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Building a greener internet

How can Europe play a leading role in building a more sustainable internet?

When we think of emerging technology and sustainability, the images that come to mind usually include futuristic cities, made clean, green and perfectly efficient through the magic of algorithms and digital services.

But this utopian vision of a fully connected future comes at a potentially dystopian environmental cost. Many of our daily activities damage the environment. Thirty minutes of video streaming emits between 28 and 57g of carbon dioxide equivalent (CO2e) and binging on a 10-hour series could use the same energy as charging a smartphone 145 times. A group video conference on Zoom creates 4.5g of CO2e for each participant in an hour-long call, so a company of fifty employees each participating in two hours of video calls every working day creates as many emissions as the burning of 50kg of coal each year. 

In 2018, the internet used between five and nine per cent of global energy generated – more than global aviation. Ten years from now, it could account for as much as 23 per cent of global greenhouse gas emissions.

Carbon and energy provision aren’t the only issues at play. With the emergence of smart cities and a 5G-enabled Internet of Things, we are adding billions of low-cost new devices and sensors to our lives and built environments, embedding increasingly sophisticated electronics into our roads, buildings and appliances. How can we be sure that the benefits they deliver aren’t outweighed by their own environmental footprint – from the resources and servicing they require to the waste they produce?

Of course, thinking about the link between sustainability and technology isn’t new. The European Union recently set itself the goal of recovering from the pandemic in a way that supports both its green and digital ambitions. For policymakers across the continent, managing this so-called ‘twin transition’ is set to become one of the defining challenges of the next decade. The UK, as an R&D powerhouse with the desire to become a zero-emission economy, should take notice. The twin transition should be embraced as an opportunity, rather than a challenge, to demonstrate our leadership and ability to innovate.

It is only through a more conscious approach to connectivity that we will succeed in reconciling our green and digital aims. We have identified four principles that will help us get a handle on the environmental impact of the digital economy, and could make Europe the global standard-bearer for sustainable and ethical internet technology: 

  1. Because of the universal nature of this challenge and its potential to create significant knock-on effects, we must integrate sustainability thinking into all areas of internet-related policy, from GDPR enforcement to media regulation and competition law. 
  2. We have to improve the design of technologies by setting standards and regulating where necessary to encourage hardware producers and software developers to align their ambitions for sustainability and innovation. 
  3. Consumers need to be informed about the impact of their purchases and empowered to live their digital lives more sustainably and consciously. 
  4. Finally, we should incentivise positive change and create markets for more sustainable alternatives through tools like procurement, investment and taxation. 

To illustrate how these principles can apply to very different contexts, it is useful to take a look at the lifecycle of an internet device, from beginning to end to beginning:

Extracting natural resources

The internet is made up of physical infrastructure, from our smartphones, laptops, wearables and voice assistants to the core networks and cabling that connect our homes. Producing these tools requires a staggering variety of materials, many of which are extracted from the ground in less developed countries under conditions that threaten both local communities and the environment. Smartphones, for example, can contain upwards to 62 different elements, with the materials in each iPhone requiring the mining of more than 34kg of raw ores. Not only is the amount of energy required in these processes significant – they often involve the use of poisonous chemicals. We urgently need new and sustainable sources for the most difficult to source materials, and promising research shows we could extract many of these from recycled electronics. We can also reduce the global impact of mining by tightening up socio-environmental regulations and investigating mining opportunities within Europe.

Supply chains and importing

Once the metals, minerals and other materials that form the basis of our internet hardware are extracted, they are processed and shaped into components in several stages by a complex web of companies located across the world. An iPhone, for example, contains parts from over 200 suppliers. These supply chains are notoriously opaque. Manufacturers often don’t know exactly where a part or its materials have originated, nor do they know how sustainable their production processes are. By the time a device reaches a shop or online store, up to 95 per cent of its lifetime greenhouse gas emissions have already been created. We cannot meaningfully tackle the environmental footprint of these devices unless we have common European standards for supply chain transparency and mandatory reporting requirements that bind upstream and downstream companies looking to sell into European markets. 

Marketing and purchasing

As soon as our devices arrive in store, they fly off the shelves at astonishing rates – 200 million smartphones are sold each year in Europe alone. We replace our smartphones roughly every two years, often before they are broken, despite the opportunity to save £100 per year by keeping an old device running. Three quarters of Europeans are willing to spend more on products and services if they are environmentally friendly. We need to educate and empower consumers so they can choose devices that last longer and are easier to repair and upgrade. That starts with giving them clear and visible information about the environmental impact of their devices at the point of purchase. Local governments, public sector organisations and infrastructure providers also spend significant sums on connected devices and internet hardware. If we channel their purchasing power through green procurement rules, sustainability assessments and better guidance, we can make a real difference and create markets for manufacturers that design for sustainability and longevity.

Use and services

All of our clicks, calls and content are sent buzzing through the internet’s physical infrastructure, made up of wireless base stations, cables, switches and servers. The data we send and receive travels through data centres, large warehouses full of servers that need huge amounts of energy to power and cool them. Our data consumption is increasing quickly, and even today these systems are powered in large part by fossil fuels because they are cheaper or more readily available. Data centres across the globe used around 416 TWh per year, or about 3 per cent of global electricity supply in 2019, which is nearly 40 per cent more than the consumption of the entire United Kingdom.

According to some estimates, a single email creates around 4g of carbon dioxide. Unaware of the impact of our actions, we send roughly 300 billion emails per day, creating 1.2 million tonnes of emissions every twenty-four hours. That, quite literally, makes spam and marketing emails litter. We could make it easier for consumers to switch from services that still rely on fossil fuels and nudge tech or data companies into adopting greener energy sources and cutting back on unnecessary data-hoarding as per the GDPR’s data minimisation principle. Working with industry, we should develop standards to demonstrate and improve the energy efficiency of websites, software and services. Major platforms could lower the resolution of video content, remove auto-play functions or give users the option to listen to audio without video. Search engines and online stores could do more to identify and promote green results.

Distributed services such as the blockchain also contribute significantly to carbon emissions, with each Bitcoin transaction creating a staggering 287kg of CO2 is emitted for each single Bitcoin transaction, equivalent to around 800,000 VISA card transactions. In Iceland, Bitcoin mining is projected to soon use more energy than the country’s residents. We need to get ahead of these technologies so we can contribute to more environmentally friendly designs.

Extending lifetime

Anyone hoping to extend the life of their internet device when it breaks will come up against some serious hurdles. Repair manuals and spare parts are rarely made available to end users, and manufacturers often threaten tinkerers with draconian warranty conditions. This makes repair expensive and pushes us towards buying a new device. The fragility of modern device designs, with their edge-to-edge glass screens, adds to this trend. Our devices should and could last longer. They ought to receive software updates for longer, and be upgradeable. Modular designs such as the Fairphone have shown that this is possible. We can educate consumers about the repairability of their devices at the point of purchase, and ensure the long-term availability and accessibility of repair manuals, tools and parts to make fixing devices a viable alternative again. We also need legislation to give users the Right to Repair their devices and encourage manufacturers to design products that can have their lives extended.

Managing waste

When our internet devices break or become too slow to run the latest apps, we usually replace them. But that’s not the end of the story. The designs of our devices make them incredibly difficult to recycle, with minuscule parts soldered and glued into place. As in the early stages of a device’s lifecycle, we again rely on less developed countries to do our dirty work: 1.3 million tonnes of undocumented goods are exported from the EU each year, and in the UK as much as 80 per cent of electronic waste recycling is shipped to emerging and developing countries. Working in dire conditions, low-paid workers will disassemble the device for its valuable components, but many parts will be lost, and those that can be reused will be subjected to acid and chemical treatments that are prone to leaking into the environment. We need a Europe-wide takeback scheme and financial incentives for manufacturers to make devices easier to recycle when they are no longer repairable. 

Today we launch a new report that explores the many effects the internet has on the environment and sets out a series of recommendations that policymakers, businesses and consumers should consider to grasp the opportunities presented by the green and digital twin transition and make Europe a leader in sustainable internet technologies. This report is part of our work leading NGI Forward, the strategy and policy arm of the European Commission’s flagship Next Generation Internet initiative, which seeks to build a more democratic, inclusive, resilient, sustainable and trustworthy internet by 2030. We hope that it sparks a new conversation about a common European approach to the internet that will support the twin green and digital transitions necessary to recovery from the pandemic. There is a huge amount that we can do to create positive change in this area but we must act now.

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Announcing the NGI Forward Advisory Board

Our work requires the support and guidance of a broad community of experts and practitioners, and to help us achieve this we are excited to announce the establishment of our Advisory Board.

