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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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Eight goals for a human-centric internet

As part of the European Commission’s Next Generation Internet initiative, the NGI Forward consortium aims to set out a vision for a more human-centric internet. This blog identifies eight key objectives that can get us there and inform our policy and technology research.

In recent decades, there has been a revolution in the development of internet technologies across a wide range of fields, and all indications are that the technological progress is continuing at a rapid pace. These breakthroughs undoubtedly have a profound impact on society, and while they present significant opportunities, there are also complex dilemmas and challenges emerging around these new technologies.

Currently, the development of the internet technologies of the future is centralised around a few internet giants in near-monopoly positions on the global data market and, without an adequate response, humans risk losing control to data-driven, non-human-centric business models. It is the goal of the Next Generation Internet initiative and NGI Forward to secure progressive development of internet technologies and policy that support the development of a more human-centric evolution of the Internet.

A mixed method approach to identify emerging challenges

Insights into emerging technologies and their corresponding challenges and opportunities can be of great value for European policy-makers in this process. Understanding these emerging challenge areas will allow policy-makers to become involved in shaping internet development early on to embed more human-centric values.

Following some of our previous work to map out future internet challenges, the NGI Forward consortium have identified a new set of eight key topics that we believe will be central in developing a more democratic, inclusive and resilient Next Generation Internet. These topics will help inform the NGI’s policy and technology research agenda going forward.

To identify the most pressing issues facing the internet today – and tomorrow – we employed a mixed method approach that includes computational social science methods and expert workshops. In the first phase, DELab at the University of Warsaw collected qualitative data from technology news articles and academic working papers to identify trending keywords related to the Internet in the broader public and research community respectively. In the second phase, DATALAB from Aarhus University organised an expert workshop with leading stakeholders in the internet research community to help narrow down the areas of focus and verify or adjust the topics. Lastly, DATALAB synthesized the results to select eight key topics for the NGI.

The chosen topics are not tied to any one technology to prevent them falling out of relevance in the coming years. They are broadly interpretable and solution-agnostic so as to avoid us jumping to simplistic conclusions or specific solutions too quickly. The rapid technological development in recent decades demonstrates that focusing on specific tools and technology may render topics obsolete within just a few years, while societal challenges are more likely to remain relevant and allow the EU to focus on a wider range of solutions beyond a predetermined technology.

1. Trustworthy Information Flows

It is widely recognised that trustworthy information flows are essential for healthy democracies, but with social media and the Internet, content can spread much faster and in less moderated ways, challenging traditional information flows. The problem of online mis- and disinformation – often referred to as fake news – has evolved from a journalistic concern to one of the most urgent democratic issues in recent years. Despite major attention from the media, academia and governments, an effective solution is still not available. Coupled with other issues such as governmental censorship and large-scale content moderation by online platforms, information flows are changing rapidly, and further research is needed to explore different solutions that are sustainable and consider often conflicting values.

2. Decentralised Power on the Internet

The Internet was originally designed to be open and decentralised. But the de facto internet of today is controlled by a handful of giant companies with virtual monopoly control, acting as gatekeepers by enforcing policies on their users. However, visions for a more decentralised Internet are gaining traction – an Internet where humans can communicate without relying on big companies that collect data for profit. Some concepts for a decentralised Internet utilize distributed web and blockchain technologies to yield a more open and accessible Internet, while others focus on empowering people to publish and own content on the web outside centralised social media platforms. More research is needed into these solutions, both technical and socio-technical.

3. Personal Data Control

Recent revelations including the Cambridge Analytica scandal have made clear the lack of control we have over our own data, and the sheer amount of data collected online has created a major privacy concern. New approaches to privacy and data rights are needed to realise the societal and environmental potential of big data to connect diverse information and conduct rapid analysis – such as data sovereignty, data portability, and collective data rights. Achieving this will require research into the ways policymakers can fit these new concepts into existing data regulation frameworks in a way that offers individuals better control and authority, and builds public trust and engagement.

