April-May: Special Issue “Shaping a Sustainable Digital World”

The digital transformation our society is currently undergoing affects many areas of public and private life. Technological progress has great potential for improving living conditions, but entails also a number of risks. In the light of other megatrends, such as climate change – and the associated negative consequences for people and the environment – it is crucial to actively shape digital change in line with environmental goals. With its commitment to the Agenda 2030 for sustainable development, Switzerland has given itself an important orientation framework. To provide additional guidance, the Federal Office for the Environment (FOEN) commissioned a study from the Bern University of Applied Sciences Business School (BFH W). The study assesses the opportunities and challenges which digitization presents for the environment and points out several areas where there is a need for action. The main results of the study will be summarized in the article “Digitization and the Environment: Opportunities, Risks and the Need for Action” by Flurina Wäspi. As the study calls  for collective action involving government, the private sector, and civil society, an online workshop will be held on 8 May 2020 (register here soon), bringing together stakeholders from various fields. Together, we will tackle the question how digitization can be put at the service of the environmental goals. This special issue of SocietyByte prepares the terrain by gathering various contributions and ideas how we can go about to shape a future that is not only digital, but also sustainable.

The new coronavirus has obliged us to change plans and to move the conference, which was originally to be held in Bern, to the virtual space. This is one of the many examples by which digital technologies help us alleviate the effects of the pandemic, while at the same time limiting the environmental impact of our activities. The environmental effect may not be particularly strong in the case of a Switzerland-wide conference, but it is certainly so in the case of all the international conferences and gatherings that are currently being moved to cyberspace.

While the difficulties of the health sector and the imminent economic downturn are currently eclipsing burning environmental issues, the COVID-19 pandemic also has the effect of shedding a new light on various issues that we will need to address in order to alleviate the effects of the environmental crisis that is menacing our societies: 

  • How do we raise awareness for environmental issues and arrive at timely and effective collective action that is supported by a large majority of the population? To what extent are we able to implement collective action at the international level in order to address global challenges?
  • How are we and our institutions able to cope with situations in which production and consumption levels are reduced? – Today, we inadvertently find ourselves in a large-scale degrowth experiment. It confronts us not only with the question of what our vital needs are, but provides insights into how our institutions would need to be adapted if we want to set ourselves free from the imperative of economic growth that is largely responsible for the degradation of our environment.
  • The current crisis serves as a demonstration of the interconnectedness of our societies and the intricacies of international value chains. The same methods that are used to trace supply chains and to design them in a way to allow for redundancies can be used to trace our ecological footprint and to take concerted action to reduce it at the source. After all, this is just another area where we need to start thinking global and acting global.
  • When facing large scale environmental hazards, data exchange across organizational borders is a must. As the Swiss authorities have demonstrated over the past weeks, the potential of digitization is far from being used to the extent possible. And, as current grassroot initiatives show, there is a large potential for community-sourced innovation in the area of data-driven services that help us cope with environmental hazards. Open data by default is the new imperative. It should be adhered to by all government agencies.
  • Data collection by the population at large may help us respond to certain societal challenges. The issues of data governance that are currently being surfaced and brought to the attention of our governments are the same that need to be addressed if we want to leverage the power of citizen-sourced data to resolve other pressing environmental issues. It is already apparent that COVID-19 plays the role of a catalyzer accelerating the societal debate in this area.
  • And last but not least, the current crisis teaches us a lesson in humility: When it comes to environmental hazards, humans are not in the driver’s seat and no one is safe from harm. What applies to the virus also applies to other environmental issues such as climate change, declining biodiversity, etc. – Apparently small changes in our environment may have considerable systemic effects that may turn our lives upside down. Our level of preparedness may not be on a par with the risks we are taking. Naïveté, chauvinism, and the focus on short term economic gain are poor guides when it comes to averting environmental hazards. 

This enumeration may not be exhaustive, and it is certainly too early to draw definitive conclusions from the current crisis. But it provides some ideas how COVID-19 may spur our reflections with regard to possible measures in the five priority areas identified by the BFH study that could help us shape a sustainable digital world:

  1. Circular economy: How to use digital technologies to improve the environmental balance of the products we consume? How to increase the lifespan of electronic products and to improve their recyclability? 
  2. Sufficiency: How to disincentivize environmentally harmful behaviour and consumption?
  3. Efficiency: How can digital technologies be employed to improve the energy efficiency of a variety of processes?  
  4. Transparency of costs and materials: How can digital technologies be used to enhance the transparency with regard to the ingredients, the origin and supply chains of products we consume? How best to avoid unwanted effects of digital technologies?
  5. Data exchange and data governance: How to enhance the sharing of environmental data across organizational boundaries? How to ensure data protection and informational self-determination in the area of environmental monitoring.

Join the discussion by participating in the online workshop and by contributing your ideas on the accompanying online Policy Kitchen platform!

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AUTHOR: Beat Estermann

Beat Estermann is deputy head of the Institute Public Sector Transformation at BFH Wirtschaft, where he coordinates the specialist group "Data & Infrastructure". He has been dealing with Linked Open Data issues for several years in the context of research projects and consulting mandates on behalf of public authorities, memory and cultural institutions.

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