What is the place of digital in the ecological transition? Some answers with Daniel Kaplan, co-founder of FING/Imaginizing the Future.
A virtuous digital sector is (maybe) possible
In response to the question “can digital technology help us protect resources?” there is currently little doubt: no, it cannot. Not so much because it consumes resources itself, without seriously considering their lifecycle (although this is, of course, the case), but mainly because it is the symbol and central tool of an economic system completely founded on the acceleration, rapid obsolescence and concentration of all business indicators concerning the creation of shareholder value. Can it be any other way? Yes, but not without intent and significant change.
Going beyond the limits, integrating the limits
Fundamentally, the technological perspective expressed by digital solutions is, first and foremost, about pushing boundaries. Either crossing them or knocking them down to find an infinite source of energy, go beyond scarcity, dematerialise, “live for 200 years”. And because this is the way desire works, every boundary that is knocked down opens up the view of the next one in line.
The environmental, or resource, perspective, on the other hand, asks us to integrate limits: contain (ourselves), reduce and, of course, link up the components of systems that are intended to be as enclosed as possible.
The circular economy supported by digital technology aims to reconcile these paradoxes and is, so far, failing. Why? Because in an economic system entirely focused on profit, everything that is dematerialised, eco-designed and “circular” is analysed in terms of productivity gains and is immediately reinvested in the creation of new products and in the growth of production and consumption.
Alternative digital technology?
If we are to find new solutions, we need to expand our view of digital technology beyond its IT function (to create efficiency that is reinvested in growth) and capacity for dematerialisation that, in reality, simply shifts materiality.
The diverse forms of the collaborative economy provide an interesting solution to the necessity of meeting demand and reducing environmental impact. Although studies play down their environmental benefits, they do at least show that they can exist. This economy can also relate to energy itself, as suggested by several projects that aim to boost not only local energy production but also energy exchange through the peer-to-peer models for which internet was originally designed. This is the vision of economist Jeremy Rifkin, experienced in France by the Hauts-de-France region through Rev3, an initiative that fosters a more sustainable, connected and collaborative economy at a regional scale. Or the Dutch energy cooperative Qurrent, which provides low-cost green energy to its community members.
On an even bigger scale, we now know that the autonomous electric vehicle will only have a positive environmental impact if it is widely shared (rather than owned) and if it is part of both a multimodal mobility network and a decentralised system of energy distribution and storage.
The comeback of “commons” in the political and economic debate is led by players from the digital industry and the environmental sector. Both identify what is needed and try to implement it, sometimes on a huge scale (the mapping database Open Street Map and its applications, for example, showing roof orientation data on Open Solar Map or documenting biodiversity).
A common feature of these practices is to involve “consumers”, often through very small acts (use of a shared vehicle) and sometimes in a more involved way (crowdfunding a solar park, measuring air quality, managing a community garden). Digital technology can help tackle the constant challenge of the environmental cause, the perceived disconnection between individual acts and global interactions. And the field of Civic Tech, these technological tools for civic engagement and participatory democracy, is working energetically to reconnect people through collective action.
Apart from these “commons”, there is another way of preventing efficiency or shared gains being wholly reinvested in further growth: inventing other forms of value measurements. One such example is the revival of “alternative currencies”, on which digital platforms heavily reply. Many of these currencies explore virtuous lifecycles of value: some lose value over time, others provide an alternative value to exchange (e.g. based on time or the number of objects exchanged, independently of their monetary value). It is from these fragile springboards, or even in the cracks between them, that a fertile connection between digital technology and environmental concerns can be built.
Discover the point of view of Alysia Garmulewicz, CEO of Matterscape and Professor of High Tech Entrepreneurship.