• Albert Sanchez-Graells

Digital Technologies, Public Procurement and Sustainability: Some Exploratory Thoughts

Digital technologies’ potential to revolutionise public procurement governance, as well as the public administration more generally, was recognised by the European Commission in its 2017 Strategy ‘Making Procurement work in and for Europe’. According to the Commission: ‘New technologies provide the possibility to rethink fundamentally the way public procurement, and relevant parts of public administrations, are organised. There is a unique chance to reshape the relevant systems and achieve a digital transformation’ (at 11).

In the same document, the Commission also stressed the strategic potential for public procurement to be used to promote (more) sustainable public consumption, in particular concerning environmental sustainability. The Commission stressed that: ‘A smart use of public procurement can help tackling global challenges such as climate change and resource scarcity … It … accelerates the transition to more sustainable supply-chains and business models’ (at 13).

Bringing both strategic goals together, in a recent working paper entitled Digital Technologies, Public Procurement and Sustainability: Some Exploratory Thoughts’ (2019), I reflect on the way in which digitalisation can foster more sustainable public procurement, in the EU context. However, given the functional analysis, I submit that my findings are of relevance to practitioners and policy-makers beyond the EU context.

At the outset, it may be worth stressing that digital technologies are immature and, consequently, the hype and level of investment (diversion) that they are receiving seems to me somewhat disproportionate. It has thus been rightly pointed out that a (more) critical look at their potential is necessary, in particular in relation to public sector use cases – cfr OECD (2019a).

In order to carry out such critical revision, I take a functional approach to the analysis of the potential of different digital technologies (of which there is a useful catalogue in OECD (2019b), Annex C). From that perspective, my premise is that:

  • Artificial Intelligence (AI) is particularly apt for the massive processing of data (big data) and for the identification of patterns and correlations that could escape human analysis, as well as for the implementation of data-based machine learning (ML) solutions and the automation of some tasks (robotic process automation, RPA)

  • Blockchain is apt for the implementation of tamper-resistant/evident decentralised data management

  • The Internet of Things (IoT) is apt to automate the generation of some data and (could be?) apt to breach the virtual/real frontier through oracle-enabled robotics

Given that most implementations supported by AI (or even blockchain) rely on the existence of high quality data, I stress that creating an adequate and enabling data architecture should be the absolute priority for policy-makers seeking to facilitate the deployment of digital technologies (for sustainability, or any other goals) (which, not coincidentally, is another of the strategic priorities of the European Commission, as discussed in my earlier paper ‘Data-driven procurement governance: two well-known elephant tales’ (2019) 24(4) Communications Law 157-170).

Zooming in on the applications of digital technologies for sustainability purposes, I speculate that AI can make significant contributions (where sufficient data is available), such as through the implementation of:

  • Sustainability-oriented (big) data analytics

  • Development of sustainability screens/indexes

  • ML-supported data analysis with sustainability goals

  • Sustainability-oriented procurement planning

Moreover, where it is possible to specify clear rules/policies, there is scope for:

  • Compliance automation

  • Recommender/expert systems

  • Chatbot-enabled guidance

Conversely, I submit that there is extremely limited scope for blockchain-based applications, including smart contract deployment and IoT-enabled oracles, mainly due to the permissioned nature of public sector blockchain use cases, as well as basic transaction cost analysis of smart contracts and their limited off-chain functionality.

Finally, I also raise the important point that the sustainability of digital technologies themselves must not be overlooked or come as an afterthought. Indeed, I stress that, while there are emerging guidelines on procurement of some digital technologies, such as AI (UK, 2019) (WEF, 2019), these are extremely technology-centric. However, sustainability considerations may require eg an earlier analysis of whether the life-cycle of existing solutions warrants replacement. Pursuing technological development for its own sake can have significant environmental impacts that must be assessed.

The interaction between strategic procurement goals, such as (environmental) sustainability and digital technologies will likely only increase in the future. Thus, I hope my exploratory thoughts can inform future policy-making and research agendas.

Albert Sanchez-Graells – University of Bristol Law School

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