Sustainable development, emerging technologies: can international standards make a difference?

Photo Alan Bryden / General Mining Engineer, former Secretary General of ISO, the International Organization for Standardization (2003-2009) / May 29th, 2014

Sustainable development mantras are all over the world, but change is slow to come. While the international negotiations in the context of the UN Framework Convention on Climate Change have not shown much progress, international standards suggest a less visible, more influential and pragmatic way to impulse change. In recent years a set of tools has been developed to address the interrelated challenges of climate change, energy, water and nutrition. In an increasingly global economy, could they make a difference?

ParisTech Review – Would globalization be possible without standardization?

Alan Bryden – Probably not. Economists often insist on traditional barriers to trade, such as tariffs and custom duties. It is true that those obstacles had to be lifted first. But one should not underestimate the impact of technical differences. If you want to sell a toy, a car or a seed in the EU, it has to comply with specific technical regulations and product standards. The regulations and standards vary from one country to another, and having many of them, to quote the World Trade Organization, “makes life difficult for producers and exporters.” This is the reason why as early as foundation of the WTO in 1995, an Agreement on technical barriers to trade prescribed the use of international standards.

Thus standardization is necessary to the ongoing development of a global economy. But the need for standards also reflects this development. Mergers and acquisitions in the corporate world have resulted in the emergence of giant multinational companies, ready to invest, supply, produce and sell on a global scale. They could hardly operate without international standards.

Besides global companies, who is interested in the elaboration of international standards?

The elaboration process involves numerous actors, representing various stakeholders with diverse points of view. Technical standards are not just a business matter. They have also been developed for purposes of public health, safety, or to protect consumers and workers as illustrated by the EU’s approach to technical harmonization. Large companies and business organizations have their word to say, of course. But so do governments and, increasingly, NGOs. The International Organization for Standardization (ISO), which is the largest organization, works with over 700 different international and regional partner organizations. For over 30 years it has had a Consumer Policy Committee (COPOLCO) where action and priorities are discussed with the involvement of consumer organizations, both at national level and with Consumers International, their international federation.

International standards are based on a double level of consensus: amongst stakeholders and across countries. Relying on an open, documented and iterative production process, they combine the contributions of national experts with regional and international inputs, through the mechanism of liaison.

Information and communication technologies developments and web-based tools have greatly contributed to speed up the dissemination and promotion of international standards. But they have also facilitated their elaboration.

ISO collaborates closely with the two other leading international standardization organizations, the International Electro-technology Commission (IEC) and the International Telecommunications Union (ITU). Theses three organizations offer a consistent collection of some 30,000 international standards, an increase of over 30% in ten years.

Is this increase just incremental?

The scope of standards has extended from technicalities (interoperability, measurement and test methods, data formulation, processing and exchange, performance standards), which still represent the bulk of publications, to management and organizational issues, as well as to service standards and conformity assessment practices. Practically all technical and economic activities are now covered.

For instance, an area of growing involvement of the international standardization system is that of health services and technologies. This is a major area, both in developed countries where health expenditure may reach some 10% of the GDP and for the developing world in order to achieve the UN Millennium development goals. International standards are therefore developed at three levels. First, the overall management of the health system, with health informatics as a key instrument to support and optimize national health infrastructures; second, the management of hospitals (e.g. management of sterilization), medical laboratories and of the design and production of medical equipment; and third, the technical performance and safety characteristics of medical devices, including telemedicine.

The ongoing activity of international standardization is a reflection of the topics which require international collaboration and solutions. For instance, standards have been developed to ensure consistency in emerging technologies such as the smart grid, the electric vehicle, nanotechnologies, data processing, data centers and more generally, information and communication technologies, energy efficiency and renewable energies.

Some of these new topics can be related to the concern for sustainable development. Is it just because most emerging technologies deal with this subject?

No, it reflects a deeper trend. In recent years the scope of international standards has progressively been extended to support the three dimensions of sustainable development: economic growth, environmental integrity and social equity.

