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Astrid Wynne, Sustainability Lead Jan 10, 2020

I was lucky enough to attend the first meeting of Bordersteps research project CliDiTrans in Berlin in September. Over 20 experts from academia, government and industry came together to discuss the sustainability potentials and challenges of increased digitalisation. It provided a fascinating view of how developments in our communication and industrial processes that create efficiencies paradoxically encourage us to do more, consume more and perhaps do more damage. 

Dr. Ralph Hintemann, one of the Bordersteps project leaders, presented some statistics that challenged many people’s view on digital being the solution to sustainable development. He introduced the paper paradox to illustrate his point. There has been an increase in paper usage between 1980 and 2018 despite the advent of email and other electronic messaging. Mr Hintemann suggested the reason for this is that the internet has increased the overall creation and dissemination of documents, meaning that overall printing has gone up too. Communication may have partly been dematerialised but the trend is still an overall increase.

Dr Jens Claussen, another Bordersteps academic, highlighted a similar anomaly when it comes to video conferencing and business flights. Video conferencing rose by 28% between 2004 and 2017 in Germany. However, rather than reduce the amount of business travel, the inverse has happened; flights have also risen significantly within the same period. Although his work is still in its early stages, it looks as though one reason for this is that as the world has become more connected, so have real life connections. Easier networking leads to more contacts, which leads to more travel as companies follow up leads.

There is a temptation to solve the problems of too much resource and usage with technology. Smart meters came up as a topic for discussion at the CliDiTrans meeting. Installing a smart meter in the house gives us a feeling we are optimising energy usage. Smart monitors on our home appliances increase this impression. However, the overall of connected electronic devices is on the rise worldwide. The number of mobile devices on the planet exceeded the number of people in 2014, at which time they were multiplying five times faster than we are. With kettles, fridge freezers and televisions all manufactured with their own link to the internet, one can only wonder what the figures are like now.

Another concern outlined in the meeting was the material cost of the commodity devices run on: data. Data storage and transmission require servers, storage and networking, which require steel, aluminium, plastic, rare earths and precious metals, which in turn require mining, transport and manufacturing. The carbon cost of all this is significant and growing year by year. Far from being insubstantial, data bucks the trend on greenhouse gas emissions, growing its contribution to them as other sectors reduce theirs.

The themes discussed at the CliDiTrans meeting were echoes of many other projects we have been involved with. The Right to Repair movement in the US, Circular 4.0 led by the University of Exeter, submissions to the Environmental Audit Committee in the UK and the Circular Economy consultation in Victoria Australia have all given us perspectives on how academics, governments and grass roots organisations propose to make the best use of digital resources. Attending the CliDiTrans meeting gave valuable insight into how these issues are being examined in Germany, which will hopefully help us to contribute more to other projects and develop opportunities for learning exchange.

We live in a period of unprecedented change and need to think, innovate and develop fast if we are to reap the rewards. Projects like these are just one more example of how people are coming together to do this. It was great to have the opportunity to see this first hand.


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