Felix Sühlmann-Faul on the future of sustainable digitalization

Felix Sühlmann-Faul, Advisor to the German Sustainability Award, explains what sustainable future digitalization can look like and what the risks are.

Digitization, sustainability

Felix Sühlmann-Faul is a sociologist of technology, keynote speaker and author specializing in digitization and sustainability. He has been concerned with the future of the environment, economy, society and politics under the influence of digitalization for many years. We met Mr. Sühlmann-Faul to talk about the sustainability of digitization.

In your opinion, is today's rapid digitization sustainable?

Digitization is often viewed as "automatically sustainable". The reason for this is the potential to increase digitization and efficiency through digital processes. Consider, for example, the automation of processes in the context of Industry 4.0. However, just because something is digital does not make it sustainable in the sense of ecological or social considerations. To do this, digital solutions must result in less energy consumption and emissions than were produced when this digital solution was manufactured.

Of course, by using streaming services, CDs or DVDs no longer need to be made and transported. But that just as little as the electricity comes from the socket, even the data of the streaming service does not simply flutter through the air to us, is often overlooked. The datastream data stream sent to us consumes more energy every year and generates more emissions.

In fact, digitization is a huge social transformation whose complexity must not be neglected

Due to its complexity, sustainability in the context of digitization can not be reduced to the three-pillar model of economy, ecology and society. That's why I have in my book "The blind spot of digitization" the policy as the fourth pillar in the concept of sustainability supplemented. This is because a) many political decisions do not take account of the sustainability of digitization and b) that political processes have a strong influence on how sustainable the digital transformation will actually be.

Because sustainability, as well known and popular as the term may be, is often regarded as important and desirable. But it usually fails because of the implementation.

In environmental sociology, it is referred to as "the long way from the head to the hand." Many people affirm their desire for an energy transition, but do not want to have wind turbines near their homes, and many applaud the "Fridays for Future" movement. Separate their garbage very well, but go on vacation twice a year, as do many companies that like to commit to sustainability, but ultimately make minimal efforts.

It is of course true that consumers can "steer" companies to behave more sustainably. But the significantly greater effect is achieved by political measures. Because these set a framework that also guides people and companies to sustainable action, not just sustainable thinking.

Where do you see the biggest risks of digitization?

Digitization is creating a boom for jobs - albeit almost exclusively in areas directly related to digitization. How this trend continues, is currently difficult to predict. Various consulting firms come to extremely different assessments. The job market is in constant motion. Fields of work disappear, new ones are added. How socially sustainable the influence of digitization is also largely dependent on political far-sightedness.

The biggest risk of digitization is the unregulated control of digital transformation through economic interests. This form of digitization is proportionately equated as the current incarnation of capitalism

The use of personal information has been discovered and is the current engine of the economy. The large platforms would not exist without this connection, and other "old economy" companies, such as the automotive industry, are also beginning to understand it. Profits are dependent on targeted targeting of consumers and tailor-made service models. Hardware like cars will be less in demand - services are the future for these companies.

Digitization and the use of personal information

The use of data can create major problems: permanent monitoring, face recognition, listening in your own home through smart home devices, etc. Consumers think too much about the fact that the many free apps, the many supposedly smart devices and more , certainly have their price. Because they undermine our privacy and liberties.

Many people do not think about it at all, others take the view that they have nothing to hide. Edward Snowden aptly said the following about this attitude: Taking the view that data protection is irrelevant, since there is nothing to hide, is like abolishing the right to freedom of expression because you have nothing to say.

Politics are also in demand here, but especially a much higher level of media literacy is needed in the population. Today we can no longer afford to use digital services and devices without any critical ulterior motive and a minimum of knowledge - in the longer term, our freedom and especially that of our children could depend on it.

Overall, in an increasingly digital world, a high degree of knowledge transfer is needed to prevent digital divide.

What role do transparency and communication play in digitization?

Digitization must not be an end in itself. Technology - which includes digitization - is always a tool and can be used to achieve the goal of a more sustainable world.

There are a handful of companies that reconcile digitization and sustainability. These include, for example, cooperatively organized hosting companies that are not aiming for profit, but to the highest possible degree of sustainability and data protection. However, most of the companies need to be driven there by pressure from consumers, and more specifically by political constraints, not to turn sustainability into a secondary objective and a fig leaf.

Companies that use personal information of users who make digital devices or acquire data from other companies need to be particularly accountable.

Transparency must be understood as a game for two people:

A) The users - it is negligent not to inform themselves about what happens to the personal data, how to hide the location of their smartphone or what information about insurance companies ask for someone to calculate the premium.

B) Companies that buy, create, analyze or use personal information or other information about individuals - they play with our freedom. These companies are responsible in a few words to convey what they are doing with the data and not to refer to 100 pages terms and conditions. That is quite possible. Only in this way can users and companies meet at eye level.

Politics can support the process between the population and the company

However, a high degree of responsibility also lies with the users. Not only because we are the ones who vote in the elections, but also because digitization is not a trend that will eventually disappear. The topic will become even bigger and more important and it will affect everyone. Putting the sand in your head is not an option.

Digitization is so complex that the areas between black and white are the key areas when making decisions. A directing of digitization in a socially just, ecological direction, can only succeed with open eyes and ears. And with a sharp mind. Only in this way can the true opportunities of digitization be exploited.

The blind spot of digitization, Felix Sühlmann-Faul

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