This trend partly reflects a political evolution: non-governmental organizations tend to consolidate and act at a global level. But NGOs are not the only incentive for the increasing presence of sustainable development objectives in international standards. Some financial scandals in the past decade have put pressure on companies and governments to improve and highlight their social responsibility, for which the process and publication of the ISO 26000 standard have been illustrative of the need for international guidance and harmonization in this respect.

The publication of this standard has been the successful conclusion of a remarkable endeavor to reach an international consensus on this complex issue. Some 99 countries, along with 32 international and regional organizations participated in this venture, which led to the overwhelming adoption and publication of the standard in 2010. It has now been adopted as a national standard in more than 60 countries and serves as a reference to most leading international social responsibility initiatives such as UN Global Compact, as well as having positively involved the International Labor Organization.

In this new and struggling “global village,” international standards have never been as topical, as they provide tools to address the new paradigms of the world economy. Sustainable development is not just a mantra. It requires technical and managerial tools.

Let us have a look at these tools…

Let us have a look – but first let us remember the stakes! The recent report of the Intergovernmental Panel on Climate Change has confirmed the prospect of a +4°C global warming of the atmosphere and oceans by the end of the century if the current trend is maintained. While the formal international negotiations have not shown much progress, it is however encouraging that most countries have put in place policies providing for environmental and energy efficiency measures, be it only for their own sake and because these measures make sense economically and socially. It has also become clear that not only climate and energy issues are related, i.a. because of the impact of the use of fossil energies on the green house gasses emissions, but that the use of the water supplies and the development of agriculture are also related issues (e.g. bio fuels vs. food, floods or, on the contrary, droughts related to changes in the climate, biomass production and water efficiency).

International standards provide tools to implement many of these measures: terms and definitions, metrics (energy performance, insulating materials, green house gasses emissions accounting and verification, environmental and energy labeling), design, with eco-design of products, energy performing buildings, management. One should mention the ISO 14000 series for environmental management, with some 286,000 certificates valid in 167 countries in 2012 (+9% over 2011), or the recently published ISO 50001 on energy management which has had a very encouraging start.

Innovation is part of the sustainable development equation. How do standards provide support to relevant new technologies?

Innovation is not just invention. An invention is the act of creating something new. But successfully disseminating this novelty is crucial, and this is what innovation is about. The dissemination of innovative products and solutions may be dependent on interoperability, on convincing potential clients on their performance and reliability, as well as on the creation of completely new offer and demand markets. International standards clearly support such objectives and allow a global market reach.

Such standards have been defined to facilitate and speed up the development of many technologies: the smart grid, the electric vehicle, solar, geothermal, marine and wind energies, bio fuels and use of biomass, carbon capture and storage, combined heat and power production or intelligent transport systems. Concerning water quality and management, ISO has published many standards, including for drinking water and sewage services’ management activities.

International standards set clear, precise and thus useful indications. But they may also provide a holistic approach, which is crucial in the case of disruptive technologies. Think of hydrogen technologies, nanotechnologies or, more recently, biotechnologies, carbon capture and storage, biomimetics or additive manufacturing. In these new, emerging fields, it is essential to enable innovators to agree on what they are talking about, measure it and assess societal impacts. This is why technical committees have been set up to address the aspects which may be subject of standards, such as terminology, taxonomy, measurement methods, performance, safety or environmental aspects.

Sustainable development is not just about technology, it is also a state of mind. Can standards deal with this?

You can’t expect standards to change people. But still, they shape our behavior, especially in some formalized activities. They provide tools to support and facilitate customer-supplier relations and to communicate to the public at large. Within large companies, you have processes, reporting, assessment – you have rules. This is where standards can help.

The toolbox of international standards relating to design and management practices is suited to assess and address environmental and social impacts (e.g. health, safety, ergonomics). We are talking of social responsibility here, but this is also a business matter. Adopting these standards may increase the market acceptance and it should definitely reduce risks of failure or delays in the marketing of innovative products and services. It enables to reduce design and marketing costs.