4. Sustainable and Climate-friendly Internet

The environmental impact of the Internet is enormous and growing rapidly. Each activity online comes with a small price in terms of carbon emissions and with over half the global population now online, this adds up. According to some estimates, the global carbon footprint of the Internet and the systems supporting it amounts to about 3.7 percent of the total carbon emissions, similar to the amount produced by the airline industry globally. As the Internet expands into new territory, it is estimated that the carbon footprint of the global internet technologies will double by 2025. Indeed, sustainability should be a bigger priority, and further insights are needed into how emissions could be controlled, how awareness of the environmental impact of the Internet can be raised, and how internet technologies can be utilized in the fight against climate change.

5. Safer Online Environments

People increasingly experience the internet as a hostile space. Cyberviolence in many shapes and forms is a growing concern, and it has a significant impact on an increasing number of people, LGBTQ+, ethnic minorities, women and children in particular. It will be vital for a more human-centric Internet to build safe online environments. For this to happen, a range of issues needs to be taken into consideration, including the role of social media providers and the protection of free expression. At the same time, solutions need to be investigated, such as effective moderation or containment procedures, creating useful aid for victims of cyberviolence and enabling law enforcement to take action against offenders.

6. An Inclusive Internet

The Internet offers a potential for inclusiveness in a global and diverse community, but if access is not evenly distributed, the Internet will deepen inequality. Half of the population of the world is still offline, urban areas are better connected than rural, and those that are connected in advanced ways may not be in a position to realise the full potential of the Internet to improve their lives and mitigate against critical issues. Many disabled people also are excluded from using online information and services, so inclusive infrastructures and tools are needed to remove barriers and create an inclusive and accessible Internet for all.

7. Competitive European Ecosystems

Today, the Internet is dominated by two narratives that give little agency to users: the American model, ruled by capitalist market powers with internet giants harvesting massive amounts of personal data to shape human behaviour, and the Chinese model characterised by mass surveillance and government control of the internet. These narratives cannot go unchallenged, and growth and innovation in the European tech industry without acquisitions from the U.S. and China-based companies is needed to support a competing narrative adhering to European values. This requires further research into possible policy and regulatory initiatives that can increase Europe’s competitiveness in the technology sector.

8. Ethical Internet Technology

Recent examples, such as Google’s censored search engine developed for the Chinese market (‘Project Dragonfly’), instances of algorithmic bias in criminal cases, racially targeted ads and “differential” pricing, and the use of Facebook data for voter manipulation, have shown that the Silicon Valley attitude of ‘moving fast and breaking things’ has failed. With the rapid development of new technologies in the Internet of Things, Artificial Intelligence and Machine Learning, further research is needed in order to develop targeted ethical frameworks for the development and implementation of new technologies.

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How collective intelligence can help tackle major challenges…

...and build a better internet along the way!

It’s hard to imagine what our social response to a public health challenge at the scale of COVID-19 would have looked like just ten or fifteen years ago – in a world without sophisticated tools for remote working, diversified digital economies, and social networking opportunities. 

Today, we see frontline doctors self-organising through social media to share diagnostic and treatment advice, DIY communities sharing open source solutions to help bolster supplies of ventilators and face masks, and the transition of many businesses to a physically distributed and temporally asynchronous workforce model.

The common enabler of all these activities is the internet. Recent years have seen innovation across all of its layers – from infrastructure to data rights – resulting in an unprecedented capacity for people to work together, share skills and pool information to understand how the world around them is changing and respond to challenges. This enhanced capacity is known as collective intelligence (CI)

The internet certainly needs fixing – from the polarising effect of social media on political discourse to the internet’s perpetual concentration of wealth and power and its poorly understood impact on the environment. But turning to the future, it’s equally clear that there is great promise in the ability of emerging technologies, new governance models and infrastructure protocols to enable entirely new forms of collective intelligence that can help us solve complex problems and change our lives for the better. 

Based on examples from Nesta’s recent report, The Future of Minds & Machines, this blog shows how an internet based on five core values can serve to combine distributed human and machine intelligence in new ways and help Europe become more than the sum of its parts. 

We have been mapping projects that bring Artificial Intelligence and Collective Intelligence together.
Source: nesta.org.uk

Resilience

Resilience is a core value for the future internet. It means secure infrastructure and the right balance between centralisation and decentralisation. But it also means that connected technologies should enable us to better respond to external challenges. Online community networks that can be tapped into and mobilised quickly are already an important part of the 21st century humanitarian response. 

