By Carlos Alvarez Pereira (President of Innaxis and Steward of SDG Transformations Forum Innovation Working Group)
This blog was first published in the SDG Transformations Forum on May 2nd 2018 and was produced in partnership with the Royal Scottish Geographical Society.
The shift we need
Humanity faces a self-inflicted existential threat. To say it in a synthetic manner, we have to move fast towards High Well-being @ Low Footprint. Depending on which starting point each community has, this means different paths to achieve Higher Well-being @ Low Footprint, or Lower Footprint @ High Well-being.
Footprint goes of course beyond carbon to include the multi-dimensional consumption of resources. And well-being is not individual affluence; it encompasses how wealth is fairly distributed and the health of communities is restored and flourishes. Nowadays some processes certainly contribute to these goals, but the contrary also happens and overall the net balance is that we are heading fast in the wrong direction, increasing the chances of collapse and collective suicide.
The role of digital tech
It is trivial to say that the shift requires innovation. Curiously enough this leads to a strong hope that technological innovation will produce the shift or at least help greatly. In particular, the strong momentum of digital technologies is absorbing our attention. They are more and more influential in shaping our behaviours, as well as public and private agendas, through a series of metaphors such as ‘digital transformation’, ‘artificial intelligence’ or ‘big data’. They are attracting the enthusiasm of younger generations and the interest of investors.
But is the digital sphere contributing to reverse climate change, environmental degradation and the many unsustainabilities of human evolution? Is it making humanity more compatible with life at large and creating the conditions for better preserving it? This has been rarely investigated but chances are that digitalization is not working overall for sustainability. The digital industry itself consumes large amounts of energy and critical resources (coltan, rare earth elements, and others), and produces fast-growing greenhouse gas emissions (+6% per year) as well as a lot of damaging and scarcely recycled waste. And while digital tech can be used by other industries to promote sustainability and emissions abatement (eg, through energy efficiency), there is no systematic exploitation of this potential, which seems to be surpassed by the sector´s consumerism (1.5 billion mobile phones produced yearly). Not to speak about the increasingly debated implications of digitalization on mass unemployment, the growth of social inequalities, and the concentration of power in the hands of a few cyber-masters.
So, changes produced by digital tech in society do not seem to go in the right direction, and concerns are growing about their worst consequences. Maybe we need a different kind of digitalization? The debate is now hooked on mitigation strategies, such as the Universal Basic Income or taxes on robots to prevent the social consequences of automation. The reuse of technologies for purposes different from their original design could also play a role. But mitigation is not enough: we need to align the upstream processes of scientific inquiry and innovative design with our existential challenge, or they will continue to drift further towards unsustainability.
Digital technologies have an immense potential to help in the transformations we need. But today they are designed as self-referential ‘solutions’: as with blockchain now, every two years or so we get a new brand of hammers for which all of our problems look like nails. That seems a recipe for solutions of today to become the problems of tomorrow. At the same time, many individuals, researchers and practitioners are trying to make real the digital potential for sustainability. These are seeds of the ‘co-creation’ of desirable futures, a different kind of process recognizing the interdependencies in our relationship to the biosphere.
Co-creation could be a blueprint for the common good, involving all stakeholders in the responses to our societal challenges in an ‘innovation democracy’. And digital tech could help in multiple ways, also by facilitating the participation of citizens in new processes of discovery of what human progress could be, with the ultimate goal of sustainability.
The path forward
This vision is recognized but not yet mainstream. Many inconvenient questions have still to be asked, first among researchers and practitioners to create a stronger community of ‘Digital for Life’, second to institutions and the general public in order to change the agendas and create the conditions for those seeds to live and grow. Awareness about our relationship with the biosphere has been raised enough to create the SDGs. At the same time, science and technology were used in the last decades to create a new world looking very different from the old one but built on the same, not to say stronger, unsustainabilities. This is how ‘digital’ has been framed. But time has come to claim that Digital for Life is also possible.