Introduction to economic sustainability reference model

6 Oct

This post is the revised introduction to the draft reference model, joint work between Brian Lavoie and myself.

 Draft 3

Much of the information that society produces and consumes today is in digital form, with an increasing proportion existing solely as digital information throughout its life. Digital content and technologies confer many advantages, but also introduce new and grave risks that threaten the long-term availability of valuable digital assets. There is a growing understanding that threats to the persistence of digital assets are often economic rather than technical in nature. Economic risks arise from the problems of allocating scarce resources to sustaining digital assets.

The literature on digital preservation tends to focus on actions once digital assets move into an archive. When considering the economic sustainability of digital assets, it is important to look at the whole economic lifecycle of the assets. There are critical stages in the lifecycle of many digital assets where the economic risks can become very significant. Because of the need to think about economic risks to digital assets throughout their lifecycle, this docuent uses the term digital curation rather than digital preservation. Digital curation involves maintaining, preserving and adding value to digital information throughout its lifecycle[1].

Until recently, the economics of digital curation was a neglected topic in the literature. This gap was filled by the final report of the Blue Ribbon Task Force on Sustainable Digital Preservation and Access (BRTF), Sustainable Economics for a Digital Planet[i]. This report explained how achieving economic sustainability is complicated by the difficulty in coordinating benefits, incentives to preserve, and roles and responsibilities across the community of stakeholders attached to a particular set of digital assets. The report provided a wealth of findings and recommendations to assist decision-makers in thinking through the issues associated with achieving economic sustainability in regard to their own digital preservation activities.

In imagining ways to build on the foundations established by the BRTF report, an obvious path forward is to translate the concepts, findings, and recommendations of the report into a resource that is of practical value to economic decision-makers. Such a resource should help them discharge their responsibility of building sustainability strategies for their digital curation activities. The report, in its original form, is a lengthy narrative that requires a significant investment of time and effort to fully digest. It is also pitched more at the strategic level in terms of understanding the key issues of economically sustainable digital curation. It would be useful  for a successor to distil out the most essential concepts and reformulate them into a practical, “on the ground” guide for practitioners designing a sustainability strategy for a digital curation activity.

This paper lays out a reference model for economically sustainable digital curation. It defines the notion of a sustainability strategy; highlights the key concepts planners must take into account when designing that strategy; and enumerates the kinds of economic risks that the sustainability strategy should defend against. The reference model also includes an economic lifecycle model that assists in thinking through sustainability issues over the complete lifecycle for digital assets. The reference model aims to be domain-independent, and therefore applicable across a wide range of digital curation contexts.

A sustainable digital curation activity requires sufficient resources to achieve its long-term goals over the complete digital lifecycle. This reference model is intended to be a tool to aid planners in building, clear,  persuasive arguments to help unlock those resources. It is not a cost model, or a taxonomy of business models. It is a way for planners to organize their thinking about the features of the digital assets, stakeholders, and the digital curatorial process that shape the economic risks impacting a given digital curation activity, and in doing so, design remedies to overcome these risks and maximize the prospects for achieving economic sustainability. It focuses not just on cost, but also value to society over the long term, emphasizing that the true metric for a project’s economic viability is not merely its cost, but the expected value returned net of costs. A difficulty is that while many of the costs will be real, financial costs, much (although not necessarily all) of the societal value will be non-financial. The problem of keeping resources flowing to meet those costs then changes to convincing the decision-makers who control those resources of that societal value. A successful sustainability strategy must address all of these elements if it is to be compelling enough to attract resources.

Because these economic sustainability decisions are made by people, with their own values, background and opinions, there can be no certainty that a sustainability strategy built using this reference model will be successful, or will continue to be successful even if it succeeds at first. Libraries, archives or other services that seek to manage digital assets in the long-term public interest must therefore pay continuing attention to the value their collections can unlock for society, and ensure they collect and can present persuasive evidence of that value.


[1] Adapted from the definition by the UK Digital Curation Centre http://www.dcc.ac.uk/digital-curation/what-digital-curation


[i] BRTF-SDPA. (2010). Sustainable Economics for a Digital Planet: Ensuring Long-Term Access to Digital Information. (A. Smith Rumsey, Ed.). San Diego. Retrieved from http://brtf.sdsc.edu/biblio/BRTF_Final_Report.pdf

[Update: Up to Table of Contents

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