It is thus a way to implement a sustainable development culture at the very level where it can make a difference: companies. Indeed, any organization should assess the various risks related to its activities or its environment to which it is exposed, and develop adequate responses and measures. In the past ten years, ISO has developed a whole range of tools and solutions to assist organizations in so doing.

The very idea of quality seems to be at stake…

Indeed. Quality is at the heart of standardization and it is the key asset to access world markets. It is also the very word that can help us embrace the new stakes, since the very concept of quality is evolving nowadays. International standards have both followed and triggered the switch from the quality of goods to the quality of processes and quality management.

ISO-Certified-Co-Logo-BlueThe continuing success of the ISO 9000 series of standards on quality management is directly related to the need to create confidence at world level between customers and suppliers. The certifiable standard, the now well-known ISO 9001, has followed the evolution of good practices in this area since its first edition in 1987. The current version resulted in the award in 2012 of over 1.1 million certificates in 184 countries. The fifth version is under development and should be published in 2015. It should enhance more clearly that it applies to both products and services (currently, over 1/3 of ISO 9001 certificates relate to services) and should incorporate some elements on the assessment of risks associated to non-quality.

You are talking of risks. Couldn’t we define sustainable development as a new culture of risk, including systemic and long-term risks that had not been taken into consideration before?

Definitely. And risks are at the very heart of many recent standards. Traditionally, standards are particularly relevant when it comes to information and safety of consumer goods, as well as to safety and hygiene in the working place. But in the last 15 years standards started to embrace wider risks, and specific standards were design to deal with specific hazards.

First are to be considered collective risks, for which a specific ISO technical committee on societal security was created in 2001, as a response to the tsunami in the Indian Ocean which underlined the need for a common approach to emergency preparedness and business continuity. ISO standards have since then been published on these two issues (ISO 22300 series).

Then, a generic series on risk management for an organization has been published, providing tools for defining objectives, analyzing, assessing, ranking and treating risks (the ISO 31000 series). These management standards may draw upon a longstanding collection of standards covering specific risks, such as electrical, electromagnetic compatibility, medical, food safety, logistics, information security, safety at work, consumer safety, etc.

More recently, ISO has embarked on other issues of interest to citizens at large, such as road traffic safety management, smart communities or fraud countermeasures and controls. Quality management standards are even percolating in public governance issues: ISO has just published two standards on implementing ISO 9001 in local governments (ISO 18091) and in electoral processes (ISO/TS 17582).

Isn’t there a limit at this point?

Of course, the very idea of what is a “good management,” especially in public service, may differ from one culture to another. But this should not prevent us for trying to set up some common tools. Generally speaking, the need to reconcile a global approach with a multi polar reality is, in itself, both a threat and an opportunity for the international standardization system. Various challenges can be identified.

First, international standard organizations should continue to increase their own “user friendliness,” accessibility and synergies, both for the increasing number of users of standards worldwide, and for the more than 100 000 experts who contribute to their content and to the consensus building process.

They also must continue to promote a higher involvement in their governance and technical work of the big emerging economies belonging to the G20 countries and, more generally, pursue joint programs to raise awareness and increase the capacity of developing countries to contribute and take up international standards to support their own economic and social transformation.

Third, they should strengthen the links with the new and expanding galaxy of NGOs developing sustainability standards, which, associated with labeling and certification schemes, have a growing audience in the public and on the market.

International standardization organizations may also take stock of the growing need for international standards relating to services and ensure adequate connections with the service industries. The retail and insurance industries, both prescribers of requirements on products and equipment, should be priority targets, as well as networked services related to infrastructures, such as transport, energy and water distribution or telecoms. ISO has undertaken to intensify its involvement with the financial sector, in order to go beyond the technicalities of this industry.

I have no doubt that these challenges are, and will continue, to be addressed by international organizations. Companies big or small, governments and public services, NGOs will increasingly find in the collection of international standards solutions to improve their competitiveness, ensure their sustainability – and, so doing, exercise their social responsibility, which is their individual contribution to the sustainable development of the planet.

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