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 new potentials in many areas, e.g. to reduce greenhouse gas emissions and resource consumption. At the same time, 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 digitisation take to ensure that it contributes towards globally sustainable development? The Wuppertal Institute's of the In Brief entitled "Steering Digitalalisation 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 statutory framework.
How can the digital transformation be shaped in a climate friendly and sustainable manner? This key question gains increasingly importance and, thus, shall form a centerpiece of the political agenda. In March 2020, the German Federal Minister for the Environment Svenja Schulze and Prof. Dr. Manfred Fischedick, Scientific Managing Director of the Wuppertal Institute, jointly presented the Digital Agenda for the Environment of the Federal Ministry for the Environment (BMU) in Berlin. The Agenda comprises of more than 70 specific measures and represents the first governmental strategy in Europe that ties digital transformation closely together with environmental policies. The Federal Ministry for the Environment involved some 200 experts in the development process of the agenda, supported by the Wuppertal Institute providing scientific advice (in German).
In April 2020, the Wuppertal Institute launched a new podcast series "Zukunftswissen.fm", regularily 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 Research Unit Digital Transformation with the Division Circular Economy of the Wuppertal Institute, is discussing with experts from science, politics, business and society. No doubt that digital solutions provide answers to the challenges of the sustainability transformation and, for example will make important contributions to the energy transition and the rise of new mobility systems. At the same time digitalisation is aggravating ecological risks. Many questions emerge: What are the promises of digitalisation, how to manage the challenges? How to reconcile conflicts of data security and protection, energy and resource consumption and possible rebound effects? What is the role of regulation and policy making, where to focus? Join and listen!
The digital transformation offers a unique opportunity to rethink environmental sustainability, social inclusion, green economy and, hence, shaping the future.
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Research in the field of digitalisation takes place in an inter- and transdisciplinary context. Here you find selected sample projects.