Digital technologies are increasingly changing our day-to-day lives. Which direction should digitalisation take to ensure that it contributes towards globally sustainable development? The Wuppertal Institute’s latest edition of In Brief entitled "Steering digitalisation in the right direction – key points for science and politics" provides answers to this question. The authors advocate that more attention should be focused on the socio-cultural, organisational and institutional environment of the digital economy.
Digitalisation is in full swing. It is changing and shaping the world of the 21st century. With its newly-founded Digital Transformation Research Unit, the Wuppertal Institute is becoming more heavily involved in the political debate on the interdependencies between sustainable digitalisation and industrial transformation.
In May this year at the re:publica 2019 conference, the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU) presented the key points of its eco-political digital agenda and made recommendations on how digitalisation could succeed in an way that does not impact on the environment, the climate and nature. The right approach to dealing with digitalisation has thus arrived on the political stage and the transformation towards globally sustainable development has become a key task for policy-makers.
In its most recent edition of In Brief, "Steering digitalisation in the right direction – key points for science and politics", the Wuppertal Institute shows how the digital transformation can be designed in a way that is effective and adds value. Collecting and evaluating data on products and usage, materials and processes, for example, is the basis for innovative business models aimed at re-use, re-manufacturing and recycling in the circular economy. This is what recycling is dependent on and it only works if comprehensive information is available on the quality and availability of recyclates.
The authors of this In Brief article, Dr. Stephan Ramesohl and Dr. Holger Berg, both Co-Heads of the Digital Transformation Research Unit in the Wuppertal Institute's Circular Economy Division, emphasise in their research paper that digitalisation is most able to fulfil its potential for sustainability where it contributes towards making the necessary transformation processes possible or supporting their implementation. This applies to changes in the area of current lifestyles and cultures of consumption, economic processes and working methods as well as to the organisation of energy systems, cities and transport. Decentralising energy systems in order to supply power using renewable energy is not conceivable without a digital control system, for example.
"Digital technologies can support sustainable development and open up new potential for reducing greenhouse gas emissions and resource consumption in many areas," explains Stephan Ramesohl. Research funding and environmental policy are also required to put digital solutions that fundamentally change the system at the centre of their activities.
However, digitalisation also harbours risks, as author Dr. Holger Berg is aware: "The process of digitalisation is associated with increasing energy consumption, greenhouse gas emissions and the usage of materials for end-use appliances and infrastructures. These environmental impacts must be minimised as far as possible taking the planetary boundaries of global ecosystems into consideration. Energy efficient technologies and meeting energy needs using renewable energy are key components to achieve this goal."
Key points and conclusion
In the In Brief article, the authors make it clear that this megatrend of digitalisation is not necessarily taking over the economy and society in an uncontrollable way. Its impact depends on human behaviour and on designing new processes in organisations, but also on modifying the statutory framework. This socio-cultural, organisational and institutional environment of digital innovations can and must be shaped to ensure ecological sustainability. Policymakers are called on to take supportive action based on sound analyses. The authors therefore advocate that a sector-specific policy be developed for the digital economy, just as policies are already established for other sectors with environmental relevance – such as the energy, chemical and automotive industries.
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