Our work requires the support and guidance of a broad community of experts and practitioners, and to help us achieve this we are excited to announce the establishment of our Advisory Board. Our Advisory Board members have been chosen to help us have the biggest impact we possibly can by connecting us with new networks, guiding our ideas and giving critical feedback on our plans.

Pablo Aragón, Research Scientist, Eurecat

Pablo is a research scientist at Eurecat and adjunct professor at Universitat Pompeu Fabra. His research in computational social science focuses on characterizing online participation in civic technologies, the online network structures of grassroots movements and political parties, and the techno-political dimension of networked democracy. He is also a board member of Decidim, the free open-source platform for participatory democracy. Follow Pablo on Twitter.

Mara Balestrini, Digital Transformation and HCI advisor

Mara is a Human-Computer Interaction (HCI) researcher and a digital transformation strategist. Mara’s work sits at the intersection of civic technology, data, AI and co-creation. She is former CEO of Ideas for Change innovation agency and was cabinet advisor to the Secretary of State for Digitalization and AI at the Government of Spain. Mara earned a PhD in Computer Science from the Intel Collaborative Research Institute on Sustainable Connected Cities (ICRI-Cities) at University College London (UCL). She also holds an MSc in Cognitive Systems and Interactive Media from Universitat Pompeu Fabra. Her work has been awarded at ACM CHI, ACM CSCW, Ars Electronica, among others, and featured in international media such as the BBC, The Guardian, The Financial Times and El País. Follow Mara on Twitter.

Ger Baron, CTO, City of Amsterdam

Ger Baron is the Chief Technology Officer of the City of Amsterdam. His professional career started at Accenture, where he worked as an analyst in the consulting department. In 2007, he was hired by Amsterdam Innovation Motor (AIM) in the role of project manager, specifically to develop and enhance the role of ICT. Baron was responsible for starting up the Amsterdam ICT-cluster and he initiated several projects in public-private partnership. Among these were a number of projects related to the development of Amsterdam’s Smart City initiative. Currently, Mr Baron is responsible for innovation, R&D and innovation partnerships within the City of Amsterdam. In addition, he serves as president of the City Protocol Society. Follow Ger on Twitter.

Martin Bohle, Senior Researcher, Edgeryders

Martin’s research focuses on the relationships between science and society, as perceived from a geoscience baseline. He likes to explore concepts that describe the ‘human-biogeosphere intersections’, refer to societal practices (citizen science, governance arrangements, or narratives) or encroach on complex notions such as Anthropocene, noosphere or engineering. From 1991 to 2019, he was affiliated with the Directorate General for Research and Innovation (DG RTD) of the European Commission, where he worked in operational, executive and senior advisory functions. Before these experiences, he studied the dynamics of coastal seas and lakes. Follow Martin on Twitter.

Ian Forrester, Senior Firestarter, BBC R&D

Ian is a well known and likeable character on the digital scene in the UK. He has now made Manchester his home, where he works for the BBC’s R&D North lab. He focuses on open innovation and new disruptive opportunities via open engagement and collaborations with startups, early adopters and hackers. His current research is in the area of Future Narrative and Storytelling, with a technology he calls Perceptive Media. A new kind method of broadcasting, which pairs the best of broadcast with the best of the internet to create an experience like sitting around a campfire telling stories. His background is in interaction design, which he combines with development using XML and semantic web technologies. He tends to live a few years in the future, and has an excellent eye for spotting the opportunities of open technologies and new business models. Follow Ian on Twitter.

Simon Morrison, Deputy CEO, Nesta

Simon is Deputy CEO of Nesta, where he leads the organisation’s operational teams and oversees the content-creation teams. He also works on strategy and day-to-day issues. He has been a Nesta exec for almost seven years and holds a lot of corporate memory as well as practical experience, which he tries to use to mentor individuals and units throughout the business. Prior to Nesta, he held senior positions at the Institute of Fundraising, Home Office, Royal College of Midwives and the National Trust. He also worked in local government communications and as a journalist in the commercial sector.

