Friday 16 August 2019

No digital society without sustainable information technology

The 21st century is the digital century, the century of mobile communication. So-called ‘intelligent’ connected and communicating things are widely used to create an interactive environment, called the Internet of Things or IoT. We are currently surrounded by a whopping 50 billion connected objects in our homes, industrial buildings, cars, on roads, and so on. But behind all these screens, there is an industry that requires more space, energy and raw materials than ever. High-tech objects require a lot of rare, critical and even toxic minerals, and in addition to causing ecological disasters such as the pollution of the soil and groundwater, they have also given rise to several armed conflicts in many countries of the South. Planned obsolescence in its many forms is a reality that supports a consumerist technical-economic model, which more than ever has become a source of social inequalities.

The university response

Many people consider that high-tech is the source of all of modern society’s evils, while others, on the contrary, think that these same technologies will enable us to respond to the current and future societal challenges. This is now also a topic for debate in the science and technology community at universities, where the architects of this technology work. The highly disciplinary nature of university education certainly explains the conservatism of scientists, who are only gradually becoming fully aware of the impact of these abuses. Scientists must urgently adopt a more holistic approach and tear down the artificial walls between disciplines to help shape a more sustainable and fair society, with and for citizens.

A higher education programme that highlights the interdisciplinary and even transdisciplinary nature of societal challenges will help train scientists who are aware of the impact of all technological development on the environment and the organisation of societies. This new generation of scientists will instead focus on collaboration and collective intelligence.  Their programmes will revolve around critical thinking. These scientists will sometimes initiate but always actively participate in the indispensable societal debate that is necessary as soon as any public or private research has the potential to be valorised. This holistic approach, which underpins any technological development, will combine the best of high and low-tech, rather than opposing them, to develop durable technology, that is easy to appropriate by all, contributing to the fellowship between people, and eliminating inequality.

A different approach is possible

In the spring of 2017, the European ENCOS (European Nanoelectronics consortium on sustainability Nanoelectronics) consortium was established. This network groups manufacturers, university graduates from various scientific disciplines (engineering, sociology, economics, philosophy), people in the field and consumers. It suggest innovative solutions for reducing our energy consumption and the amount of industrial waste that is produced when manufacturing IoT, for substituting or reducing the use of toxic and critical raw materials, for increasing the transparency of the supply chain in the consumer electronics industry, for developing new business models to combat planned obsolescence, and for extending the lifetime of electronic devices.

In the past few decades, the development of high-tech devices led to a reduction of the dimensions and a multiplication of the materials in parts. This has given rise to several new recycling challenges. The modular design of electronic devices, such as the Fairphone, pave the way for an extension of the lifetime of electronic parts however, facilitating the repair, upgrade or reuse of the device for another purpose. That is also what the ENCOS Consortium is advocating. It has partnered with various consumer organisations and together they draft proposals for legislation which they submit to European and local policy-makers, in order to combat planned obsolescence and promote the use of sustainable technology. Proof that we all can take action!

Jean-Pierre Raskin (Professor at the Ecole Polytechnique de Louvain)