Digital change must be designed sustainably

City Sunset

Self-driving cars, robots performing surgeries, algorithms issuing verdicts — all of this is to become possible through the increasing connectivity of our world. Digital change permeates and transforms our society. How we understand and shape this change will have a significant impact on how we will evolve as a society and whether we will be able to deal with the great environmental and development challenges of our time.

Digitalisation not only played an important role in the recent German election, but will also be a significant topic for next legislative period. Angela Merkel of the Christian Democratic Union (CDU) does not want to “end up in the Museum of Technology", but rather sees digitalisation as a central challenge for the future. For Christian Lindner, leader of the Free Democratic Party of Germany (FDP), digitalisation forces politics to operate at a much quicker pace: "Digitalisation is not football; digitalisation is ice hockey." As for the Green Party, Cem Özdemir calls for competencies to be pooled into a Ministry of Digitalisation going forward. The increasing connectivity of our world is, in the eyes of everybody, supposed to create millions of new jobs and facilitate our everyday private lives.

However, this topic is rarely discussed in the context of sustainability. The possible effects of digital change on the environment, climate and sustainability are difficult to estimate. On the one hand, there is considerable potential for increasing the efficiency of production processes, logistics and services in almost all areas (e.g. mobility, energy, agriculture, the circular economy, administration). New possibilities to monitor and regulate environmentally relevant processes can significantly improve existing environmental and climate policy instruments as well as bring business and infrastructural environmental management to a new level.

On the other hand, the hardware required for digital products and services is inflating material and energy consumption, and there is a risk that efficiency gains cannot be translated into reductions in energy and resource consumption as a whole because of rebound effects (i.e. an increase in the use intensity and demand for products and services) .

adelphi supports the political and societal processes for finding sustainable digitisation solutions via a large number of projects. These either deal with the implementation of energy efficiency measures through digital applications, smart metering or digital building models, or the analysis of general digitisation trends with respect to possible sustainability effects, such as consumption, sharing economy initiatives and neighbourhood relationships.

An area where digitalisation and sustainability are already more closely integrated than in other areas is smart cities. After completing several preliminary projects for public and private clients, adelphi is now working together with the German Institute of Urban Affairs (difu) and the Institute for Innovation and Technology (iit) on a new project on the environmental effects of smart city infrastructure for the German Federal Environment Agency (UBA). The three-year project will analyse existing measures developing intelligent infrastructures in 40 cities and assess possible environmental effects. In addition to recommendations for municipalities to develop sustainable and environmentally sound Smart City concepts, the project results will also provide inputs for the development of national and international legal frameworks and standards.

Selected Projects

Selected Publications