Inger Paus, Managing Director, Vodafone Institute for Society & Communications

Inger is responsible for Vodafone Germany’s corporate responsibility strategy. She is Chairwoman of the Management Board of the Vodafone Foundation Germany and Managing Director of the Vodafone Institute for Society and Communications. Before joining Vodafone, Inger held multiple positions in Corporate Affairs and Corporate Communications at Microsoft. As Head of Economic and Social Policy, she developed campaigns and initiatives on issues ranging from digital education and industry 4.0 to the future of work. Furthermore, she led Microsoft’s Berlin Center, which was established to foster the dialogue between government and society. Prior to that, she led Microsoft’s Corporate Communications in Western Europe and Germany. Inger Paus gained her media experience in public service broadcasting and as a consultant for media and technology companies on issues concerning political communications. Follow Inger on Twitter.

Katarzyna Śledziewska, Executive Director, DELab, University of Warsaw

Katarzyna is a professor at the Faculty of Economic Sciences of the University of Warsaw. Her interests mainly focus on digital economy, the Digital Single Market strategy, international economy, economic integration and regionalism. Katarzyna is also a member of Readie – Europe’s Research Alliance for a Digital Economy, a member of the Council for Digitization at the Ministry of Digitization and a member of the Council 17 at the 17 Goals Campaign. She is also co-author of a recently published book titled “Digital Economy: How new technologies change the world”. Follow Katarzyna on Twitter.

Marleen Stikker, Founder, Waag

Marleen Stikker founded and leads Waag, a social enterprise that consists of a research institute for creative technologies and social innovation and Waag Products, that launched companies like Fairphone, the first fair smartphone in the world. Marleen also founded ‘De Digitale Stad’ (The Digital City) in 1993, the first virtual community introducing free public access to the Internet in Amsterdam. She is also a member of the European Commission’s H2020 High-level Expert Group for SRIA on innovating Cities/DGResearch and the Dutch AcTI academy for technology & innovation. Follow Marleen on Twitter.

Marco Zappalorto, CEO, Nesta Italia

Marco is the Chief Executive of Nesta Italia and Director of the Social Innovation Design BA at IAAD University. Marco joined Nesta in 2011 and before setting up Nesta Italia he was Head of European Development and he contributed to the set-up of Challenge Prize Centre and led most of the Centre’s European and international work. Follow Marco on Twitter.

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Net Partiality, July issue

We’re on a roll with these newsletters now and I can’t wait for you to see what’s coming up this month. Data, data everywhere When technology perpetuates racism: Charlton McIlwain writes for MIT Technology Review about the fascinating origins of criminal justice information systems in the United States. Drawing parallels to the use of technology to trace […]

We’re on a roll with these newsletters now and I can’t wait for you to see what’s coming up this month.

Data, data everywhere

When technology perpetuates racism: Charlton McIlwain writes for MIT Technology Review about the fascinating origins of criminal justice information systems in the United States. Drawing parallels to the use of technology to trace COVID-19 outbreaks and monitor protestors, he highlights the long-term trust-eroding impact of systems whose precursors were designed to target Black people and the civil rights movement. The modern-day impact of historical systems is no clearer than in the process of redlining, by which 1930s US mortgage lenders established maps of subjective assessments of neighbourhood safety that are still affecting people today. Racist judgments made back then have destined many areas to low investment and poor service provision. While the practice of redlining is no longer allowed, decisions are increasingly being made by artificial intelligence, which is slurping up all of the same kinds of data about people and their neighbourhoods. This algorithmic discrimination is more pernicious because it is hidden.

Information overload: We’re facing information overload, being bombarded with too much online news that is too negative to handle, argues Eric Ravenscraft for One Zero. This has implications for our mental health, the business of accountability journalism and the spread of online misinformation, he writes, as we allow ourselves less time to scrutinise stories while accelerating news cycles mean that some public interest reporting gets buried. April and May saw a particularly significant increase in news avoidance: in a recent survey, 59 per cent of respondents said they avoided the news at least ‘sometimes’. 

Threat level: Infodemic: Meanwhile, the WHO and EU have adopted the term ‘infodemic’ to describe the increase in COVID-19-related fake news. In a recent communication, the Commission went as far as saying that China and Russia had actively engaged in targeted disinformation campaigns in Europe ‘to undermine democratic debate and exacerbate social polarisation, and improve their own image in the COVID-19 context.’ In response, the EU is asking online platforms to increase their efforts to tackle the ‘infodemic’ and submit monthly reports on policies and actions taken to improve users’ awareness of disinformation, promote authoritative content and limit advertisement placement. Platforms have also been asked to step up cooperation with researchers at the newly established European Digital Media Observatory, which supports the creation of a cross-border and multidisciplinary community of independent fact-checkers and academic researchers.

