Sustainability + digitalization: another “im-possible” equation?

sustainability and digitalization

Last December I had the pleasure of being a speaker in the webinar “Digitalization in business processes that support sustainability & economy of means” organized by ISPE international. It was a stimulating opportunity to reflect more deeply on the relationship between Sustainability and Digital and how to do more than we are doing right now.

One plus one must do not two – or worse less than two, as we human beings sometimes manage to achieve – but… at least three! This equation “im-possible” Sustainability + Digital = ? has become the leit motiv of my speech and I share it here, hoping to open a debate on these issues also in Italy.

To start facing two such challenging topics with a smile, even if a little bitter, I borrowed an illustration proposed by Professor Mark Maslin, during an enlightening Masterclass of “The Guardian” on the climate crisis that I had the opportunity to follow at the end of 2022.

Look at these waves: each poses a threat to humans, if not for their survival, at least for their well-being.

  1. Covid-19 pandemic: Millions of people have died from covid since the beginning of 2020. Estimates from many sides, also counting the induced causes, lead to 21-28 million (source The Economist). The latest news from China makes us think that it is by no means over, but this is another topic.
  2. Recession: the long global economic crisis of the 10’s of the second millennium, not to mention the war on Europe’s doorstep of last year, have together exacerbated critical situations of poverty, hunger, migration and social tensions.
  3. Climate change: scientists have predicted for years that the effects on the climate of human actions would have an exponential trend, but most of us are only now noticing it. In fact, some still do not believe it.
  4. Collasso della biodiversità: una riduzione con una intensità senza precedenti della diversità della vita animale, ma anche vegetale – e di quest’ultima si parla troppo poco – essenziali entrambe per la prosecuzione della vita sulla Terra, non solo la nostra.

Every wave is a threat, concrete, looming, that we do not want and do not like to see. The pandemic is only the first, perhaps the smallest, and we would have liked the solution to be simple. But we could not expect to stay in our beautiful and comfortable homes and, as the cartoon used by the English professor suggests with cold British irony, hope that everything would go well simply by washing our hands carefully!  

In general, but even more so today on climate change and loss of biodiversity: washing hands, that is, not acting, is not enough for everything to go well and in general we can no longer “wash our hands of it”.

Success against covid-19

We must acknowledge – and with pride – that our industry and the entire ecosystem have not stayed home doing nothing during the pandemic. We certainly washed our hands but we did not “wash our hands”: many of us in various capacities have spent theirself tirelessly to fight covid-19 with what is was available to research, produce and get a new vaccine to a number of people never seen before. All with timing that seemed impossible: less than a year, compared to the 10-15 years we needed in the past. And we succeeded, with great determination because the lives of millions of people were at risk.

Of course, there have been huge investments, from the public and private sectors, an exceptional collaboration between all the players in the sector, but also a lot of intelligent use of new technologies and digital. We cite just a few examples among many: artificial intelligence (AI), machine learning and advanced modeling – in the “dry labs” – to be faster in the discovery phase. In the pre-clinical and clinical phase: AI to identify the best testing models and increase their effectiveness in a predictive way, and software solutions to reduce redundant operations. In the development and production phase: digital twins to anticipate what could happen and a lot of IIoT, integration, plant intelligence and visual inspection, all aimed at promoting “right first time” and quality and thus be faster.

In short, a concrete example of how the human being can accomplish missions, and make equations impossible, possible. The drug industry with vaccines really made 1+1 = 3. So why not achieve similar results with another impossible equation, that of sustainability?

Environmental, social and economic sustainability

Sustainability, undoubtedly a mega-trend today, is a term widely used and even abused, but not fully understood and internalized by all citizens of the world. If we say sustainability, we immediately think of “green” issues, but it is much more and the implications are wider.

Analysts such as Gartner provide us with the following definition of sustainability: “it focuses on products, services, enterprise and supply chain and seeks to optimally balance organizational performance and outcomes between economic, environmental and social criteria on all time scales”.

Put it simply, it is the “economy of means” that they proposed to us as a theme for reflection in the title of the ISPE webinar mentioned at the beginning. It suggests in fact living in well-being but with as little as possible, frugally, carefully managing resources, starting from those in our homes to large industrial realities and the whole planet, so as to make them last as long as possible.

Already in 1972 the first report of the Club of Rome was published, precisely with regard to the growth of man on earth and its non-sustainability – understood in the broad sense mentioned above: it launched a lucid anticipatory warning, bringing objective data and well-founded predictions – unfortunately later confirmed – on the dangerous effects of the road taken by human beings, based on unlimited material growth in an Earth with clear bio and geophysical limits.

