The digital transformation is changing our world profoundly – in social, economic, and political dimensions. Hence, the digital transformation has to be actively managed to leverage digitalisation as a driver of sustainability rather than aggravating social and ecological crises.
Digital technologies can support sustainable development and open up so far untapped potentials in many areas, e.g. to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and resource consumption. At the same time, however, the ecological drawbacks of digitalisation are becoming increasingly evident due to the rising environmental impact of information and communication technologies. The growth-driven economic model of industrial societies is receiving an additional boost, while at the same time the constraints and rules of economies are changing under digital platform capitalism. Moreover: digital data flows, differentiated access to data and a new type of discourse are changing the fundamentals of coexistence in democratic societies dramatically. The emerging challenge is to steer the current digital transformation towards sustainable development for society and politics.
Above all, digitalisation can achieve its full ecological potential where it can fundamentally change our current way of life. Cultures of consumption, business patterns and production methods, or the organisation of energy systems, cities and transport can be improved towards resource protection and energy efficiency. Accordingly, the socio-economic driving forces and impact conditions of digital solutions must be put at the heart of transformation. They emerge from an interaction of different technologies – they result in and are the roots of individual, social, organisational, institutional and commercial innovations. Therefore, the digital transformation offers a powerful toolbox for the Zukunftskunst: a future literacy, associates technological with economic, political and cultural changes and thus also provides orientation in the current crisis).
Understanding the upcoming digital solution space is key for (pro-)actively steering the digital transformation towards sustainability. Without doubt, unprecedented technology advances and innovation dynamics are driving digital change. The digital transformation, however, is more than a pure technology play. Their effect unfolds above by changing everyone's, due to new organizational procedures and work processes as well as business models and markets. Digital solutions therefore are essentially socio-technical innovations. And it is these communicative, procedural and organisational effects in the socio-economic sphere that ultimately change the economy, society and politics, turning digitalisation into such a profound formative power of the 21st century.
Digitalisation offers a great number of opportunities for reducing energy consumption, environmental impact and greenhouse gas emissions. Digitalisation also has an ecological price, however: the vast numbers of devices, data centres and communication infrastructures consume increasing amounts of energy and materials and contribute to climate change. Moreover, the use of critical raw materials in electronic devices is constantly increasing on a global scale. Resource consumption caused by the production of digital equipment and infrastructures is thus becoming an important aspect for sustainability. The challenge is to design devices and infrastructures in a way that is more efficient in terms of resources and energy, to rapidly ensure the supply of carbon-neutral electricity from renewable energy sources and to plan the sites of data centres, in particular, with a view to optimising waste heat utilisation.
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 of the 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. The key message is: the megatrend of digitalisation is not necessarily taking over the economy and society in an uncontrollable way. Its impact depends on human behavior and on designing new processes in organisations, but also on modifying the regulatory framework. Against this background, it is important to develop awareness for the environmental impacts of the use of digital devices and target group-specific approaches for behavioural changes, as for example demonstrated in the Lifestyle@pro-Climate project for young people.
Political governance of the digital transformation is key and will decide whether digitalisation will accelerate social and ecological crises or provide a game changing toolbox for shaping a sustainable future - this is the clear-cut message of the Digital Agenda for the Environment of the Federal Ministry for the Environment (BMU), published in March 2020. The Agenda comprises more than 70 specific measures and represents the first governmental strategy in Europe that ties digital transformation closely together with environmental policies. During the development process the Federal Ministry for the Environment was supported by the Wuppertal Institute providing scientific advice.
The CO:DINA project is part of the action plan of the Digital Agenda for the Environment, aiming at connecting science, politics, civil society, and businesses for identifying new strategic options for putting digitalisation into the service of sustainability. CO:DINA explores new directions of research and develops system-oriented approaches for shaping the digital transformation. Building on target pictures of sustainable digital futures, the complex interdependencies of technology, society and politics are examined – revealing promising and yet untapped opportunities to act for stakeholders in politics, business, research and civil society.
By focusing on the creation and transfer of knowledge for sustainable transformations based on experimentation and co-creation of solutions, real-world laboratories (or living labs) take up a central approach of transformative environmental policy. Such experimental and participatory lab approaches are also suitable for meeting challenges of a sustainable digital policy. For example in the development of "social innovations," the organisation of exnovation, i.e. the phase-out for non-sustainable digital applications, the development of socially supported visions for digitalisation, the scaling of selected innovations or regulatory learning. As stated in a Wuppertal Report on real-world laboratories and digitalisation (in German), real-word laboratories can thus be seen as an important policy instrument of an environmentally-oriented digital policy.
In April 2020, the Wuppertal Institute launched a new podcast series "Zukunftswissen.fm", regularly addressing exciting themes of transformation and innovation for sustainability. The first series is centered around the topic of "Digitalisation and Sustainability". Dr. Stephan Ramesohl, Co-Head of the Digital Transformation Research Unit in the Circular Economy Division of the Wuppertal Institute, is discussing with experts from science, politics, business, and society the ambiguity of the nexus of digitalisation and sustainability. Many questions emerge: What are the promises of digitalisation, how to manage the challenges? Join and listen!
The digital transformation offers a unique opportunity to rethink environmental sustainability, social inclusion, green economy and, hence, shaping the future.
Research foci in the field of digitalisation are:
Here you find up-to-date information on research findings and activities in the field of digitalisation.
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Research in the field of digitalisation takes place in an inter- and transdisciplinary context. In the following you find selected sample projects. A complete list is available here.