Tick-tock, come along now: It’s been two years since the UK Government announced a flagship National Data Strategy to unlock the power of the country’s data and build public trust in its use. We’re still waiting and the issues it could cover are becoming more pressing by the day. Last year’s letter from a group of civil society organisations lays out the top priorities for the strategy, with calls to invest in skills, lead the strategy from the top of Government, and ensure that the public and data users are thoroughly consulted. Will it happen this year?

A new plan to preserve our privacy: Hacks, leaks and sneaky data sharing have become the norm for internet users, now forced to take defensive manoeuvres to protect themselves from untold levels of spam emails, scam calls and ‘pre-approved’ credit cards. Once it’s stolen, it’s impossible to remove it. But how can we challenge surveillance capitalism? Well, we start by forbidding companies to use personal information as a commodity and let the tech companies find new business models, according to this Salon long read. Could this approach to legislation create a new privacy-focused world?

Privacy alone can’t fix today’s power imbalances: Michael Veale, co-developer of the decentralised DP-3T system that inspired Apple and Google’s approach to privacy-aware COVID-19 contact tracing, warns in the Guardian about the perils of confusing privacy with power concentration on the internet. Veale points to ‘federated’ or ‘edge’ computing and cryptographic tools that allow big tech companies to pursue potentially problematic ends without privacy-invasive means. He argues that we need to rethink digital rights because even if the solution adopted by Apple and Google is ‘great for individual privacy… the kind of infrastructural power it enables should give us sleepless nights.’

But the bursting of a new dotcom bubble mightThe adtech industry is heading for a fall according to this piece in The Correspondent from November, which rings true with recent developments. This in-depth analysis recounts trials and tests of the effectiveness of online advertising and finds it lacking, following a handful of case studies including eBay, and concluding that ‘It’s very hard to change behaviour by showing people pictures and movies that they don’t want to look at.’

New things coming up

The apps that nobody controls: A raft of new systems are being created to wrest control of the internet back from the world’s tech companies, and Dfinity has laid down its Internet Computer Protocol in support. Unlike traditional internet services that require central servers, Dfinity’s apps are distributed across the network, moving between servers and distributing cryptocurrency to their temporary hosts. The hope is that users will retain control over their personal data when using the apps and that they’ll be governed by the hivemind rather than a single authority.

The New Tech Cold War: Is the West losing the tech innovation race to China? We’re falling behind on AI, quantum and networking technology, and the Huawei debacle has shone a light on China’s industrial strategy to dominate in these areas. Find out if the UK or the US will manage to break free of Chinese innovation in this audio investigation from BBC Security Correspondent Gordon Corera.

Speaking of which: 22 French and German companies have banded together to develop common principles for a cloud services platform to serve Europeans. Launching in 2021, GAIA-X will be entirely non-profit, and led by German Minister Peter Altmaier. SAP, Atos, Siemens, Bosch and Deutsche Telekom are all on board. GAIA-X won’t create a direct cloud competitor to challenge US and Chinese services, but initiators hope that it will pave the way for new competitors to arise, while respecting European privacy principles.

And some bits on online content

Not content with what we’ve got: There have been all kinds of activity on content control this month, handily summed up by Mark Scott. France’s highest constitutional court has struck down legislation to force Google, Facebook and other platforms to remove hate content within 24 hours and the UK’s Online Harms Bill has been pushed to next year, but could actually be delayed ‘for years’. At the same time, Germany has approved a law forcing social platforms to report serious incidents of hateful content, the US Department of Justice is pushing to remove platforms’ immunity from lawsuits and Ireland is ramping up efforts to force platforms to build safety into their designs.

Inside the internet’s mind: Adioma has put together an incredible interactive infographic of some of the most popular topics and pieces of content. Inequality, death, kids and the future all feature heavily, with hearty long reads to dig into. Find out how to be mentally strong, how to power Germany with solar and how to die on your own terms.

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Greening the internet, remotely

Team NGI Forward has got off to a cracking start in the new world of online conferences, with our debut session at IAM Weekend. Run by a collective of artists, technologists and activists, IAM brought together hundreds of attendees from across the globe to discuss The Weirdness of Interdependencies. We had a great time joining […]

Team NGI Forward has got off to a cracking start in the new world of online conferences, with our debut session at IAM Weekend. Run by a collective of artists, technologists and activists, IAM brought together hundreds of attendees from across the globe to discuss The Weirdness of Interdependencies. We had a great time joining in and stirring up discussion about how we can make the internet more sustainable and climate-friendly. Here’s how it went.

