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Interview with Digitalization for Sustainability

Branch magazine sat down with the research group Digitalization and Sustainability and the Digitalization for Sustainability- Science in Dialogue team to learn more about their work and the need for international cooperation in research and policy.

What is D4S, and what are your hopes and plans for it? 

D4S is the acronym for Digitalization for Sustainability- Science in Dialogue, a project focusing on the opportunities and risks of digitalization for deep sustainability transformations. We realized that although there are many researchers working on solutions for different issues arising from the continuing digitalization of economy and society, many of them remain within their epistemic communities and lack opportunities for transdisciplinary cooperation and developing overarching approaches.

To pull various disciplinary and cultural backgrounds together, we compiled an European Expert Panel consisting of 15 renowned academics and practitioners representing a variety of tech, transformation and sustainability communities. With their knowledge, we aim to develop a progressive vision for a sustainable digitalization and enhance the European science-policy discourse.

We focus on three major goals: first, deliver comprehensive analyses outlining the challenges and potentials at the nexus of digitalization and sustainability. Second, develop guidelines, design principles and policies to shape digitalization towards deep sustainability transformation. And third, outline an inter- and transdisciplinary research agenda to keep learning and inspire more research, and research funding, for the coming years. 

You recently hosted the symposium. What did you learn? What do you see as next steps for this emerging field?

Over 160 representatives from policy-making, science, and civil society came together at the International Symposium “European approaches towards a Sustainable Digitalization” to discuss how digitalization can be shaped in a way that nurtures common goods and respects planetary boundaries.  

In five sessions, we discussed approaches for sustainable digitalization from the perspectives of science, policy and civil society. For example, one session reflected on how civil society can network more effectively in the international sphere and participate in the development of sustainable digitalization at the EU level. In another session and with a view to science-policy, different research endeavors and potential points of collaboration were presented to bring together researchers from all disciplines to work on questions related to sustainable digitalization.

It was fantastic to learn how many initiatives and approaches are already in place—in the many communities as well as in different countries. However, throughout the debates it became very clear that there is a lack of networking between science, policy and civil society. Especially academia and the scientific community need to set a focus on engaging with the civil society and actors within the tech industry to achieve genuine change. Additionally, various activities seem limited to particular countries, and there is a lack of internationalization of discourses across national borders.

It became very clear that there is a lack of networking between science, policy and civil society.

Internationalization and joint action will become critical in the upcoming months as groundbreaking decisions are pending at EU level, e.g. with the adoption of the Digital Services Package, and also at global level with the UN Digital Roadmap. And it is important that as many voices as possible from civil society and the scientific community are heard who advocate for just and sustainable digitalization.

We hope with this symposium that we pushed the debate, lifted ambition and turned into ideas for collaboration across national borders. We believe this is essential to achieving a deep sustainability transition.

One of the conversations was about Bits & Bäume. From your research group’s perspective, could you share more about this movement and its potential to grow? 

When we started our research group Digitalization and Sustainability in 2016, we quickly noticed that there was barely any political awareness of, and public debate about, the risks and opportunities of digitalization for sustainability.

So our research group mobilized a number of civil society organizations working on sustainability on the one hand and on tech issues and internet governance on the other to host a networking conference that brings both actors and discourses of these two topic fields. The conference Bits & Bäume, representing the tech community as the ‘bits’ and the sustainability community as the ‘bäume’ (the German word for tree) in Berlin in November 2018 was a large success with close to 2,000 participants, lots of media coverage and—best of all—significant impact as political parties and the German government started working on a progressive agenda of digitalization for sustainability. Moreover, a movement has grown out of this conference with a variety of local networking events and new alliances.

How can this movement connect with organizations and events taking place in other countries, and is it possible that an international movement on digitalization for sustainability emerges?

Now the question is: How can this movement connect with organizations and events taking place in other countries, and is it possible that an international movement on digitalization for sustainability emerges?

In the workshop at the symposium, we invited representatives from civil society organizations to discuss ideas and prospects for collaborative action for sustainable digitalization on the European level. Vivian Frick, who was part of the research group “Digitalization and Sustainability” and the organization team of the Bits & Bäume conference, stressed the need to take into account the social power dynamics in the legislative process.

Literacy and power dynamics influence who gets to speak and who is heard in the discussion on a sustainable digitalization. Focusing the discussion purely on technical issues of digitalization is likely to exclude people. Therefore, the discussion should be steered towards issues of social equality and sustainability in order to be inclusive. Gauthier Roussilhe, Alexander Sander and Marie-Kathrin Siemer added valuable perspectives from their work on ICT and sustainabilty in other EU member states and stressed the momentum for concerted action at the European level to influence important ongoing policy proposals, such as the Digital Markets Act, the Digital Services Act, or the European Data Act. 

Another important topic was about Europe’s twin transition. How does D4S approach this policy moment and what do you recommend decision-makers take into account here? 

The terms “transition” and “transformation” are used in many different context from various actors. Yet if these terms are understood as profound (‘disruptive’) social change, not all change that goes along with digitalization deserves this term. Neither do digital transformations necessarily lead to “sustainability transformations”, sometimes bringing along rather unsustainable transformations. So first of all, research is needed that clarifies terms.

Moreover, our D4S dialogue project aims to develop and discuss potential criteria and case studies that carve out conditions for digitalization-borne sustainabilty transformations. This will be done by differentiating between forms of digitalization that bring about such transformations vis-à-vis forms of digitalization that merely bring about incremental optimizations (i.e., “hill climbing” social change).

Decision-makers should particularly look out for, and co-create the development of, effective policies and new institutions that help maximize the transformative potential of ICT and mitigate undesired effects from digital disruptions that bring about new unsustainable modes of production and consumption.

Further reading

Read further research from the research group in this issue of Branch: