It’s hard to imagine life without the internet. We buy clothes and groceries online and organize our daily routine, banking transactions, and social contacts online. Even our supply systems – from smart homes and smart grids to smart cities – are being thoroughly digitized. It seems that establishing digital technologies in all areas of life has become a matter of course. At the same time, urgent societal challenges of our time demand a solution: Social justice still seems a long way off, both on a global and local level. Ecologically, various planetary boundaries are already being exceeded. This means that the ecological system will reach its capacity limits if humanity continues to emit as many greenhouse gases, wipe out species and waste raw materials. In the Global North in particular, absolute resource consumption levels must therefore decrease significantly, emissions by even 90% in the countries of the Global North. Digitalization raises hopes of helping to tackle these challenges, as it is considered innovative, efficient and disruptive. But how needs digital transformation be designed to really promote environmental and social transitions that lead to steep reductions in resource and energy use?

Digital does not automatically mean sustainable

Research on digitalization and its manifold implications for social justice and environmental integrity has been gaining momentum in recent years. Digitalization itself has an ecological footprint. The seemingly small devices of our day-to day life such as smartphones and laptops only appear lightweight at first glance. Its production however, is exorbitantly resource- and energy-intense. Additionally, the operation of the gadgets as well as the digital infrastructure beneath it (communication networks, data centers etc.) keep consuming resources.

As more and more digital devices and applications are in use, the sector’s overall electricity use today already accounts for 10% of the global demand.

The main potential of digitalization for greater environmental protection arises in other areas of consumption and production through process monitoring and control, by substituting physical goods with digital ones, or by facilitating new and resource-light social practices. There are many examples that show how digital tools and applications contribute to decreasing resource consumption. For instance, the Corona pandemic has shown the enormous environmental potential that lies in the transformation of work, e.g. by reducing travel through telework or teleconferences . Machine learning can be a tool in reducing greenhouse gas emissions, e.g. through helping facilitate cleaner production. And digital technologies can help sustaining a stable supply of (renewable) energy. Through accessibility and traceability, open data not only help protect our environment, but enable democratic participation in general on a much greater extent.

On the other hand, analyses show that current forms of digitalization rather accelerate conventional economic growth as well as social inequalities while environmental costs outweigh environmental benefits. In addition to increasing resource consumption by the digital sector, existing power imbalances are worsening, a new precarious digital working class has emerged, and data-driven business models pose a huge problem for privacy and consumer protection.

Researchers, unite!

The vision of sustainable digitalization does not come automatically. Rather, the need for societal and political action to reshape digitalization is becoming increasingly clear. Promising policy proposals that consider both social and environmental sustainability goals are still needed. Science has a major role to play here in analyzing existing conditions and complex interrelationships (systems knowledge), formulating and reviewing societal visions (goal knowledge), and elaborating governance options, funding structures, or regulatory proposals (transformation knowledge). Yet, this needs a truly collaborative and interdisciplinary approach rather than a narrow expert view. To achieve real change, more co-production of knowledge within the scientific community but especially across sectors and with policy makers, civil society and tech industry is needed.

What are core elements and guiding principles of sustainable digitalization that contribute to deep sustainability transformations, and how can these be implemented? These key questions stand in the center of the dialogue project “Digitalization for Sustainability – Science in Dialogue” (D4S). D4S has established a European Expert Panel consisting of 15 renowned academics and practitioners, who represent a variety of tech, transformation and sustainability communities. With this cumulated knowledge, D4S will follow a progressive vision for a sustainable digitalization, deliver comprehensive analyses on risks and opportunities, develop design principles and policies, and outline an inter- and transdisciplinary research agenda for the next decade.

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