Digitalisation presents new opportunities for socio-ecological transformation, but it also harbours a multitude of risks: Will digitalisation become a driver of energy and raw material consumption? Will digitalisation create new social inequalities? The interrelationships between digitalisation and sustainability remain insufficiently researched in many areas. Furthermore, it is often unclear how the potentials of digitalisation can be used in practice to create a more sustainable society. This is why the researchers working on the "Digitalisation and sustainability transformation roadmap" project are investigating which factors and framework conditions are key for driving a sustainable digital transformation and how political actions can be geared towards ensuring the potentials of digitalisation are used to the full. The project is characterised by its collaborative approach, whereby various stakeholders in sustainability research, as well as those in the digital community, business, civil society and everyday life are involved in the research process. The project will be funded by the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conversation and Nuclear Safety (BMU) and jointly led and executed by the Institute for Futures Studies and Technology Assessment (IZT) and the Wuppertal Institute. The IZT will be responsible for coordinating the collaborative project.
Although the consequences of digitalisation for sustainability are extremely mixed, it does present new opportunities. On the one hand, global electricity and resource consumption are increasing as a result of digitalisation. In just a few years, according to the estimates of the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU), the digital industry could cause more global CO2 emissions than private vehicles. On the other hand, digitalisation is also capable of supporting more sustainable lifestyles and economic practices by replacing air travel with virtual meetings, for example, or using intelligent control systems to make more efficient use of materials in production processes, and by combining electricity from multiple decentralised sources to create virtual power stations. At the same time, digitalisation alters the way in which people and organisations communicate with one another and organise themselves. This influences the future conditions for the way in which we will act in society, business and politics.
"The interrelationships between digitalisation and sustainability still remain insufficiently researched in many areas. Frequent reference is also made to the potential of digitalisation for greater sustainability – but how this can be put into practice in specific fields of application often remains unclear. Fundamental knowledge about the interdependencies, along with a clearly defined focus and potential courses of action are lacking in many cases," stresses Kerstin Fritzsche, Research Director for Digitalisation at the IZT (Institute for Futures Studies and Technology Assessment).
The new "Digitalisation and sustainability transformation roadmap" research project aims to close these gaps, with the researchers developing the knowledge relevant for acting and decision making in politics, business and society. One important starting point is the Digital Policy Agenda for the Environment of the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU). The project will incorporate and expand on the Agenda’s strategic fields of action to create new research topics. Dr. Stephan Ramesohl, Co-Director of the Digital Transformation Research Unit in the Wuppertal Institute’s Circular Economy Division explains: "Innovative interdisciplinary and transdisciplinary approaches will be used to specifically look at previously unconsidered interrelationships and interdependencies relating to digitalisation, and new perspectives resulting from emerging developments and issues will be explored."
The "Digitalisation and sustainability transformation roadmap" project at a glance
The researchers involved in the project have set the following objectives:
The project will be jointly led and executed by the IZT and the Wuppertal Institute. The IZT will be responsible for coordinating the collaborative project. Throughout the course of the project, the Federal Environment Agency (UBA) will collaborate closely in its role as a departmental research institution focusing on environmental policy.
It will be funded by the Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety (BMU) according to a ruling by the German Bundestag. The BMU will be financing the project from May 2020 to April 2023 as part of the following funding line: Artificial intelligence measures: "AI lighthouse projects for the environment, climate, nature and resources" (funding codes: 67KI2073A and 67KI2073B).
The digital agenda for the environment of the BMU, which was unveiled in March 2020 and received scientific support from the Wuppertal Institute, has defined important cornerstones and guidelines for the political transformation of sustainable digitalisation. However, at the same time, the unprecedented innovation dynamics of digitalisation are constantly generating new issues and far-reaching, often highly unforeseeable implications. The agenda’s mission is to identify these new challenges and opportunities, and spawn fields of innovation and courses of action for the socio-ecological transformation of the economy and society. It comprises more than 70 specific measures and represents the first ministerial strategy in Europe that systematically combines digitalisation and environmental protection.
Joint press release
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