Both Amnesty International and Humanitarian OpenStreetMap have global communities of volunteers, numbering in the thousands, who participate in distributed micromapping efforts to trace features like building and roads on satellite images. These online microtasking platforms help charities and aid agencies understand how conflicts and environmental disasters affect different regions around the world, enabling them to make more informed decisions about distribution of resources and support. 

More recently, these platforms have started to incorporate elements of artificial intelligence to support the efforts of volunteers. One such initiative, MapWithAI, helps digital humanitarians to prioritise where to apply their skills to make mapping more efficient overall. 

The internet also enables and sustains distinct communities of practice, like these groups of humanitarian volunteers, allowing individuals with similar interests to find each other. This social and digital infrastructure may prove invaluable in times of crises, when there is a need to tap into a diversity of skills and ideas to meet unexpected challenges. 

In the future, collective intelligence may also help improve our ability to cooperate and share resources in, such as food and energy, effectively between and within groups. At Nesta’s Centre for Collective Intelligence Design (CCID), we are supporting research that asks whether different levels of social connectivity within and between overlapping social groups on an online platform can improve coordination in response to collective crises. Experiments like this one, will help us to understand how the internet can be organised to support more collectively intelligent and resilient behaviours. 

Inclusiveness

The need to consider a diversity of information, opinions and ideas is a key factor in the success of any collective intelligence initiative. This is true for small group interactions – which have been shown to require cognitive diversity of participants to improve problem solving, creativity and learning – as well as large-scale initiatives such as crowd predictions, where individuals making mistakes in slightly different ways ensures that the collective estimate holds. If we want to address challenges facing the whole of society, we need solutions designed for everyone.

One example of collective intelligence improving inclusiveness – while also taking an inclusive-by-design approach – is Mozilla’s Common Voice project, which uses an accessible online platform to crowdsource the world’s largest open dataset of diverse voice recordings, spanning different languages, demographic backgrounds and accents. 

The Common Voice project crowdsources diverse voices, accents and underrepresented languages

Ensuring diversity of contributions is not easy. It requires a deliberate effort to involve individuals with rare knowledge, such as members of indigenous cultures or speakers of unusual dialects. But a future internet built around an inclusive innovation ecosystem, products that are inclusive-by-design, and fundamental rights for the individual – rather than a closed system built around surveillance and exploitation – will make it easier for projects like Common Voice to become the norm. 

Democracy

The future internet should have the ambition to protect democratic institutions and give political agency to all – but it should also itself be an expression of democratic values. That means designing for more meaningful bottom-up engagement of citizens, addressing asymmetric power relationships in the digital economy and creating spaces for different voices to be heard. 

Both national and local governments worldwide are starting to appreciate the opportunities that the internet and collective intelligence offer in terms of helping them to better understand the views of their citizens. Parliaments from Brazil to Taiwan are inviting citizens to contribute to the legislative process, while cities like Brussels and Paris are asking their residents to help prioritise spending through participatory budgeting. The EU is also preparing a Conference on the Future Europe to engage citizens at scale in thinking about the future of the bloc, an effort that could be enhanced and facilitated through CI-based approaches like participatory futures. These types of activities can help engage a greater variety of individuals in political decision-making and redefine the relationships between politicians and the constituents they serve. 

Unfortunately, some citizen engagement initiatives are still driven by tech-solutionism without a clear market need, rather than the careful design of participation processes that make the most of the collective contributions of citizens. Even when digital democracy projects start out with the best intentions politicians can struggle to make sense of this new source of insight, which risks valuable ideas being overlooked and diminished trust in democratic processes. 

There are signs that this is changing. For example, the collective intelligence platform Citizen Lab is trying to optimise the channels of communications and interpretation between citizens and politicians. It has started to apply natural language processing algorithms to help organise and identify themes in the ideas that citizens contribute using its platform, helping public servants to make better use of them. Citizen Lab is used by city administrations in more than 20 countries across Europe and offers a glimpse of how Europe can set an example of democratic collective intelligence enabled by the infrastructure of the internet.

