Inside the Digital Society: Responsible innovation

Last week I wrote about the relationship between digitalisation and climate change. This week I’ll ask what might be meant, at a time of growing environmental crisis, by responsible innovation.

Three great environmental challenges

There are many environmental challenges we face today, but four are specially important: pollution, resource depletion, lost biodiversity and climate change. The last of these, at least, poses an existential threat to human welfare.

Our economies, societies and geopolitics aren’t equipped to deal with rapid, substantial and sustained changes in weather patterns, land use and geography. But it’s increasingly clear that’s what we face if governments and businesses don’t reach agreement on ways to limit the human factors that are causing climate change.

Time’s short, so it’s important that we understand what impact digitalisation is having or could have on efforts to meet the challenge.

Digital impacts on the environment: the plus side

Digital advocates argue that innovation lets a thousand flowers bloom.  They're keen to point out the potential value of digitalisation for sustainability. More efficient use of energy and smart systems that cut the costs (human, financial and environmental) of manufacturing and services are widely cited. So’s the potential for reducing energy-intensive travel through telecommuting and home working.

Monitoring pollution and changes in climate, using ICTs, can also help communities to mitigate potential harms and adapt to those that can’t be mitigated. These are all significant, important, and should be maximised where they prove to be effective (the net effect of homeworking on energy consumption's far from certain).

Digital impacts on the environment: the downside

ICTs play a part in every environmental challenge.  New technologies have environmental outcomes. National policies and commercial strategies can make significant differences to what those are. I’ll comment on e-waste and climate change.


Take pollution, for example.

Rapid improvements in technology make old equipment not as fit for use as it once was, so new kit replaces older very rapidly. There’s a commercial imperative for this as well. New hardware’s needed to run new software which is needed to do new things, but there’s also money to be made from rapid churn in ICT equipment.

More people with more devices they replace more often. Fifty million metric tonnes of old equipment become e-waste every year, predicted to rise to 120 million tonnes by 2050. Some of that is toxic. Little of it’s currently recycled. A good deal’s dumped in developing countries.

Climate change

Energy use based on fossil fuels is the principal human driver of climate change, so energy saved or consumed by digitalisation matters. At present the energy used by ICTs contributes something more than 2% of global carbon emissions: twice that proportion where they are used intensively, in Europe. But the proportion’s going to grow rapidly, as cloud computing, the Internet of Things, AI and big data analysis become pervasive. Some predict it could be more than 10% by 2040.

Efficiency savings due to smarter systems won’t be enough to compensate for that, and in any case greater efficiency often has rebound effects: more efficient, cheaper, energy production and consumption are as likely to increase total energy consumption as reduce it.

Renewable energy’s obviously critical to cutting carbon’s cost to climate. Data corporations often seek to use it to green their data centres, but that has no immediate impact on other parts of the digital ecosystem like devices and communications, where energy demand's also expanding.

So what to do?

As usual when predicting digital outcomes there’s a lot of unpredictability in this – and vested interests invest a lot in spinning numbers in their favour. Efficiency improvements will make carbon savings in energy and manufacturing, but they will be offset by increased use of ICT products and services, especially where prosperity improves. And it’s the carbon cost of digitising everything, as AI and the IoT grow in the next decade, that’s most alarming and uncertain.

It’s been easy for stakeholders to sound evangelical or apocalyptic here, depending on their point of view, though far fewer people argue now that digitalisation’s likely to lead to less waste or lower carbon emissions in the near or medium term. Most see its impact growing. The question is what can be done. Stopping digital’s obviously not the answer, but mitigation might lie in what I’ll call more responsible approaches.

Attitudes to the digital revolution

Two quotations are often used to sum up the IT industry’s attitudes to innovation.

“Don’t be evil” was a Google motto. Which, if you think about it, is not that smart a wording.

After all, few people in the digital industry have ever set out to be evil, to do deliberate harm to others (except of course for cybercriminals). Most of the problems that result from new technology don’t arise from people trying to be evil but from conflicts of interest between different parties, for example between businesses and their consumers, and from unexpected consequences. (Google’s reincarnation, Alphabet, prefers “Do the right thing”, which is at least a better phrase.)

