The green taming of the smart shrew: Coupling digital with the environment


Photo by Yuriy Kleymenov on Unsplash

By Carlota Perez and Andres Schafer

This is the second instalment in the authors’ ‘After the pandemic’ series. The first essay in the series can be read here.

A sustainable economy in a healthy planet, based on the green direction for the digital revolution is standing at our doorstep. It may not seem so now, because of the uncertainty brought by the Covid-19 crisis and the feeble response to climate change. But capitalism evolves by successive technological revolutions, and the limits and problems encountered by each of them create opportunities for the innovations that will surmount them.

Railways transcended the limits of canals; steel those of iron; the internal combustion engine surpassed the limits of the steam engine; computers enabled the mechanisation of mental labour and thus a potential leap in the productivity of services. The question is if we are able to go beyond mere productivity and social media and use the potential of ICT to overcome the environmental destruction left by the mass production revolution.

To be sure, the post-war Keynesian, social democratic policies brought a hitherto unimaginable level of prosperity to many, including the blue-collar workers of the advanced countries. And, after the Fall of the Berlin Wall, the American Way of Life expanded to Eastern Europe, China and much of Asia. But the energy and materials-intensive model based on the mass production revolution has made us pay an exorbitant price in a dramatic increase of natural catastrophes and environmental destruction as well as in resource depletion. If the new millions of consumers were all to adopt that wasteful model of mass production and consumption, we would see the destruction of the planet.

Climate change is only the latest of the set of limits encountered by the mass production revolution since it reached maturity and exhaustion. From the 1960s and 70s, as productivity stalled, numerical control machine tools were introduced in the factory, and computers in the office. As pollution increased and legislation responded, ICT-driven control instruments stepped in. As cost reduction reached limits and off-shoring became common, the complexity of global organisations required more powerful computers and effective telecommunications. As one revolution started dying the next one began to take shape.

As after the 1930s and WWII, we are at a potential tipping point. Could the Covid-19 induced crisis be the watershed moment this time?

From mass production to the digital revolution

We have been progressively moving out of a mass production paradigm based on abundant and cheap natural resources and energy, while learning to take advantage of a paradigm of intangible information and communications technologies. From standardised products in an inter-national, massive scale, to myriads of diversified outputs ranging from massive to specialised to custom ones, and from the local to the global.

However, we are still far from leaving behind the wasteful, polluting and environmentally threatening mass production practices to deploy the ICT revolution. Paradigm inertia is so powerful that even the ICT industry has adopted the old strategy of ‘planned obsolescence’, generating masses of unnecessary waste, while doing little to reduce energy consumption. Nevertheless, In the meantime, we are already suffering from the consequences of the lack of directionality for ICT. The global financial casino, one of the main users of ICT, brought us the NASDAQ crash of 2000 and the 2008 crisis and was probably about to crash again when Covid-19 arrived. The digital walled gardens created to exploit user data have helped radicalize public discourse and have opened the gates for political manipulation. Shortsighted greed forgets that positive sum games offer more benefits to all. Consequently, environmentalists mistrust digital technologies and find it difficult to recognise their true greening potential.

Yet one of the most fruitful directions for the ICT potential to follow is precisely sustainability in terms of turning products into services (as they have done with music, film and text), and making services — ­new and old — easier, more agile and convenient (as innovators in fintech, encyclopaedias and online sales have done). Equally, the green drive to achieve sustainability would find in ICTs its most powerful partner with intangible and biodegradable solutions supporting innovation in materials, in food, health and so on. Like a couple in a screwball comedy, green and digital may be stubbornly resisting in denial, but they are made for each other. It is up to green to tame the digital shrew.

Already, many of the successful green solutions to date are based on ICTs. Millions of trees have been saved replacing records, books and films by streaming services, e-books and audiobooks. Computer driven technologies are used to capture pollutants and reduce materials use. Or take wind or solar power, interactive smart grids, the controls of all renewable energy (as well as their design and manufacture): all depend on ICTs. The computer-aided provision of water, nutrients and light is enabling hydroponic cultures around cities, supplying fresh vegetables and reducing long-distance transportation, energy consumption, canning and freezing.

But in the end, it is lifestyles that ultimately shape the change. As happened in previous revolutions, the consumption behaviours of the new green digital paradigm are already being defined among the sophisticated, rich and more educated elites, and especially among the young, in stark contrast with the previous consumption model. The early adopters of our time prefer natural over synthetic materials, vintage over new objects, organic over processed food, bicycles over cars and see minimalist design as luxury. They exercise for well-being, rather than sitting on the couch watching sports TV. In the emerging economy, the ‘big’ production units are being replaced either by small (possibly local) customising ones or by truly gigantic ones with sophisticated computer aided (or robotized) decentralized and flexible assembly lines. Multi-purpose products, like the smartphone, are reducing the need to accumulate objects and integrating daily routines on the Web. Working from home is increasingly normal — much more now that lockdown has forced everyone to try it — and solar power and electric cars have become aspirational. A ‘sharing’ economy where what matters are access and experiences, rather than owning things, is emerging in many places. And the basis of it all is universal Internet access and use.

“in the end, it is lifestyles that ultimately shape the change.”

The conditions are set for the new paradigm to enable socially and environmentally sustainable modes of living and producing. But government policy, relative prices and a culture shift have to move that direction. Will they?

The way to go

The new prosperity is being defined by experiences and more fulfilling lives. We are increasingly favouring ‘access’ over ownership and shaking off what might be called the ‘burden’ of possession. And this may be only a hint of a major shift.

