TECH | Apr 14, 2020

Digital sustainability: 5 points to consider for starting again

How can we deal with the Coronavirus post-emergency taking full advantage of the digital instruments we have to (re)build a more sustainable world?

“It’s not just technology that drives the game”. Our future and society cannot be defined and shaped by technology, all the more so as we will have to imagine how and from where to start again after the COVID-19 emergency. To do so, some interesting insights can be gained by reading the book “Sostenibilità digitale” (Digital sustainability) by Stefano Epifani, advisor to the United Nations and president of the Digital Transformation Institute.

The first person in Italy to address the issue of digital transformation as a tool for sustainability, in his book, thanks to the life stories of the doctor Carla, the journalist Valerio, the small entrepreneur Anna, the nurseryman Domenico and the taxi driver Alfio, one understands not only how much the impact of digital technology can be perceived both at work and in private lives, but above all how much (and how) this instrument can be used to provide a different, perhaps better, shape to work, to the economy, to society.

What are the 5 points taken from the book to consider which we must use to start again after the COVID-19?

1. The Network infrastructure is a necessary but not sufficient condition for sustainability

We have seen during this period of smart working activated in a few days, and of distance teaching, which has become mandatory for teachers and students to be able to guarantee education, how the Network infrastructure is as necessary as electricity. Necessary, but certainly not enough, since a thousand other things are required in addition to this in order to ensure, for example, that the distance teaching or smart working previously mentioned become opportunities. But one thing is certain: “The Net is and will be, if we are capable of using it at its best, an instrument of freedom, growth, social, economic and environmental well-being. But without broadband there is no Network and consequently the possibility of developing digital transformation processes. Investing in the construction of infrastructures such as optic fiber and 5G networks is the precondition for any discussion concerning the benefits of digital transformation for sustainability”.

We must, therefore, start from the infrastructure because when and if this is missing, it excludes the possibility of educating children, it prevents workers from working from home without risking unnecessary contagion.

“It is the availability of a broadband that enables the most advanced applications of artificial intelligence, thanks to which we will see increasingly flexible and effective digital instruments flank human beings in many of their activities, from self-driving cars to electricity management (smart grid), from supporting the management of complex surgical operations (smart surgery) to helping decision makers in their strategic choices for the future of a territory (data driven governance).”

2. The balance between security and freedom must always be sought

If there is anything the pandemic has taught us, it is the burden of choosing between security and freedom: we have given up, for example, our freedom to move around and be close to the people we love in favor of public health and safety. As far as digital transformation is concerned, the possibility of using contact-tracing, i.e. user tracking via smartphone, to warn people who have come into contact with others infected with COVID-19, is a matter of debate. A seemingly simple choice if one asks the wrong question, i.e.: would you rather die or give up your freedom and allow forms of accurate surveillance to the authorities? Hence, the need to ask the right questions and to think about the model of society we wish to build.

“Where the distinction between real and virtual is, perhaps, destined to disappear, the same cannot be said for that between security and freedom. It is in the name of this choice, in fact, that the decisions which will have the greatest impact on the lives of people and populations will be taken in relation to the role of technologies in society, and the manner in which these will or may develop. The balance is far from simple”.

3. Privacy isn’t something to give up, even in an emergency

Losing the right to anonymity, as is currently the risk in the name of public health for example, not only might not represent a solution to the problem of contagion, but “would place the user in front of a situation due to which mass indexing would be equivalent to imposing on every passer-by walking on the street the need to have a public identification plate. Would that make cities safer? Unlikely. It would create cities populated by less free citizens. And, in this matter, the risks which the citizen would undergo in giving up his/her data are not being taken into account. Generalized risks in the case of their commercial management, but also very concrete ones in the case of specific situations. Just think, for example, at what would happen if there were – and it has already happened – data leaks due to hacking actions or simple mistakes by those who manage them: what would happen to the victims of stalking, reachable by their stalkers, and what would happen to those who, for a thousand legitimate reasons, do not want to disclose information about their lives, their homes, their contacts?”.

As the book by Epifani explains in detail, acting in an emergency without reflecting on the consequences of choices made without weighing correctly every aspect, would certainly mean having to face a risk: “Abdicating freedom in the name of security risks transforming the Net from a great instrument of freedom into an extraordinary instrument of repression. This is what happens in China, where there is a social scoring mechanism whereby each user has a score that depends on his/her online and offline behavior, a behavior that is then tracked through every activity of their life”. That is why, even in an emergency, we must ask ourselves whether this is really the society we want to build.

4. We can close the chapter on surveillance capitalism and move towards platform cooperativism

Today, we already live in a platform society. Our every preference, every move, every “like” is not only traced but used to “customize” commercial and information offers.

“We live in the age of the Internet of Things and of Artificial Intelligenceat the crossroads between social networking and big datawith billions of connected objects talking to each other and to us and managed by a small number of players: the platforms. Platforms that base their business model on an in-depth knowledge of the features, tastes and choices of the people who use them. What should the right balance be between the user’s possibility of maintaining his/her privacy and the operators’ ability to use the information the user produces on a daily basis in order to access services which are only apparently free, but which are paid for with the value of the user’s data? When building an economic and social model based on the principles of sustainability, what should the boundary be between privacy protection and the possibility of accessing an ecosystem of services increasingly intrinsically linked to the management of everyday life?”

There is, of course, an alternative to “surveillance capitalism”.

“The dichotomy between control and privacy could evolve into a more complex reality based on privacy control. A reality in which users could decide what data to disclose, to whom, and how. And they might even be the first to draw value from those data. It is platform cooperativism, which contrasts surveillance capitalism by placing the user at the center, both of the value creation process and of its valorization model. A model which replaces the structural control process implemented by the platforms with a cooperative data management model implemented without excluding their producers – the users themselves – from the valorization phase”.

5. We can start again from the digital circular economy

Some are already strongly arguing that nothing will ever be the same as before the pandemic. Firstly, because it will be necessary to abandon the economic model which has inspired us so far. And a possible choice could be to look at an economy based on consumption and not on the object.

“Reasoning in terms of consumption rather than of possession, in fact, accustoms both clients and companies, both citizens and institutions alike, to thinking in terms of shared ownership, and with this – in the same way – of shared responsibility for the resources they manage. A sharing economy is also a shared responsibility, therefore. And this factor can represent a great enabler of processes oriented towards circular economy. The concept of consumption, in fact, potentially excludes the principle of ownership and can activate a path aimed at the concrete perception of a shared responsibility of the product, in all phases of its life cycle. This means that the life cycle of products can be managed regardless of who is using them at any given time, and of who has made the individual components. This means, for example, that the plastic with which an object is produced can equally continue to concern both the manufacturer of the plastic and that of the object that uses it, and the user of the object. And this may mean that its recycling may no longer be the sole problem of the last link in the chain, but of all those who have been part of the chain. This is possible thanks to the use of technologies such as blockchain: “tokenizing” raw materials and secondary raw materials allows to enable concrete paths of circular economy, thanks also to the logic of shared responsibility”.

“The transition from models based on the possession of objects to those based on their consumption is a process of cost optimization, produces a lower impact on the environment, improves the relationship between the efficiency and the effectiveness of products. It is essential to contextualize the issue, to define its interpretative boundaries and support its development”.

We can already start again from digital sustainability.

Sonia Montegiove