“Move fast and break things” was Facebook’s mantra. Disrupt and replace, in other words, without much caring what is lost, with the underlying assumption that anything that’s digital and new is better than anything that’s analogue and old – or to put it another way, that anything that’s cool is better than anything that’s cherished. Breaking things has consequences across the board that aren’t intended, or predicted, or desired. Many broken things can't be repaired.

The limits to innovation

The IT industry’s been determined to avoid regulatory constraints, rejecting the precautionary principle that’s been the norm in other powerful economic sectors. It’s argued, in the words of Adam Threier, advocate of a 'permissionless' approach, that “new technologies and business models should generally be permitted by default, … and [that] problems, if any develop, can be addressed later.”

But innovation’s impact’s nowhere near that simple, especially when innovation’s very rapid and when innovations can have irreversible impacts before there’s time or opportunity for them to be addressed by anyone.

We’d have fewer problems with cybersecurity if digital innovators had given more thought to potential problems in advance rather than trying to fix them later. We’d have fewer problems with privacy and data protection if data corporations had paid - or been required to pay - more attention to human and consumer rights before building business models that use data to the max.

Responsible innovation?

So where should the balance lie between innovation and protecting public interest? A concept such as “responsible innovation” could be built round principles that include a care for consequences rather than giving free rein to whatever's new. Here are four suggestions, out of many possibilities:

  • that innovators – and today that means, above all, in terms of impact, global hardware and data corporations – should consider the impact of innovations on society, economy and culture during design, development and deployment, rather than assuming or hoping for the best;

  • that they should consider, in particular, potential risks to human rights, consumer welfare, gender and social equity, and the environment;

  • that they should seek to maximise the sustainability of new products and services (in design, development and deployment), and minimise potential downsides (alongside, obviously, making money);

  • that they should work with governments and one another to monitor the development of the digital society, identify unexpected impacts – including threats to network security, privacy, rights and the environment – and address these before rather than after they are irreversible.

Responsible innovation and the environment

I started this blog with the environment and I’ll finish with it too. What might principles like these mean where it’s concerned? (I’ve written on this previously for the International Institute for Sustainable Development.)

First, I’d suggest the IT sector, and especially its leading corporations, need to recognise that with great power comes great responsibility. Decisions made in corporation labs and boardrooms will have major impacts on environments for the globe and every country. They should factor in that factor. Moving fast and breaking things – whether human rights or the environment – ain’t smart.

Second, businesses, governments and international organisations, could introduce environmental audit and environmental principles in decision-making, as are increasingly required in other business sectors.

Considering the environmental impact of new products and service before they’re launched would prevent environmental follies like the energy-guzzling Bitcoin model, which already requires more energy than many mid-sized nation-states. Unsustainable innovation is in no-one's interest.

Standard-setting bodies should actively seek to minimise waste and energy consumption in design of standards. What might appear marginal differences in impact when new standards are developed become very substantial indeed when those standards are pervasive. Think, e.g., 5G.

Churn in consumer hardware’s also important. New software, new apps, new services should be designed, where possible, to work with existing hardware rather than requiring regular replacement kit.  That also makes them more inclusive, less likely to exacerbate existing digital divides.

And third, I’d suggest more genuine multistakeholder engagement. More dialogue between governments, businesses, consumers and environmental specialists at national level. National strategies for environmentally responsible innovation. Recognition by businesses that environmental regulations aren’t constraints on innovation but opportunities to make innovation work better in the interests of all. And more accountability.

That way, perhaps, a thousand flowers might still bloom.

Next week, I’ll look at ways of measuring ICTs for measuring sustainable development.

Image: By Ergita Sela, via

David Souter writes a weekly column for APC, looking at different aspects of the information society, development and rights. David’s pieces take a fresh look at many of the issues that concern APC and its members, with the aim of provoking discussion and debate. Issues covered include internet governance and sustainable development, human rights and the environment, policy, practice and the use of ICTs by individuals and communities. More about David Souter.
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