The very soul of the mass production revolution, the car, has been replaced by the smartphone in the aspirations of the young. Meanwhile the car itself is undergoing a multi-directional transformation: Fully electric or hybrids (where those that use a petrol engine to charge the battery could be a sensible job-preserving transition to fully electric); fuel cell or battery, plug-in or wireless charging, battery swap stations, or maybe a combination of them all. It could be that a deeper metamorphosis of the car will occur: its transformation from a product into a service. From owning to leasing or sharing a car, to simply summoning one with a driver or a self-driving one, there can be many options. Urban mobility is already becoming highly varied. People move around with their iPhones, combining walking with transportation modes, in scooters, skateboards, bicycles, or e-cars rented per minute, together with digitally aided public transport systems. An ICT-supported multi-modal pattern is likely, with environmental protection in mind.

Thanks to the digital revolution a circular economy of renting/sharing, where products evolve into completely new services, could become the norm. We could be setting up a rental market of extremely high quality durable products, built with the best materials, that last as long as a century. Cutting edge appliances or machines, can have a long life cycle of permanent maintenance, upgrades, updates, repairs and final disassembly for reusing and recycling. In other words, products would have a new long life defined by the services around them. This could generate a huge maintenance sector with hundreds of thousands of jobs. Through the Internet of Things and artificial intelligence, the history of each product could be digitally tracked and entered in a blockchain, supporting maintenance, servicing and electronic diagnostics, as well as allowing pricing transparency in the second-hand, leasing or sharing markets. There would be no more manufacturing of spare parts: instead of being made, packaged, transported and stored just-in-case, parts specifications on the web would be obligatory to be downloaded and 3D-printed just-in-time. We would save energy, assembly lines, storage halls, shelves, boxes, bubble wrap, transport and fuel, related to all those activities. To become fit, products will need to undergo a complete redesign with the help of digital technologies. This long-life and maintenance cycle would offer many entry levels to the consumption ladder, from the most expensive luxury end at the top to the very low-cost entry level for those who wouldn’t have been able to afford any.

That would be the end of ‘planned obsolescence’, with producers and retailers carrying the costs of the waste they generate, ‘owning’ their products for their entire lifecycle, probably contracting it out to a new crop of rental, maintenance and recycling companies.

The other important feature of the digital green transformation relates to the change in lifestyles. Each technological revolution destroys jobs massively and creates new ones, but not enough to compensate. It is the dynamic change in lifestyles that creates the bulk of replacement jobs. We are already witnessing the rise in new services, in health, well-being and the care industry, exercise and coaching, extreme sports, a growing demand for continuing education, language learning, mindfulness, horticulture, conservation, and an exploding variety of web-based activities offering to fulfil needs, old and new. A green direction of the ICT paradigm is able to generate new jobs that we cannot fully imagine now because they arise from new market needs that depend on how emerging lifestyles unfold. Urban Victorian living was replaced by the cosmopolitan living of the Belle Époque, which in turn was replaced by the — mainly suburban — fully electric, American Way of life. The digital revolution could mean that we move out of the self-contained family living of the suburbs to a life-school-work-integration in town-like multipurpose communities, urban, suburban, rural and even global. The current digital revolution could restore individual meaning and community links, while keeping us interconnected thanks to the Internet and a diversity of mobility modes.

Energy for buildings alone generates more CO2 than transportation. The green renovation and revamping of our infrastructure, and the ‘repair’ of suburban sprawl, would not only address this problem, it has the potential to become, for a long time, a stable source of jobs and demand for new sustainable technologies. From the 3-D printing of buildings, to new insulating materials, garden rooftops and ‘passive’ houses, the digital revolution can greatly expand these possibilities.

Smart ICT-driven electric grids can help adapt prices in order to optimise the use of energy by households, also integrating users and producers, where extra energy from home solar panels or from industrial sites on weekends can be sold into the network, which could be optimised by modularity, combined generation and flexibility in energy equipment. Some even dream of the wireless charging EV as just one more link in a ubiquitous smart grid.

ICTs also facilitate new breakthroughs in renewable energies, as in solar cell technology, biodiesel, or in the future production of green hydrogen, either for fuel cells or for heating. They are making possible a more diverse, versatile and, if well designed, resilient energy mix, with an increasing portion of renewables.

The development of bio-plastics and degradable plastics, sustainable nano-textiles and other nanomaterials relies heavily on ICTs, which help testing, prototyping and optimising the use of materials. ICTs are also radically changing research methods in life sciences, planting the seeds for future revolutionary technologies in preventive health, personalized medicine, food production and agriculture, while converging towards bioelectronics. Computer guided sail-assisted ships, combining wind, solar and internal combustion with bio-fuels, could become standard.

And these are only some of the examples of what ICT can help us do in the green direction, if we dare to think boldly enough.

A digitally enabled circular zero-waste, net-zero emissions economy of services, maintenance and access to high quality goods is possible

ICTs intrinsically lead to services and intangibles, as opposed to material goods. In other words, we could suddenly find ourselves with the paradox that the more we save in energy and raw materials, the more jobs are created, and the better quality of life we get. Almost an inversion of the premises governing mass production.

A growing consensus is arising that the post Covid-19 recovery has to take a green path. To be successful it must also be smart. To some extent, we still understand ‘digital’ in terms of mass production, but we have to realise that the ICT revolution is not merely an enabler of robotized assembly lines to fabricate more things faster and cheaper; it is not just about social media or computer games; it is about applying an essentially different mindset to innovation, production and consumption. Only then, can we generate a truly new smart green, and much better, way of life that will guarantee social and environmental sustainability.

In our next essays, we will discuss why all this will also require fair and global growth and what policies could help in those directions.



UCL Institute for Innovation and Public Purpose

Changing how the state is imagined, practiced and evaluated to tackle societal challenges | Director: Mariana Mazzucato