the concept of copy-left.
The copy-left concept developed by Stallman defines free software as software that everyone and anyone can use, copy, modify, but to which no one can add any restriction. This would also apply to the norms that birth interoperability: available for everyone to use, protected from anyone who would wish to prevent others from accessing it. The standards of interoperability would be the new commons of each industry, a common ground that every organization would nurture and defend, develop and regulate.
This may sound like a utopia, but the truth is, a certain level of interoperability already exists in some fields, in some ways. All telephones work together, after all, and you are able to call whomever you want, no matter the operator or the phone they use. As a musician, I also know that almost all instruments, microphones, mixing tables and amplifiers can be connected with one another thanks to 6.5 jack and XLR cables. What is keeping us from taking interoperability one step further?
- S.R. Ray, A.T. Jones, Manufacturing interoperability, Journal of Intelligent Manufacturing, 2006
- J. Manyika et al., The Internet of Things: Mapping the value beyond the Hype, McKinsey Global Institute, 2015
- I. Delannoy, L’Economie symbiotique, Actes Sud – Domaines du Possible, 2017
- N. Six, On a testé… le Fairphone 3, le smartphone qui se veut éthique, Le Monde, 2019
- E. Olstrom, Governing the Commons, Cambridge University Press, 1990
- R. Stallman, The GNU project, accessed on 26/03/2021
- Link up with Adélie Conan-Nguyen via LinkedIn
- Read this feature and others in Global Voice magazine special issue #18
- Read a related article – Social Accounting: Measuring sustainability
- Discover the ESSEC Business School Master in Management (MiM), ranked 3rd in the world by the FT in 2020.
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