Category Archives: Sustainability

Digital-political-economy in a post-Covid-19 world: implications for the most marginalised

Now is the time to be thinking seriously about the kind of world that we wish to live in once Covid-19 has finished its rampage across Europe and North America.[i] Although its potential direct health impact in Africa and South Asia remains uncertain at the time of writing, countries within these continents have already seen dramatic disruption and much hardship as well as numerous deaths having been caused by the measures introduced by governments to restrict its spread.  It is already clear that it is the poorest and most marginalised who suffer most, as witnessed, for example, by the impact of Modi’s lockdown in India on migrant workers.[ii]

This post highlights five likely global impacts that will be hastened by Covid-19, and argues that we need to use this disruption constructively to shape a better world in the future, rather than succumb to the potential and substantial damage that will be caused, especially to the lives of the world’s poorest and most marginalised.  It may be that for many countries in the world, the impact of Covid-19 will be even more significant than was the impact of the 1939-45 war.  Digital technologies are above all accelerators, and most of those leading the world’s major global corporations are already taking full advantage of Covid-19 to increase their reach and their profits.[iii]

The inexorable rise of China and the demise of the USA

http://hiram1555.com/2016/10/21/presidential-debates-indicate-end-of-us-empire-analyst/

Source: Hiram1555.com

I have written previously about the waxing of China and the waning of the USA; China is the global political-economic powerhouse of the present, not just of the future.[iv]  One very significant impact of Covid-19 will be to increase the speed of this major shift in global power.  Just as 1945 saw the beginning of the final end of the British Empire, so 2020 is likely to see the beginning of the end of the USA as the dominant global (imperial) power.  Already, even in influential USAn publications, there is now much more frequent support for the view that the US is a failing state.[v] This transition is likely to be painful, and it will require world leaders of great wisdom to ensure that it is less violent than may well be the case.

The differences between the ways in which the USA and China have responded to Covid-19 have been marked, and have very significant implications for the political, social and economic futures of these states.  Whilst little trust should be placed on the precise accuracy of reported Covid-19 mortality rate figures throughout the world, China has so far reported a loss of 3.2 people per million to the disease (as of 17 April, and thus including the 1290 uplift announced that day), whereas the USA has reported deaths of 8.38 per 100,000 (as of that date); moreover, China’s figures seem to have stabilised, whereas those for the USA continue to increase rapidly.[vi]  These differences are not only very significant in human terms, but they also reflect a fundamental challenge in the relative significance of the individual and the community in US and Chinese society.

Few apart from hardline Republicans in the USA now doubt the failure of the Trump regime politically, socially, economically and culturally. This has been exacerbated by the US government’s failure to manage Covid-19 effectively (even worse than the UK government’s performance), and its insistent antagonism towards China through its deeply problematic trade-war[vii] even before the outbreak of the present coronavirus. Anti-Chinese rhetoric in the USA is but a symptom of the realisation of the country’s fundamental economic and policial weaknesses in the 21st century.   President Trump’s persistent use of the term “Chinese virus” instead of Covid-19[viii] is also just a symptom of a far deeper malaise.   Trump is sadly not the problem; the problem is the people and system that enabled him to come to power and in whose interests he is trying to serve (alongside his own).  China seems likely to come out of the Covid-19 crisis much stronger than will the USA.[ix]

Whether people like it or not, and despite cries from the western bourgeoisie that it is unfair, and that the Chinese have lied about the extent of Covid-19 in their own country in its early stages, this is the reality.  China is the dominant world power today, let alone tomorrow.

An ever more digital world

https://www.forbes.com/sites/columbiabusinessschool/2020/04/21/how-covid-19-will-accelerate-a-digital-therapeutics-revolution/

Source: Forbes.com

The digital technology sector is already the biggest winner from Covid-19.  Everyone with access, knowledge and ability to pay for connectivity and digital devices has turned to digital technologies to continue with their work, maintain social contacts, and find entertainment during the lockdowns that have covered about one-third of the world’s population by mid-April.[x]  Those who previously rarely used such technologies, have overnight been forced to use them for everything from buying food online, to maintaining contacts with relatives and friends.