Our aims

We’re experiencing an unprecedented and likely unsustainable proliferation of connected devices, data and traffic. Do we risk sleepwalking into a future of internet curfews and Netflix-shaming? Or can good policy and ‘smart everything’ save the day? We wanted to create an immersive workshop about these strange futures and difficult choices.

How we did it

Let’s start with some notes on the format of our workshop since everyone is looking for ideas on running online events these days. We used video conferencing and a shared slide deck so we could update it real-time with attendee contributions. For the interactive section, we used breakout rooms to split into two groups of around 15. It worked well, and as you’ll see below, we collected a ton of ideas from our willing participants.

The internet’s environmental impact

We started with a discussion of what the internet is, and where it begins and ends. The boundaries are blurry, and we have embedded the internet in so many aspects of human life that its impact is widespread and in many areas difficult to define. Powering this global network requires vast quantities of electricity, estimated at between 5-9% of the world’s total generation capacity. Despite current efforts to move to renewable sources, most of the electricity powering the internet comes from burning coal and gas, which means that our internet use is creating 2% of global greenhouse gas emissions, roughly equal to the entire global airline industry.

With the advent of IoT and 5G, the sustainability of our digital lives will become a pressing issue in the years to come. Yet, we are doing relatively little to build social awareness, spur positive cultural change or capture the market opportunities associated with innovating for a more sustainable, resilient and ethically-sourced internet.

In the rudimentary map below, you can see the different groups of people and activities that contribute to the internet’s environmental impact. From users streaming video and the data centres that serve them, to the devices they use and the mining required to produce them, everything has an impact.

And here is a set of facts about each of these areas that hits home:

Two possible ways forward

Any policy change can have unintended consequences, so we decided to present two potential approaches to reducing the internet’s climate impact. We wanted to explore what the world would look like if politicians, businesses and citizens had to make more conscious decisions about connectivity, our data and the devices we use. We wanted to challenge participants to consider tough trade-offs, predict winners and losers, and think through unexpected consequences that could range from YouTube rationing and internet class systems to urban mining booms and net-zero stock bubbles.

To get us started, Markus sketched out two equally challenging ways forward. We decided we wanted to avoid creating a dichotomy between decisive climate action and calamitous inaction. Instead, we created two imaginary scenarios that involved work on a broad scale, just with a different approach. In reality, the plan would likely include elements of both, but taking an extreme makes a futures exercise more interesting!

At this point, we split into two groups and used a futures wheel to plot out the potential consequences of each scenario. Here’s the template we used.

Scenario one: Fast Forward

In this imagined future, we’re going to accelerate our technological efforts towards solving climate change. There’d be an explosion of funding for research and development. We’d create apps, services and devices to help us monitor, analyse and act on the information we gather about the climate. We’d see all of the following actions:

💙Ramp up investment in green innovation and smart cities to mitigate climate change
💙Drive forward the digitisation of public services and make infrastructure ‘smarter’ to improve energy efficiency
💙Promote more decentralised data infrastructure
💙Encourage the proliferation of connected devices and data to better inform decision-making and policy

The good

This group predicted that new jobs, income streams and circular economy systems would emerge alongside greater access to the arts and the addition of new perspectives to global society. Greater efficiency in logistics and a greater variety of services available could lead to reduced digital lock-in for consumers, and digital tools could give us greater control over our lives.

The scenario would enable climate movements to rapidly scale, connecting people to local grassroots campaigns and improving coordination. We could see loneliness drop as we become more connected, with technology assisting ageing populations with healthcare and companionship. 

We’d invest more in technology to reduce food waste, which could help to resolve food insecurity. The price of healthcare could drop due to automation, and we could even see the beginning of a Universal Basic Income

The bad

On the negative side, our participants feared that this approach could exacerbate some already familiar problems. Greater reliance on technology could further challenge our right to privacy and worsen the digital divide. Remote areas and older people could also be left behind, which might make loneliness worse for marginalised communities.

