Theorizing stakeholders of sustainability in the digital age
Stakeholder theory, originally introduced in 1984 by philosopher Edward Freeman, is among the most influential theories today addressing the complex interplay of societal actors. It underwent several transformations and expansions, but the original Freeman model as well as the latest approaches places the corporation at the center positioning the theory as management driven. In this article—from a sustainability science perspective—we argue that sustainability could also be considered as the center, around which societal actors are grouped, because everyone, individuals as well as stakeholders, have a stake in a ‘common future’ that is built on the transformative concept of sustainability. Next to this shift of perspective from corporation to sustainability at the center, we advance the concept of sustainability stakeholders with the new paradigm of the digital age we (are about to) live in: the proposed sustainability-centered stakeholder theory is developed to incorporate novel parameters as brought about by digitalization (such as big data, real-time transparency, algorithmic correlations, predictive analytics, or changing privacy standards). Hence, we classify the stakeholders of sustainability according to their roles as “big data stakeholders:” collectors, generators, and utilizers of big data. This digital sustainability stakeholder model operationalizes the complex interplay between stakeholders focused on their ‘stake’ in sustainability and a common future and illustrates their roles in the digital age. Thus, it offers a normative framework to analyze stakeholders’ responsibility to contribute to, advance, promote, and achieve sustainability.
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