There is little evidence that the tech sector was prepared for such a windfall in the latter part of 2019,[xi] but major corporations and start-ups alike have all sought to exploit its benefits as quickly as possible in the first few months of 2020, as testified by the plethora of announcements claiming how various technologies can win the fight against Covid-19.[xii]

One particularly problematic outcome has been the way in which digital tech champions and activists have all sought to develop new solutions to combat Covid-19.  While sometimes this is indeed well intended, more often than not it is primarily so that they can benefit from funding that is made available for such activities by governments and donors, or primarily to raise the individual or corporate profile of those involved.  For them, Covid-19 is a wonderful business opportunity.  Sadly, many such initiatives will fail to deliver appropriate solutions, will be implemented after Covid-19 has dissipated, and on some occasions will even do more harm than good.[xiii]

There are many paradoxes and tensions in this dramatically increased role of digital technology after Covid-19. Two are of particular interest.  First, many people who are self-isolating or social distancing are beginning to crave real, physical human contact, and are realising that communicating only over the Internet is insufficiently fulfilling.  This might offer some hope for the future of those who still believe in the importance of non-digitally mediated human interaction, although I suspect that such concerns may only temporarily delay our demise into a world of cyborgs.[xiv] Second, despite the ultimate decline in the US economy and political power noted above, US corporations have been very well placed to benefit from the immediate impact of Covid-19, featuring in prominent initiatives such as UNESCO’s Global Education Coalition,[xv] or the coalition of pharmaceutical companies brought together by the Gates Foundation.[xvi]

Whatever the precise details, it is an absolute certainty that the dominance of digital technologies in everyone’s lives will increase very dramatically following Covid-19 and this will be exploited by those intent on reaping the profits from such expansion in their own interests.

Increasing acceptance of surveillance by states and companies: the end of privacy as we know it.

https://www.wired.com/story/phones-track-spread-covid19-good-idea/

Source: Wired.com

A third, related, global impact of Covid-19 will be widely increased global acceptance of the roles of states and companies in digital surveillance.  Already, before 2020, there was a growing, albeit insufficient, debate about the ethics of digital surveillance by states over issues such as crime and “terrorism”, and its implications for privacy.[xvii]  However, some states, such as China, South Korea, Singapore and Israel, have already used digital technologies and big data analytics extensively and apparently successfully in monitoring and tracking the spread of Covid-19,[xviii] and other coalitions of states and the private sector are planning to encourage citizens to sign up to having fundamental aspects of what has previously been considered to be their private and personal health information made available to unknown others.[xix]

One problem with such technologies is that they require substantial numbers of people to sign up to and then use them.  In more authoritarian states where governments can make such adherence obligatory by imposing severe penalties for failure to do so, they do indeed appear to be able to contribute to reduction in the spread of Covid-19 in the interests of the wider community.  However, in more liberal democratic societies, which place the individual about the community in importance, it seems less likely that they will be acceptable.

Despite such concerns, the growing evidence promoted by the companies that are developing them that such digital technologies can indeed contribute to enhanced public health will serve as an important factor in breaking down public resistance to the use of surveillance technologies and big data analytics.  Once again, this will ultimately serve the interest of those who already have greater political and economic power than it will the interests of the most marginalised.

Online shopping and the redesign of urban centres.

https://www.independent.co.uk/life-style/health-and-families/coronavirus-herd-immunity-meaning-definition-what-vaccine-immune-covid-19-a9397871.html

Source: Independent.co.uk

Self-isolation and social distancing have led to the dramatic emptying of towns and cities across the world.  Businesses that have been unable to adapt to online trading have overnight been pushed into a critical survival situation, with governments in many of the richer countries of the world being “forced” to offer them financial bail-outs to help them weather the storm.  Unfortunately, most of this money is going to be completely wasted and will merely create huge national debts for years into the future.  People who rarely before used online shopping are now doing so because they believe that no other method of purchasing goods is truly safe.

The new reality will be that most people will have become so used to online shopping that they are unlikely to return in the future to traditional shopping outlets. Companies that have been unable to adjust to the new reality will fail.  The character of our inner-city areas will change beyond recognition.  This is a huge opportunity for the re-design of urban areas in creative, safe and innovative ways.  Already, the environmental impact of a reduction in transport and pollution has been widely seen; wildlife is enjoying a bonanza; people are realising that their old working and socialising patterns may not have been as good as they once thought.[xx]  Unfortunately, it is likely that this opportunity may not be fully grasped, and instead governments that lack leadership and vision will instead seek to prop up backward-looking institutions, companies and organisations, intent on preserving infrastructure and economic activities that are unfit for purpose in the post-pandemic world.  Such a mentality will lead to urban decay and ghettoization, where people will fear to tread, and there is a real danger of a downward spiral of urban deprivation.

