In recent months, the increased use of digital technologies throughout society – a development commonly referred to as ‘digitalisation’ – has figured prominently in public debate. Countless articles and op-eds on the digital revolution have been published since the beginning of the year: In an interview for the online edition of the Süddeutsche Zeitung, Armin Grunwald warned of the vulnerability of societies that become too dependent on digital infrastructure in critical areas like the energy supply. In Die ZEIT Carl Benedikt Frey and Hartmut Hirsch-Kreinsen discussed the consequences of digitalisation for the working world and society in general, while Tilman Santarius argued in favour of “gentle digitalisation”, where we think first and then digitise. And in the Futurium blog, Stefan Brandt asked: “Do we want to passively endure the looming [digital] structural transformation or actively shape it?”
These are just a few examples of recent contributions to the debate on digitalisation, but all of them are clear on one point: Digitalisation is a structural challenge that calls in equal measure on politicians, businesspeople and society to create new parameters for a socially, ecologically, and economically sustainable coexistence in a globalised, digitalised world.
The role of sustainability research in this process has received very little attention to date, even though digitalisation has been a growing focus of this research in recent years. Against this background, representatives of foundations and scientific organisations met at the IASS in November to explore how science in general – and sustainability research in particular – can contribute to achieving a sustainable digital transformation. The results of this workshop are reflected in the following five theses, which also feature in the recently published Workshop Report. I would like to present them here together with a few examples:
Thesis 1: Sustainability research should act as a critical observer of the digital revolution. With its systemic understanding, it can help to identify the key issues that politics and society need to address. By way of example, the German Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU) recently published a list of topics at the interface of digitalisation and sustainability “that we need to talk about”. Sustainability research should aim to provide food for thought without becoming embroiled in angst-ridden discussions.
Thesis 2: However, beyond pointing to pressing issues, sustainability research should also initiate and take an active part in a discussion about the guiding principles of ‘sustainable digitalisation’. André Reichel’s argument that sustainability must be the normative framework for digitalisation is one example of this. Alongside the “possible” and the “useful”, any discussion of normative foundations needs to address the “desirable” (or, as Raven Musialik writes on the website of FUTURZWEI. Stiftung Zukunftsfähigkeit, “No utopia is also not the answer”).
Thesis 3: Of course, the role of sustainability research continues to be to provide robust knowledge about how digital technologies work and to shed light on the power structures and interests of key players in the digital transformation. It is expected to scrutinise proposed solutions and approaches to complex problems in the areas of energy, transport and consumption with regard to their sustainability. This is the task that the junior research group at the Institute for Ecological Economy Research and the Technical University of Berlin have set themselves. Felix Sühlmann-Faul and Stephan Rammler are also working on a study funded by the World Wide Fund For Nature (WWF) Germany and the Robert Bosch Foundation that points to the sustainability deficits of digitalisation at different levels and gives examples of how digitalisation could be a motor for greater sustainability.
Thesis 4: Sustainability research should seek to build bridges between fields of knowledge. Debate around the digital revolution tends to occur within specific fields of knowledge such as sustainability research or technology development, participants at the workshop noted. Not only do notions of sustainability vary considerably between these fields, there is also very little contact between them. Encouraging discussion around the vision of digital sustainability could bring disparate research communities closer together and foster the development of integrated digital solutions that deliver social, ecological, and economic returns.
Thesis 5: Finally, we must learn to interrogate the often unspoken assumptions that inform this debate and re-evaluate the existing terminology within the context of the unfolding digital transformation. Future sustainability research efforts should explore, for example, how existing concepts of sustainability relate to notions of transhumanism and digital human enhancement (i.e., the extension and/or enhancement of human capabilities through digital technologies).
These theses were developed with the aim of fostering further debate and do not offer a comprehensive overview of the role of sustainability research in the context of digital transformations. Rather, it is our hope that they will fuel critical and constructive discussion about the emerging opportunities and challenges of digital transformation both within and beyond the field of sustainability research. And in this spirit, dear colleagues, we look forward to a fruitful debate!
Header image (montage): istock/Momolelouch; istock/Main_sail