Overline: Thesis paper
Headline: “Digitalisation creates opportunities and risks for sustainability”

How can digitalisation serve sustainable development? At the Digital Summit hosted by the Federal Ministry for Economic Affairs and Energy, Ortwin Renn presented a paper outlining concrete steps to improve the sustainability of the digital transition.

Good governance is vital to ensuring that the digital transition is sustainable and equitable.
Good governance is vital to ensuring that the digital transition is sustainable and equitable. iStock/weerapatkiatdumrong

The digital transition is changing the way we work and live, creating opportunities to foster environmental, economic, and social sustainability. However, some aspects of this process pose a risk for the sustainable development of our society.

With the widespread adoption of digital communication technologies, for example, there is less need for us to travel. At the same time, the information and communications sector is a major emitter of carbon dioxide. The authors of the paper, Ortwin Renn, Grischa Beier and Pia-Johanna Schweizer call on companies to adopt clear environmental goals as part of their corporate philosophy. This would translate into concrete action such as a commitment to use only electricity generated from renewable energy to power servers and other devices, for example.

The development of a circular economy that is as comprehensive as possible is a key milestone on the pathway to economic sustainability. “Digitalisation is not only beneficial to achieving this goal; it is absolutely vital,” explains co-author Grischa Beier. Transforming waste produced in one sector into raw materials for another requires highly complex logistics. Artificial intelligence can be used to support these materials recycling processes. However, the researchers note that the digital sector often stands in the way of efforts to develop a circular economy. Grischa Beier: “The short life-cycles of digital devices, especially smartphones, and the poor reparability and recyclability of hardware as well as the various ways in which industry promotes a “throw-away culture” run contrary to the goals of sustainable development.”

The authors also note that the impacts of digitalisation on labour markets present significant challenges for economic sustainability. On the one hand, digitalisation creates new industries with well-paid jobs; on the other hand, many jobs are being replaced as digital technologies are adopted in workplaces. “It is important to find and support solutions that both keep the unemployment rate low and respond to the needs of people negatively affected by these changes,” emphasizes co-author Pia-Johanna Schweizer.

And, lastly, the digital transition has far-reaching consequences for the social fabric of societies. Here, the researchers acknowledge the opportunities and risks created by one and the same effect: the anonymity of social media. This anonymity enables individuals to express their views without fear of reprisals. “At the same time, however, anonymity can create an enabling environment for communication that is characterized by mutual accusations, personal insults and threatens of violence,” says Pia-Johanna Schweizer.

The thesis paper calls on the responsible actors to take a more active role in guiding the digital transition. This, the paper claims, is the only way to unlock its enormous potential for sustainable development and to ensure that it serves the common good.

Author: Veronika Fritz


Thesis paper by Ortwin Renn, Grischa Beier and Pia-Johanna Schweizer: Systemische Chancen und Risiken der Digitalisierung