There are, though, many bright signs of innovation and creativity for those willing to do things differently.  Shops and restaurants that have been able to find efficient trustworthy drivers are now offering new delivery services; students are able to draw on the plethora of online courses now available; new forms of communal activity are flourishing; and most companies are realising that they don’t actually need to spend money on huge office spaces, but can exploit their labour even more effectively by enabling them to work from home.

We must see the changes brought about by responses to Covid-19 as important opportunities to build for the future, and to create human-centred urban places that are also sensitive to the natural environments in which they are located.

Increasing global inequalities

https://gulfnews.com/photos/news/indian-migrants-forced-to-walk-home-amid-covid-19-lockdown-1.1585394226024?slide=2

Source: Gulfnews.com

The net outcome of the above four trends will lead inexorably to a fifth, and deeply concerning issue: the world will become an even more unequal place, where those who can adapt and survive will flourish, but where the most vulnerable and marginalised will become even more immiserated.

This is already all too visible.  Migrant workers are being ostracised, and further marginalised.[xxi]  In India, tens of thousands of labourers are reported to have left the cities, many of them walking home hundreds of kilometres to their villages.[xxii] In China, Africans are reported as being subjected to racist prejudice, being refused service in shops and evicted from their residences.[xxiii]  In the UK, many food banks have had to close and it is reported that about 1.5. million people a day are going without food.[xxiv]  The World Bank is reporting that an extra 40-50 million people across the world will be forced into poverty by Covid-19, especially in Africa.[xxv]  People with disabilities have become even more forgotten and isolated.[xxvi]  The list of immediate crises grows by the day.

More worrying still is that there is no certainty that these short-term impacts will immediately bounce-back once the pandemic has passed.  It seems at least as likely that many of the changes will have become so entrenched that aspects of living under Covid-19 will become the new norm.  Once again, those able to benefit from the changes will flourish, but the uneducated, those with disabilities, the ethnic minorities, people living in isolated areas, refugees, and women in patriarchal societies are all likely to find life much tougher in 2021 and 2022 even than they do at present.   Much of this rising inequality is being caused, as noted above, by the increasing role that digital technologies are playing in people’s lives.  Those who have access and can afford to use the Internet can use it for shopping, employment, entertainment, learning, and indeed most aspects of their lives.  Yet only 59% of the world’s population are active Internet users.[xxvii]

Looking positively to the future.

People will respond in different ways to these likely trends over the next few years, but we will all need to learn to live together in a world where:

  • China is the global political economic power,
  • Our lives will become ever more rapidly experienced and mediated through digital technology,
  • Our traditional views of privacy are replaced by a world of surveillance,
  • Our towns and cities have completely different functions and designs, and
  • There is very much greater inequality in terms of opportunities and life experiences.

In dealing with these changes, it is essential to remain positive; to see Covid-19 as an opportunity to make the world a better place for everyone to live in, rather than just as a threat of further pain, misery and death, or an opportunity for a few to gain unexpected windfall opportunities to become even richer.  Six elements would seem to be important in seeking to ensure that as many people as possible can indeed flourish once the immediate Covid-19 pandemic has dissipated:

  • First, these predictions should encourage all of us to prioritise more on enhancing the lives of the poorest and the most marginalised, than on ensuring economic growth that mainly benefits the rich and privileged. This applies at all scales, from designing national health and education services, to providing local, community level care provision.
  • This requires an increased focus on negotiating communal oriented initiatives and activities rather than letting the greed and selfishness of individualism continue to rule the roost.
  • Third, it is essential that we use this as an opportunity to regain our physical sentient humanity, and reject the aspirations of those who wish to create a world that is only experienced and mediated through digital technology. We need to regain our very real experiences of each other and the world in which we live through our tastes, smells, the sounds we hear, the touches we feel, and the sights we see.
  • Fourth, it seems incredibly important that we create a new global political order safely to manage a world in which China replaces the USA as the dominant global power. The emergence of new political counterbalances, at a regional level as with Europe, South Asia, Africa and Latin America seems to be a very important objective that remains to be realised.  Small states that choose to remain isolated, however arrogant they are about the “Great”ness of their country, will become ever more vulnerable to the vagaries of economic, political and demographic crisis.
  • Fifth, we need to capitalise on the environmental impact of Covid-19 rapidly to shape a world of which we are but a part, and in which we care for and co-operate with the rich diversity of plant and animal life that enjoys the physical richness of our planet. This will require a comprehensive and rigorous evaluation of the harm caused to our world by the design and use of digital technologies.[xxviii]
  • Finally, we need to agree communally on the extent to which individual privacy matters, and whether we are happy to live in a world of omnipresent surveillance by companies (enabling them to reap huge profits from our selves as data) and governments (to maintain their positions of power, authority and dominance). This must not be imposed on us by powerful others.  It is of paramount importance that there is widespread informed public and communal discussion about the future of surveillance in a post-Covid-19 era.

