Digitalization and Sustainability are major topics in our society. Often, I observe that the trends run in parallel to each other, almost isolated to one another. Read about how my WIFI-Hotspot kills my ecological footprint and why the societal impacts of Digitalization and Sustainability must be swirled into one another.
Imagine a Cold Tuesday evening in November. You are coming home from a long day at work. You are completely exhausted and eager to change clothes and spend a cosy evening on your couch while binge-watching your favourite show on Netflix. More specifically, what is your personal setup in your own four walls to access your favourite TV-show? Is it a TV-box providing you with all the channels you demand or a WIFI-Router enabling your Laptop to access the World Wide Web? Personally, I used to have both. While my TV-box streamed a good movie directly into my living room, my WIFI-Router made sure I had decent internet access on my smartphone, laptop or whatever device one might bring to the connected world. It has been for about 3 months that I got rid of all those devices – except for my smartphone.
But what about your internet connection
WIFI-Hotspot is my answer. If a cold Tuesday evening in November and a long day at work happens to myself, I activate the WIFI-Hotspot on my smartphone, giving Internet access to my laptop. Since watching Netflix on my laptop is not my preferred choice, I simply connect the former to my TV using a HDMI-cable (yes, my >7 year old TV does not provide a WIFI function), and off I go with a cosy binge-watching evening.
The personal typical Tuesday evening setup I just presented you leaves me with one single invoice to pay at the end of every month (unlimited data package from a national telecommunications provider), rather than stemming TV and/or WIFI-box connection invoices altogether. Economically, i.e. for my own budget, a great boost for savings, I admit. But this setup (Illustration 1) made me think about something else. Something that could outshine my economic benefits: Despite the savings, the daily and hours lasting WIFI-Hotspots destroy my ecological footprint!
Not only does the use of a hotspot lead to the fact that I have to charge my smartphone more frequently (or sometimes even constantly – e.g. when working several hours on my laptop), but also does it decrease the lifespan of my phone battery. In its Blog Does using mobile hotspot hurt your phone?, Mathew Blake points out that hotspots as I use them, can bring up several phone related issues (Illustration 2).
While the massive data usage (e.g. for streaming a movie on Netflix) can be avoided by chosing the appropriate subscription plan at the local telecommunications provider (e.g. Swisscom or Sunrise in Switzerland), a quick drain of the batteries life is unavoidable. This made me think. Not only will a decrease in my phone battery life lead to an accelerated need of purchasing a new phone, and thus downgrade my hard-won savings, but also have a negative impact on sustainability.
A risk of Digitalisation: The Rebound Effect
When it comes to the connection of Digitalisation and Sustainability, I instantly think of improvements to the latter, thanks to the former:
IKEAs popular catalogue will have its last run in 2021, the company decided to advertise more digital; The digitalisation of the global food supply chain does not only become more effective, but also more focused on reducing waste; and streaming music from Spotify puts the use of CDs to its limits.
Even personally I serve sustainability, using only my smartphone to connect to the internet, waiving all other electronic devices such as a WIFI-Router, right? Stopping here would leave me with a great forecast for the worlds future when it comes to sustainability. But diving a little bit deeper in the matter made me sceptical. Scrolling through literature about the connection of Digitalisation and Sustainability showed me that the interference of these two topics might not be as well established as I initially thought. As the TWI2050 (The World in 2050) report (2019) by IIASA, the United Nations University Institute for Environment and Human Security (UNU-EHS), puts it: “In the past one or two decades, digitalization has worked as an accelerator of economic processes that are still predominantly based on fossil energy and resource extraction.” It was at this point that I stumbled upon the Rebound Effect. In some way, it connects with my problem of hotspots killing my ecological footprint.
Put simple, the Rebound Effect describes a phenomenon where savings in energy consumption – and thus savings of economic value – are cancelled out by a change in behaviour (Illustration 3). Starting at a macro-economic level, an increase of efficiency in energy creation leads to production cost reduction, which results in lower prices and finally in higher demand. From a consumer perspective, the Rebound Effect can occur directly (using your newly purchased electric car more frequently and prioritize it over public transportation. Because why would one use public transportation if powering one’s electric car is cheaper and good for the environment?) or indirectly (the savings one makes from using an electric car are spent to book a flight to New York).
