Sustainability Strategy (revised)

20 Sep

This is a revised version of the Sustainability Strategy section in our draft of a Reference Model for Economic Sustainability of Digital Curation.

 Version 3.1

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:


  • Value: This condition simply requires some stakeholder or set of stakeholders to have a clear interest in the long-term curation of a particular set of digital assets. A digital curation activity is unlikely to attract funding – and thereby sustain itself – if no one is interested in the digital materials it is curating! But more than this, those that do have an interest in long-term curation need to be able to express that interest in compelling, specific ways. What kinds of valuable activities would be possible if the digital materials in question remained accessible over time? Or conversely, what kinds of valuable activities would not be possible if the materials disappeared?
  • Selection: One of the fundamental principles of economics is that resources are scarce; we usually cannot achieve everything that we might like to with the resources available to us. For digital curation, this means that the slogan “curate everything for all time” is a non-starter. The resources available for curation will always be limited, and therefore we must prioritize and make choices: to the extent we can, we must proactively select digital assets for curation that are likely to promise the greatest value through use over time. And we should also keep in mind that the process of selection works in two directions. In particular, we must be prepared to “de-select” curated digital assets when the value from continuing to curate them no longer justifies the cost.
  • Incentives: It is one thing for a stakeholder to articulate an interest in having ongoing access to a set of digital materials (see Benefits above). It is quite another for a stakeholder to step forward and accept responsibility for curation. Sustainable digital curation requires stakeholders that not only recognize the value of curation, but are willing to act to carry out the curation process. In short, there needs to be robust motivation or incentives to curate. Cultivating these incentives often means identifying and leveraging an institutional self-interest in curation: for example, curation as a business opportunity; curation as part of an institutional mission; curation as a means of fulfilling a mandate, and so on. Often, curation involves stakeholders with differing incentives to curate; these incentives need to be orchestrated over the full digital life cycle. For example, a media company may perceive a revenue incentive to curate a digital movie over a limited period while the asset has economic value. When this period expires, mechanisms need to be in place to transfer the asset to another institution with a different curation incentive, such as a library or archive.
  • Resources: Naturally, no discussion of economic sustainability is complete without talking about resources. Curation activities, like any other activity, require sufficient resources to achieve long-term goals. Meeting this condition often boils down to developing mechanisms to transfer funding and other resources from those who benefit from and are willing to pay for digital curation, to those who are willing to provide curation services. There is a variety of market and non-market mechanisms for doing so, such as pricing models, compulsory fees or taxes, volunteer efforts, and philanthropic donations. Whatever mechanism is chosen, it must support an ongoing flow of resources such that long-term curation goals can be achieved. But it is not enough to simply make resources available for curation. These resources should be used as efficiently as possible. Efficiency in this sense does not mean cutting corners, but rather getting the most value out of the resources allocated to curation. For example, we should strive to leverage economies of scale by spreading costs over higher volumes of curation activity. We can also attempt to leverage economies of scope by spreading costs over different yet related services: e.g., locating curation and end-user access services on the same repository platform.
  • Organization/governance: Economic sustainability also requires that planners choose an appropriate organizational form for digital curation activities. A variety of organizational forms are possible: for example:

o      An organization with no private interest in curation curates on behalf of others (e.g., a third-party curation service provider)

o      An organization with a private interest in curation curates on behalf of itself and others (e.g., a research library)

o      An organization with a public mandate to curate on behalf of society (e.g., a national archive)

To the degree there is discretion to choose, an organizational form for curation should be chosen that is appropriate given the conditions prevailing in a particular context. In addition to an appropriate organizational form, a good governance mechanism is needed to ensure that curation goals are clearly articulated, a strategy is formulated for achieving these goals, curation responsibilities are appropriately allocated, and metrics and benchmarks are in place to evaluate outcomes.

A sustainability strategy is not unlike the perhaps more familiar concept of a business plan. According to Wikipedia, a business plan is a “formal statement of a set of business goals, the reasons why they are believed attainable, and the plan for reaching those goals.”[1] In the same way, a sustainability strategy articulates a realistic set of curation goals (that is, goals which address the Benefits condition, tempered by the limits imposed by the Selection condition) and the means for achieving them (including Incentives, Resources, and Organization/Governance). Like a business plan, a sustainability strategy functions like a roadmap in helping decision-makers move curated digital assets smoothly across the economic lifecycle. A sustainability strategy may be more generalized, potentially expressing both value and costs in different (non-monetary) terms. However, for the particular case where a sustainability strategy is built on expected revenue, the sustainability strategy could collapse into a business plan.

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


At first glance it might seem helpful if the nature of the Digital Assets, Curation Process, and Stakeholders associated with a particular digital curation activity  were  such that something akin to an “off-the-shelf” sustainable strategy  was  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.  However, the reality is quite different. No two digital curation contexts are likely to be exactly alike. One reason is that stakeholders (and by extension, curation decision-makers) are humans, who will make judgments based on perceptions of value and cost. 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 properties for meeting the five sustainability conditions must be considered, and in particular the key risks that arise in meeting those conditions must be identified and remedies sought to overcome or at least mitigate them (see Economic Risks section). The result is a sustainability strategy that fits the circumstances of the particular digital curation activity in which it is expected to operate.

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

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