We’ve seen in the past how a small minority of climate deniers can derail global efforts. Fake news could spread through the population like wildfire, making it challenging to verify the reliability of data. In this scenario, more people could gain access to the internet, and more conflicting views online could make it difficult to come to democratic decisions about what to do. 

Policymakers and the justice system could also be too slow to keep up with the pace of innovation we’d see in a world focused on accelerating research and development. A delayed reaction here could result in failing to protect workers that lose their jobs to automation. That could include farmers, challenged by an increase in mechanised processing and even genetically modified foods

Financial investment could be directed primarily towards large incumbent technology companies, crowding out small businesses in the online marketplace. Companies would also need to focus on long term investment in adapting, rather than short term gain.

Accelerating our adoption of technology could cause huge piles of electronic waste, with the toxic processing of rare earth metals and pollution rising interminably. 

It’s a complicated picture!

Scenario two: Press Pause

In this future, we’ve decided to hit the brakes. We’d slow down emissions by reducing our use of technology. Our focus could move back to spending time in nature. There might be campaigns to shame people that stream content ‘excessively’. We’d likely see the following:

💚Increase taxes on – and remove subsidies for – fossil energy and ‘dirty’ technology
💚Redesign public services to be more energy-efficient and less interdependent or reliant on the internet
💚Consolidate data centres, regulate energy use and traffic
💚Introduce a right-to-repair, discourage further proliferation of devices and encourage data minimisation

The good

This group felt that pressing pause would make things fairer by increasing tax on companies rather than individuals, forcing change at the core of the internet. Achieving this pause would require global collaboration on an unprecedented scale, presenting both a challenge and an opportunity to solidify global ties and collaborate.

With a more conscious approach to connectivity or even reduced internet access, we’d choose more carefully what to post online. The taxes collected in this scenario could fund all manner of social interventions, and we’d likely see a reduction in overall pollution. People could become more connected to their local communities, and we could bring marginalised groups into discussions on an equal level, especially those whom technology currently excludes because of their age, background or lack of infrastructure.

The bad

However, the consolidation of data centres could also lead to more centralised control over the internet, and it’s not clear whether this would be good for the environment in the long term. We could also see the emergence of a two-tier internet, where traffic for either vital services or wealthier groups is prioritised. 

Moreover, a culture of click-shaming could develop, forcing people to reduce or even hide their internet use. Is this how we want our approach to the internet to change?

Trade-offs along the way

Together we identified a set of trade-offs when considering greening the internet.

Green tech vs ethical supply chains: Green innovation is still heavily dependent on problematic battery technology and critical raw materials, such as rare earth minerals. These are often sourced through unsustainable means and under poor working conditions.

Saving the climate vs economic stability: Our economy and innovation ecosystems are heavily dependent on high levels of consumption. If we stop buying new devices every year, jobs may be lost and not necessarily replaced. R&D investment will have to come from new sources. 

Reducing consumption vs fair access: The global north and specific demographics benefit disproportionately from internet access. But there are still 3 billion people without a connection. Providing the same opportunities and fair access to everyone would have a tremendous impact on the environment and more environmentally friendly devices would likely be prohibitively expensive for many.

Public interest vs consumer benefit: Consumers are voters. Policies that hurt them tend to be unpopular. If we encourage companies to sell phones without chargers, will they just make greater profits to the detriment of lower-income families? Are we willing to stick with old phones for longer or pay a premium for repairable devices?

We don’t have the tech or the equality

The groups also questioned how long it would take to develop the technologies required. We decided that we will need serious investment in technology and corresponding public policy in either scenario, but that neither was particularly appealing overall. Large companies will likely be better prepared to adapt, but this depends on their sector. The geographical and political context of companies and users is another barrier to enacting these changes.

Both groups reflected next on who would benefit from these scenarios, and the answers were similar. Some participants expressed pessimism that either scenario would do much to shake up the power imbalance in the digital economy. We could easily empower those currently in marginalised groups to connect and benefit in either scenario. However, connecting them would require coordinated, concerted effort from those in power. Without this effort, participants felt that current inequalities would be exacerbated, continuing the exclusion experienced by people with lower incomes, the socially isolated, people with medical conditions and older people.

Thank you, IAM!

We had a fantastic time discussing these issues with our lovely attendees, and we’ll be contacting them, so we stay in touch. The rest of IAM Weekend was both insightful and great fun; we’d highly recommend it.

If you’re interested in these topics, join our newsletter and get in touch.

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