Sustainable digitalisation – the challenge of our time

Sustainability and digitalisation are two of the biggest buzzwords in our society right now. Together, they constitute a key field of research with great potential.

We communicate differently today than we did just a few years ago. Information can be called up anywhere at any time; robotics and autonomous systems change the way we work from scratch. Smartphones and tablets have become an indispensable part of our everyday lives.

Welcome to digitalisation.

But today’s technological progress also has its price. Newer smartphones, for example, are replacing older devices at regular intervals. The outdated models end up in drawers all too often. Just recently, researchers at the University of Plymouth demonstrated again how valuable smartphones are by grinding a mobile phone in a mixer and analysing the contents of the phone. The result: various precious metals and a colourful cocktail of critical raw materials.

Smartphones only make up a small part of global electronic waste. A total of 44.7 million tons of e-waste were generated worldwide in 2016 – the equivalent of almost 4,500 Eiffel towers. Only 20 percent of this was recycled.

That’s another dimension of our digital world.

Is digitalisation green?

The examples above show that digitalisation is not really sustainable so far. Another one: our global energy demand, which is already enormous today and continues to rise. “The rapid growth of the cloud and our use of the internet produced a collective electricity demand that would currently rank in the top six if compared alongside countries," says Greenpeace’s Clicking Clean report. According to the environmental organisation, the demand for electricity is expected to rise by 60 percent by 2020 as the online community and its trust in the Internet grow.

Economic focus of the digital revolution

This development is not surprising. The digital era is also called the “Fourth Industrial Revolution (4IR)”. It’s about new technologies and – apart from the individual effects – it’s a lot about economic factors, like innovation gains, generation of new sales and value growth opportunities. It’s about a higher productivity and increased efficiency in processes. In this sense, efficiency improvements are crucial for reducing resource consumption. But efficiency does not always mean sustainability.

If products or services are created with less energy or using fewer resources, the improved efficiency often also has an effect on costs. When prices fall, demand will usually rise – a classic rebound effect. The additional demand due to an increase in productivity will lead to the reversal of the intended purpose to save energy. Economic cars, for example, lead to a more frequent use of the car and less travel by public transport or bicycle. As a result, the potential efficiency gains are often not achieved in practice with  the product being used more frequently or more intensely.

Rebound effect: a long-known problem

The concept isn’t new. It was already mentioned as early as 1865. At that time the English logician and economist William Stanley Jevons wrote in “The Coal Question” about the progress of his nation and the probable exhaustion of the coal mines: „It is wholly a confusion of ideas to suppose that the economic use of fuel is equivalent to a diminished consumption. The very contrary is the truth.”

Although this has been discussed in economics since 1980, rebound effects are still not taken into account in most energy and climate protection studies and policies, says a publication of the The Wuppertal Institute for Climate, Environment and Energy.

Sustainability through digitalisation

But the digital age also has great potential for sustainability.

Smart homes, for example, optimise energy consumption at home, food-sharing apps reduce food waste and intelligent transport systems guide traffic through cities with fewer emissions. In “The Digitalised Sustainable Society” Ina Schieferdecker, director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Open Communication Systems (FOKUS), and Dirk Messner, director of the Institute for Environment and Human Security of United Nations University (UNU-EHS), take it one step further and say that “sustainability can only succeed in the Digital Age”. But, they continue, this requires the alignment of digitalisation with the goals of global sustainability and human development.

In order to achieve the UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) by 2030, Schieferdecker, who was also a member of the Green Talents jury 2015, says, digitalisation and sustainability must be considered together from the beginning.

The claim to sustainability research

That is easier said than done, however. Until now, sustainability scientists and digital pioneers have been researching in two separate silos with few connections between them, according to Schieferdecker and Messner. “We will have to rethink and refine the concepts of sustainable development and our notions of human development, as they are formulated in the Agenda 2030, for instance, where there is practically no mention of digitalisation,” they add.

One area where cooperation between the sustainability and digitalisation camps is needed is computer science. A few bright minds have already started going down this road, developing social computing methods that formulate guidelines for responsible IT management focused on humans, not machines.

Intense public discussions around the ethical questions of digitalisation have emerged in recent years. Now the results of this discourse need to be merged with sustainability research to bring about change. "But both [digitalisation and sustainability] can go very well together if it is properly managed and the political will is there at all levels," Schieferdecker says.



Scientists use a blender to reveal what’s in our smartphones

European Commission: Critical Raw Materials

The Global E-waste Monitor 2017

Clicking Clean: How Companies are Creating the Green Internet (April 2014)

The Coal Question: An Inquiry Concerning the Progress of the Nation, and the Probable Exhaustion of Our Coal-Mines by William Stanley Jevons

Wuppertal Institut für Klima, Umwelt, Energie: Der Rebound-Effekt: Über die unerwünschten Folgen der erwünschten Energieeffizienz (German)

Germany and the World 2030: The Digitalised Sustainable Society

United Nations: Transforming our world: the 2030 Agenda for Sustainable Development

Professor Schieferdecker @ Green Talents: Director, Fraunhofer Institute for Open Communication Systems FOKUS