Let me rebound
So far you may have understood that not every process of digitalisation serves the purpose of sustainability per se. Coming back to my personal ecological footprint being destroyed by a daily WIFI-Hotspot, I am endangered of falling for the Rebound Effect in a direct and indirect way too!
First, the waiving of a more typical homebased Internet-connection setup (no WIFI-Router, no TV-box) forces me to decrease my phones battery life drastically, thus having to purchase a new one more frequently (direct). Second, the economic savings I make from paying only one single telecommunications invoice per month, puts me at risk to purchase other things (such as far-away summer holidays in 2021) that make my sustainability efforts rebound (indirect).
Never will I drive a self-driven electric car!
So, if using a WIFI-Hotspot wipes out great parts of my ecological footprint improvements, why should I ever purchase an electronic car which will lead to a similar result? I do not want to fall for the risk of using it more often (because it is self-driven and electric – thus great for the environment) and then discover my personal rebound effect by exponentially accelerating my energy consumption, even if it was created in a more efficient way. Is that really what the future looks like? Will most of the technological improvements change societal behaviour in a way that its potential benefits to sustainability are largely wiped out by a Rebound Effect?
When the Rebound Effect even backfires
Tamar Makov and David Font Vivanco in “Does the Circular Economic Grow the Pie? The case of Rebound Effects from Smartphone Reuse” (2018) had a look at Rebound Effects when it comes to smartphones in circular economies (CE), where key strategies focus on reuse and recycling. They found that the reuse of smartphones (i.e. selling your old smartphone) may even lead to a backfire effect (Rebound Effect > 100%), where consumers spend the earned money on new substitutes and therefore increase overall production – thus enhance environmental burdens (economic rebound effect: the more we save money, the more we have for additional consumption). They conclude that it seems clear, both from the literature and from our results, that CE strategies will increase the “circularity” of economies at the expense of growing the pie (…)”. So, what must be done to tackle those detrimental Rebound Effects, that seem to occur even in a CE where sustainability is highly prioritized? Go through the last paragraphs to find some suggestions.
Correction: My next car will probably be an electric car!
I am still driving my first ever purchased car, a Daihatsu Sirion. While the achievements in self-driving algorithms might take some more years, I forecast that my next car (in about 5-7 years) could very well be an electric car. Why do I contradict the title of the previous paragraphs? Because I strongly believe that society, governments, corporations and individuals will find a way to overcome most of the Rebound Effect. As the authors of the TWI2050 report (2019) put it: (…) the need for policymakers, researchers, companies, and civil society actors to intensify their efforts to understand and explain the multiple effects of digital systems and anticipate far-reaching structural change to create a basis for sustainability transformations.”
Focussing on sufficiency rather than efficiency
It is easy to say that things will work out, that our society will find ways to overcome harms to sustainability efforts such as Rebound Effects – just because we always did. This needs further explanation and this Blog should not lack of providing you with some ideas about possible solutions. Whereas digital technologies may provide us with new instruments to serve the purpose of sustainability, their correct (in terms of sustainability) and widespread use must be promoted by:
- regulatory policies by adaptive governments (illustration 4);
- incentives for behavioural change towards the use of “greener” products and;
- shifts in perspectives (whether it is on a societal, organizational or individual level).
In conclusion, there are various possibilities to address detrimental Rebound Effects, but they must be applied shortly to create widespread perspective shifts about the combination of Digitalisation and Sustainability soon enough – not when too late. Numerous instruments to initiate the former are well-known already today, such as taxes (e.g. carbon tax) or refining social and functional perceptions of recycled products compared to their new counterparts (improving CE). Hence, governance strategies for a sustainable digital world unavoidably demand for adaptive regulations, knowing what instrument to use when and where. That is, “given the uncertain and global nature of digitalization, adaptive governance approaches are needed to allow governments to iteratively adjust their policies and best practices to balance the technology’s benefits and risks in a manner that reflects available data and a refined understanding of social and environmental implications”.