In 2015, thirty-three years later, the United Nations finally launched a program with 17 “Sustainable Development Goals” to be achieved by 2030. It contains “green” themes but also many other faces of sustainability: no more irresponsible consumption, poverty, inequality, inadequate education, and no respect for diversity. It was finally a strong, albeit belated, invitation to 360-degree action, addressed to people, organizations and businesses around the world, to address together three areas of critical importance, the 3 Ps: the social aspect – People – the environmental one – the Planet – and the economic one – Profit.

Recently, the Club of Rome launched a new great initiative and printed an incredible book entitled “Earth for all” ( We finally discover that those luminaries had seen right and that we are now facing an imminent danger that requires us to act with speed, courage and determination.

Another impossible equation? To make it possible, as for covid-19 vaccines, important funding and renewed collaboration at a global level will be needed, but technological innovation and digital can also play their part.

Three degrees of digital maturity

Let’s begin clarifying three of the many terms we see used around digital and report definitions that I find particularly effective, as well as some concrete examples from our life science world.

  • Digitization: it is the use of digital for the conversion of information into a format readable and usable by a computer. An example among all: I scan the procedures and from the paper I bring them to a PC. We call it “paper on the glass”: it adds value, but little, because it is really only the first step towards the opportunities offered by digital.
  • Digitalization: is the use of digital to support, adapt and improve existing business processes. An example: a change process in the field of quality assurance that is guided and improved through a software application integrated with other company systems, used by multiple users who also act in parallel and who can then monitor its progress with a simple “click”, obtain reports and statistics. A nice use of digital, but it’s not enough!
  • Digital Transformation: the use of digital to create new business models with processes that could not have existed before and really transform our companies to provide new opportunities and new value. An example: ‘apps’ on mobile devices that guide patients and help improve the treatment compliance of a drug or medical instrument. A creative use of digital, potentially disruptive and with enormous potential.

As you have well understood, digitization, digitalization and digital transformation represent three very different stages of maturity of digital use and have an ever-increasing return in terms of value, for the user of the digital solution and for all stakeholders. Too often we hear about it: our company is all digital and the returns are not so obvious.  But it depends on what digital means and how it was made: the important benefits come only with a good maturity of the solutions.


Let’s see now what would happen if we put together digital and sustainability. We do this with the help of the theories developed starting from 2020 by S. Gupta and other authors, who have begun to think about the convergence for the industrial sector between sustainability and digital. And they came to create the new concept of “Digitainability” = sustainability + digital. This leads to greater efficiency, reduction of time and costs, increase in quality, compliance, health and safety and risk reduction, but above all create new models to support sustainability: the true digital transformation mentioned above. The creative use of digital to create value that we did not even aspire to before.


A 2021 research by U. Lichtenthaler, “Digitainability: profiting from the combination of digitalization and sustainability” developed a conceptual framework that considers digital and sustainability as two dimensions and identified four different situations according to the level of digital and sustainability. Not particularly surprising that most companies are still in quadrants with at least one of the two dimensions at a low level of initiatives. If they have sustainability plans, they still focus mainly on financial goals and above all they still use analog tools to achieve them. Only in the fourth quadrant at the top right we find a limited number of companies that, thanks to the high joint strategic focus between digital and sustainability, realize new opportunities for “digitainability”; these are strategic initiatives combined with operational measures that demonstrate benefits in terms of value creation for the entire business and social ecosystem.

Let’s see two examples, among the many possible, of concrete applications of digitainability and it will be clear to us how it is possible to achieve more than the individual addenda can make it seem.

  1. Sustainability by design : It is about designing our factories and offices from the outset with digital virtual models – and why not homes, schools, roads, cities and even our fields and gardens – in order to reduce safety risks for workers and citizens but also improve environmental and economic impact. Think, then, if we also provided virtual reality training to everyone and in the end we were all “more aware”, what enormous advantages we could have.
  2. Sustainability predictive & performance metrics: It’s about collecting data, turning it into information, analyzing it to look ahead with modeling and simulation tools to decide in advance what to do in case of variations or anomalous trends and identify correlations so far “invisible” (to the human eye and mind) of energy consumption, production of pollutants and waste. Above all to inform and warn, and again make the worker/citizen more aware – with clear indices and simple but impactful messages, even on mobile phones and smart watches – on emissions, waste, CO2 impact, water and energy consumption, social impacts and health and safety.

We have to experiment, we will find obstacles and we will be discouraged, but in the end we will find solutions.  Let us act quickly, with courage and determination, as the Club of Rome suggests. As citizens, we support economic, social and environmental policies that lead to greater awareness and the necessary investments. As workers of an industrial ecosystem that has shown that in the face of a challenge like that of the pandemic an im-possible equation can be solved, let’s not settle for a lack of digital maturity and go further.

Let us not wash our hands of it. We do not wait for an even bigger wave to overwhelm us: in synergy with all the other possible initiatives, we fully use the potential offered by digital with confidence and rationality.  1 + 1 must do 3 also – and especially this time – in the field of sustainability.