The digital transformation is changing our world. This is why it 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 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 dramatically changing the fundamentals of coexistence in democratic societies. 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, and 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 at the heart of transformation. They emerge from the 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 Zukunftskunst: future literacy links technological changes with economic, political, and cultural changes and thus also provides orientation in the current crisis.
Understanding the coming digital solution space is key for (pro-)actively steering the digital transformation towards sustainability. Without a doubt, unprecedented technology advances and innovation dynamics are driving digital change. The digital transformation, however, is more than just a purely technological process. Its effects unfold above by changing everyone's behaviour through new organisational procedures, work processes, business models, and markets. Digital solutions are therefore 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. However, Digitalisation also has an ecological price: 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 data centre sites, 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 to global sustainable development? The Wuppertal Institute's InBrief paper entitled "Steering Digitalisation in the Right Direction – Key Points for Science and Politics" provides answers to this question. The authors advocate for more attention on the socio-cultural, organisational, and institutional environment of the digital economy. The key message is that the megatrend of digitalisation is not necessarily taking over the economy and society in an uncontrollable way. Its impact depends on human behaviour and designing new processes in organisations as well as on changing the regulatory framework. Against this background, it is important to raise awareness of the environmental impacts of using digital devices and target group-specific approaches to behavioural changes, as demonstrated in the Lifestyle@pro-Climate project for young people, for example.
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 closely ties digital transformation to environmental policies. During the development process, the Federal Ministry for the Environment was supported by the Wuppertal Institute which provided 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 to identify new strategic options for using digitalisation in service of sustainability. CO:DINA explores new research directions and develops system-oriented approaches to shaping the digital transformation. Building on target visions of sustainable digital futures, the complex interdependencies of technology, society, and politics are examined – revealing promising, 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 the challenges of sustainable digital policy. Examples include the development of "social innovations," the organisation of exnovation (the phasing out of non-sustainable digital applications), the development of socially supported visions for digitalisation, the scaling of selected innovations, and regulatory learning. As stated in a Wuppertal Report on real-world laboratories and digitalisation (published in German only), 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 called "Zukunftswissen.fm", which regularly addresses exciting topics of transformation and innovation for sustainability. The first series is focused on "Digitalisation and Sustainability". Dr. Stephan Ramesohl, Co-Head of the Digital Transformation Research Unit in the Circular Economy Division of the Wuppertal Institute, discusses the ambiguity of the nexus of digitalisation and sustainability with experts from science, politics, business, and society. Many questions emerge: What does digitalisation promise, how should the challenges be managed? Stay tuned!
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.
You find all scientific publications on our publication server:
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.