Finally, this Blog went from my personal WIFI-Hotspot killing my ecological footprint to the exploration of numerous Rebound Effects, ending in putting forward an active promotion of sustainability driven by digitalisation by adaptive regulators. This Blog went from something insignificant to the bigger picture on purpose: It is not only the big nuclear power plants that endanger sustainability, but also our daily used small technologies, such as a smartphone WIFI-Hotspot. What that tells me is that the connection of digitalisation and sustainability, guided by iteratively adjustable incentive measurements, must begin on an individual level, focussing on sufficiency rather than efficiency. And even if the present Blog mainly focussed on smartphones or the telecommunications industry as a whole, I am deeply convinced that focussing on sufficiency rather than efficiency will become a major “must-shift” in many digitalized and non-digitalized industries all over the world – unless we continue to burning every single resource this planet provides us with, until not even digitalisation can help us.
Thank you for sharing my “WIFI-Hotspot versus Ecological-Footprint-Rebound-Effect” thoughts with me. Having said all that, my next cold Tuesday evening after a long day at work might consist of doing research about my next smartphone purchase, which might very well be a Fairphone.
If you strive to learn more about Rebound Effects when it comes to the connection of Digitalisation and Sustainability, I highly encourage you to have a look at “Does the Circular Economy Grow the Pie? The Case of Rebound Effects from Smartphone Reuse” as well as “Governance Strategies for a Sustainable Digital World”
- Case Study: How Fairphone is blazing a trail to a smarter phone industry: https://www.reutersevents.com/sustainability/case-study-how-fairphone-blazing-trail-smarter-phone-industry
- Could the rebound effect undermine climate efforts? https://www.theguardian.com/environment/blog/2011/feb/22/rebound-effect-climate-change
- Creating Market Incentives for Greener Products https://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:JzyQ7vpvE5oJ:https://www.oecd.org/environment/outreach/EN_Policy%2520Manual_Creating%2520Market%2520Incentives%2520for%2520Greener%2520Products_16%2520September.pdf+&cd=2&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=ch
- Does the Circular Economic Grow the Pie? The case of Rebound Effects from Smartphone Reuse https://www.readcube.com/articles/10.3389/fenrg.2018.00039
- Does using mobile hotspot hurt your phone? https://techprojournal.com/does-using-mobile-hotspot-hurt-your-phone/
- Governance strategies for a Sustainable Digital World https://webcache.googleusercontent.com/search?q=cache:Fw87xa3SAX8J:https://www.mdpi.com/2071-1050/10/2/440/pdf+&cd=12&hl=en&ct=clnk&gl=ch
- How Blockchain Can Address Food Waste And Hunger https://www.forbes.com/sites/forbestechcouncil/2019/12/26/how-blockchain-can-address-food-waste-and-hunger/?sh=7b7648c62dba
- How to use a smartphone as a mobile hotspot https://www.computerworld.com/article/2499772/how-to-use-a-smartphone-as-a-mobile-hotspot.html
- IKEA to stop printing catalogue after ‘successful career’ that spanned 70 years https://www.theguardian.com/business/2020/dec/07/ikea-to-stop-printing-catalogue-after-70-years-as-customers-move-online
- Rebound Effect and Energy Efficiency https://energycentral.com/c/ee/rebound-effect-and-energy-efficiency
- The Digital Revolution: Opportunities and challenges for sustainable development https://www.eurekalert.org/pub_releases/2019-07/iifa-tdr071119.php
- The Life and Times of the Late, Great CD https://www.digitaltrends.com/features/the-history-of-the-cds-rise-and-fall/
Master Digital Business Administration
This article is part of a series that students of the Master Digital Business Administration at BFH Wirtschaft are completing. This Study Programme will give you the skills and practical experience you need to shape the digital future of your company or organization. You can find all information about the programme here.