Trust

A closely related challenge for the internet today is the continued erosion of trust – trust in the veracity of information, trust between citizens online, and trust in public institutions. The internet of the future will have to find ways of dealing with challenges like digital identities and the safety of our everyday online interactions. But perhaps most importantly, the internet must be able to tackle the problems of information overload and misinformation through systems that optimise for fact-based and balanced exchanges, rather than outrage and division.

We have seen some of the dangers of fake news manifest as part of the response to COVID-19. At a time when receiving accurate public health messaging and government communications are a matter of life and death, the cacophony of information on the internet can make it hard for individuals to distinguish the signal from the noise. 

Undoubtedly, part of the solution to effectively navigate his new infosphere will require new forms of public private partnerships. By working with media and technology giants like Facebook and Twitter, governments and health agencies worldwide have started to curb some of the negative effects of misinformation in the wake of the coronavirus pandemic. But the commitment to a trustworthy internet is a long-term investment. It will not only rely on the actions of policy makers and industry to develop recognisable trustmarks, but also on a more literate citizenry that is better able to spot suspicious materials and flag concerns. 

A tweet by the UK Government warning about misinformation in the wake of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Many existing fact checking projects already already use crowdsourcing at different stages of the verification processes. For example, the company Factmata is developing a technology that will draw on specialist communities of more than 2000 trained experts to help them assess the trustworthiness of online content. However, crowdsourced solutions can be vulnerable to issues of bias, polarisation and gaming and will need to be consolidated by complementary sources of intelligence such as expert validation or entirely new AI tools that can help to mitigate against the effects of social bias.

Sustainability

Undoubtedly, some of our biggest challenges are yet to come. But the internet holds untapped potential for us to build awareness for the interdependency of our social and natural environments. We need to champion models that put the digital economy at the service of creating a more sustainable planet and combating climate change, while also remaining conscious of the environmental footprint these systems have in their own right.

Citizen science is a distinct family of collective intelligence methods where volunteers collect data, make observations or perform analyses that helps to advance scientific knowledge. Citizen science projects have proliferated over the last 20 years, in large part due to the internet. For example, the most popular online citizen science platform, Zooniverse, hosts over 50 different scientific projects and has attracted over 1 million contributors. 

A large proportion of citizen science projects focus on the environment and ecology, helping to engage members of the public outside of traditional academia with issues such as biodiversity, air quality and pollution of waterways. iNaturalist is an online social network that brings together nature lovers to keep track of different species of plants and animals worldwide. The platform supports learning within a passionate community and creates a unique open data source that can be used by scientists and conservation agencies. 

Beyond the direct use of citizen generated data for environmental monitoring and tracking of progress towards the sustainable development goals, online citizen science and community monitoring projects can lead to increased awareness of sustainability issues and longer term pro-environmental behavioural change and for those involved.

Building the Next Generation Internet – with and for collective intelligence

To enable next-generation collective intelligence, Europe needs to look beyond ‘just AI’ and invest in increasingly smarter ways of connecting people, information and skills, and facilitating interactions on digital platforms. The continued proliferation of data infrastructures, public and private sector data sharing and the emergence of the Internet of Things will play an equally important part in enhancing and scaling up collective human intelligence. Yet, for this technological progress to have a transformative and positive impact on society, it will have to be put in the service of furthering fundamental values. Collective intelligence has the opportunity to be both a key driver and beneficiary of a more inclusive, resilient, democratic, sustainable and trustworthy internet. 

At this moment of global deceleration, we suggest it is time to take stock of old trajectories for the internet to set out on a new course, one that allows us to make the most of the diverse collective intelligence that we have within society to become better at solving complex problems. The decisions we make today will help us to shape the society of the future. 

Aleks is a Senior Researcher and Project Manager for Nesta’s Centre for Collective Intelligence Design (CCID). The CCID conducts research and develops resources to help innovators understand how they can harness collective intelligence to solve problems. Our latest report, The Future of Minds & Machines mapped the various ways that AI is helping to enhance and scale the problem solving abilities of groups. It is available for download on the Nesta website, where you can also explore 20 case studies of AI & CI in practice.

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