Digital for Sustainability - Workshop Report from the World Resources Forum 2017


As part of the World Resources Forum 2017, held in Geneva on October 24-25, Ladeja Godina Košir moderated the workshop titled Digital Sustainability: In need for a disruptive Research Agenda, organized by Innaxis Research InstituteTexelia AG, and Circular Change. To know more about the exciting discussion on digital tech and sustainability, read the report below: 

“Digital Transformation” is the buzz phrase of the day. Since the 1980s an explosive growth has happened in Information and Communication Technologies (ICT), inducing concepts such as disruption, dematerialization and zero marginal costs which created the belief that digital tech will contribute to the achievement of low resource consumption.

During his introduction to the workshop, Carlos Alvarez Pereira (President of Innaxis and CEO of Texelia) presented the overall challenges regarding the turn that the current developments of ICT are taking. In particular, the lack of research focusing on the relationship between digital tech and sustainability was stressed. He emphasized that the myth of the ICT revolution having a tremendous positive impact as an instrument of sustainable development has to be debunked. Figures show that GHG emissions induced by digital tech are growing at a pace of 6% per year, which is the fastest growing rate of all sectors. Digital tech related waste production is growing 2 to 3 times faster than any other source of waste. Unfortunately, recycling rates are low and are reaching only 10% to 15%. Even worse the recycling rate is only 1% for rare earth elements, an indispensable component for the production of so many digital artifacts. Moreover, energy consumption linked to digital tech is becoming huge and will increase in the coming years with the introduction of energy-intensive endeavors such as Blockchain and Artificial Intelligence.

The presentation highlighted the ultimate goal of sustainability, namely enabling societies to achieve high levels of well-being with a low footprint. However, as current figures show, the supposedly claimed disruption of ICT will not be sustainable and “green”, nor will it be a positive disruption for humanity. Undoubtedly we are set on a development path causing acclaimed solutions of today to become the problems of tomorrow.

The discussion during the workshop covered a broad range of topics related to the issue. One of the core interests of the discussion was the role of initial framings regarding technological innovation and its application. The following comment from a participant is synonymous with

what has to be considered: “If (the company) Uber is an answer, what was the initial question?”  Hence what kind of initial questions are addressed during the development process of technologies? Innovation is never neutral and reflects nationally established research strategies which are supported by governmental investments. The myth that Silicon Valley innovations and industries emerged without governmental subventions has been disproven by Mariana Mazzucato and her analysis of the predominant role of state funding for high-risk investments in digital technologies are not to be dismissed. Innovation strategies reflect as well a particular organization of society, certain implicit values, interests, and economic goals. In this sense, the role of integrating sustainability in the initial design, having a design on purpose approach is essential to gear them to address the challenges humanity is facing. Participants stressed that very often current innovation strategies create so-called “solutions” but the problem they would address still needs to be created, which frequently is conceptualized by a marketing department aiming to push further for unneeded materialistic consumption.

Consequently, the role of regulation has to be discussed, in particular, the neutrality of it and the issue of timing. Innovation outcomes are generated by experimentation but at some point, incentives are required to route the innovation in a certain direction. Further research would enable to better determine the best timing and scope of these incentives. However, silo-ed and non-dynamic approaches of regulation have contributed to reinforcing unintended negative consequences. Participants raised the issue of those incentives capable of reproducing social power structures and their inability to go beyond simple modifications, as they are incapable to push for deep societal transformation. Furthermore, incentives put in place lack reactivity to embrace rapid change. Regulators and governance structures, in general, need to be capable to cope with the emergency and be able to handle the speed of ICT developments.

Participants stressed that the active participation of all stakeholders would be key to reap the benefits of ICT for the common good, in order to co-create together in an “innovation democracy” environment. All innovations may have negative consequences, whether they be high resource consumption, data privacy or algorithms biases, therefore processes need to be put in place that has the capacity for absorbing risks of (un)intended consequences. The integration of social innovation and co-creation processes has been stressed as being a mean to cope with negative consequences before they are even produced.

Finally, the dichotomy of the positive versus negative approaches regarding digital tech have been discussed and the necessity to foster public dialogues which integrate experts and non-experts as being essential, as the issue is too important to be discussed outside of the public sphere. The integration of social sciences in order to achieve approaches beyond techno-centrism was stressed by the participants as being a key feature for a systemic and transdisciplinary research approach for the subject.


Main conclusions:

The discussion and lively debate that resulted within the workshop participants reinforced the idea that initiating a research agenda integrating a systems approach and introducing the complexity of the issues is needed. The framing of technological development and innovation has to be carefully analyzed and evaluated and this must be at the core of initiating a novel research agenda. Unconventional and perhaps inconvenient questions have to be asked, in order to be able to go beyond hyped assumptions. Systems based approaches, integrating the complexity of the issue on a societal, environmental, economic and governmental level will enable to truly put digital disruption at work for humanity. Innaxis and its partners will continue the dialogue on this issue in order to build up a collaboration of interested parties for setting-up an engaging research agenda, followed by the elaboration of concrete project proposals to be submitted to specific funding institutions.

Tin and Iza