Sustainability strategy draft 1

2 Sep

This is a guest post by Brian Lavoie of OCLC, my partner in the Sustainability Reference Model project. Brian is doing all the heavy lifting!

Sustainability Strategy (version 1)

Digital curation activities adopt a technical strategy to orchestrate the technical processes and workflows needed to maintain the long-term accessibility of digital materials: e.g., redundant storage, regular media refreshment, format migration scheduling, and so on. In the same way, a digital curation activity must develop a sustainability strategy to orchestrate the economic factors necessary to ensure that the activity is provisioned with adequate resources to meet its long-term curation goals.

A sustainability strategy is a plan that organizes the key entities associated with long-term sustainability – i.e., digital assets, the curation process, and stakeholders – in such a way that the curation activity becomes a sustainable economic activity. A sustainable economic activity is one that each of the five sustainability elements set forth in the BRTF definition of economic sustainability:

  • Recognition of benefits
  • Process of selection
  • Appropriate incentives to act
  • Appropriate organization and governance
  • Mechanisms to secure ongoing, efficient allocation of resources [BRTF Report, p.12]

Achieving sustainability requires planners to take into account the properties of digital assets, the curation process, and stakeholders, and align them in such a way that each of the sustainability conditions is addressed. The result is a sustainability strategy (see Figure XX). It should be noted that a successful sustainability strategy is not one that guarantees long-term economic sustainability. Regrettably, such a strategy does not exist. Instead, a successful sustainability strategy is one that maximizes the prospects of achieving sustainability by cultivating a thorough understanding of the conditions in the economic environment relevant to the five sustainability conditions.

Figure XX: Sustainability strategy

Sustainability Strategy diagram

Ideally, the nature of the Digital Assets, Curation Process, and Stakeholders associated with a particular digital curation activity would be such that something akin to an “off-the-shelf” sustainable strategy would be available for use: i.e., some standard mechanism by which the activity could be assured that it was following “best practice” for achieving long-term sustainability. Unfortunately, the reality is quite different. The properties of the three entities often represent a conglomeration of conditions that can operate both to promote or to discourage sustainability. And since the nature of Digital Assets, the Curation Process, and Stakeholders will differ from context to context, whether one considers a “class” of curation activities (e.g., research data curation) or a specific activity (e.g., a particular research data archive), this implies that planners will need to think through the conditions relevant to their particular context and design a sustainability strategy that is the best fit (or at least a reasonable fit) for those circumstances. It is the purpose of this reference model to aid in that thinking.

So in reality the design of a sustainability strategy will first need to account for the properties of the Key Entities as they manifest themselves in the context in question (see Key Entities/Properties section); next, the implications of these conditions for meeting the five sustainability conditions must be considered, and in particular the key risks that arise in meeting those conditions must be identified (see Economic Risks section); given the economic risks identified, remedies must be sought to overcome or at least mitigate them (see Economic Remedies section); and the result is a sustainability strategy that fits the circumstances of the particular digital curation activity in which it is expected to operate. This is what we mean by a sustainability strategy in the reference model (see Figure XX).

Figure XX: The sustainability chain

Sustainability chain

It is important to emphasize again that any sustainability strategy is necessarily an approximation, in the sense that it cannot guarantee long-term sustainability for the digital curation activity. Not all economic risks can be identified or foreseen; for those that are identified, not all of them can be resolved or mitigated. Moreover, solving some problems may only be possible through trade-offs. For example, restricting access to paying users in order to strengthen incentives to contribute to a digital curation activity may also have the effect of diminishing the value proposition for curation, since the benefits from curation would be distributed over a smaller user base.

Planning a sustainability strategy is an ongoing activity. No sustainability strategy is likely to remain effective without alteration indefinitely. Planners must be alert to changing conditions in the economic environment, and be prepared to re-evaluate, adjust, or even completely re-design the sustainability strategy as needed.

Take-away points:

  • A sustainability strategy orchestrates the Key Entities in order to ensure a curation activity has sufficient resources to meet its long-term goals.
  • Achieving sustainability means meeting the BRTF’s five sustainability conditions.
  • To design a successful sustainability strategy, planners must understand the properties of the Key Entities; identify the key economic risks associated with the properties; and identify appropriate remedies to address the risks.
  • No sustainability strategy is perfect; it can only maximize the prospects of achieving sustainability, not guarantee it.
  • A sustainability strategy must evolve as conditions evolve.

Brian Lavoie

[Update to add links


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