I trust that these comments will serve to provoke and challenge much accepted dogma and practice.  Above all, let’s try to think of others more than we do ourselves, let’s promote the reduction of inequality over increases in economic growth, and let’s enjoy  an integral, real and care-filled engagement with the non-human natural world.


Notes:

[i] For current figures see https://coronavirus.thebaselab.com/ and https://gisanddata.maps.arcgis.com/apps/opsdashboard/index.html#/bda7594740fd40299423467b48e9ecf6, although all data related with this coronavirus must be treated with great caution; see https://unwin.wordpress.com/2020/04/11/data-and-the-scandal-of-the-uks-covid-19-survival-rate/

[ii] Modi’s hasty coronavirus lockdown of India leaves many fearful for what comes next, https://time.com/5812394/india-coronavirus-lockdown-modi/

[iii] Jack Dorsey, the founder of Twitter and Square, might well be an exception with his $1 billion donation to support Covid-19 relief and other charities; see https://www.theverge.com/2020/4/7/21212766/jack-dorsey-coronavirus-covid-19-donate-relief-fund-square-twitter

[iv] See, for example, discussion in Unwin, T. (2017) Reclaiming ICT4D, Oxford: Oxford University Press.  I appreciate that such arguments infuriate many people living in the USA,

[v] See, for example, George Parker’s, We Are Living in a Failed State: The coronavirus didn’t break America. It revealed what was already broken, The Atlantic, June 2020 (preview) https://www.theatlantic.com/magazine/archive/2020/06/underlying-conditions/610261/.

[vi] Based on figures from https://coronavirus.thebaselab.com/ on 15th April 2020.  For comparison, Spain had 39.74 reported deaths per 100,000, Italy 35.80, and the UK 18.96.

[vii] There are many commentaries on this, but The Wall Street Journal’s account on 9 February 2020 https://www.wsj.com/articles/u-s-china-trade-war-reshaped-global-commerce-11581244201 is useful, as is the Pietersen Institute’s timeline https://www.piie.com/blogs/trade-investment-policy-watch/trump-trade-war-china-date-guide.

[viii] For a good account of his use of language see Eren Orbey’s comment in The New Yorker, Trump’s “Chinese virus” and what’s at stake in the coronovirus’s name,  https://www.newyorker.com/culture/cultural-comment/whats-at-stake-in-a-viruss-name

[ix] China’s massive long-term strategic investments across the world, not least through its 一带一路 (Belt and Road) initiative, have placed it in an extremely strong position to reap the benefits of its revitalised economy from 2021 onwards (for a good summary of this initiative written in January 2020 see https://www.cfr.org/backgrounder/chinas-massive-belt-and-road-initiative)

[x] Kaplan, J., Frias, L. and McFall-Johnsen, M., A third of the global population is on coronavirus lockdown…, https://www.businessinsider.com/countries-on-lockdown-coronavirus-italy-2020-3?r=DE&IR=T

[xi] This is despite conspiracy theorists arguing that those who were going to gain most from Covid-19 especially in the digital tech and pharmaceutical industry had been active in promoting global fear of the coronavirus, or worse still had actually engineered it for their advantage.  See, for example, The New York Times, https://www.nytimes.com/2020/04/17/technology/bill-gates-virus-conspiracy-theories.html, or Thomas Ricker, Bill Gates is now the leading target for Coronavirus falsehoods, says report, https://www.theverge.com/2020/4/17/21224728/bill-gates-coronavirus-lies-5g-covid-19 .

[xii] See, for example, Shah, H. and Kumar, K., Ten digital technologies helping humans in the fight against Covid-19, Frost and Sullivan, https://ww2.frost.com/frost-perspectives/ten-digital-technologies-helping-humans-in-the-fight-against-covid-19/, Gergios Petropolous, Artificial interlligence in the fight against COVID-19, Bruegel, https://www.bruegel.org/2020/03/artificial-intelligence-in-the-fight-against-covid-19/, or Beech, P., These new gadgets were designed to fight COVID-19, World Economic Forum, https://www.weforum.org/agenda/2020/04/coronavirus-covid19-pandemic-gadgets-innovation-technology/. It is also important to note that the notion of “fighting” the coronavirus is also deeply problematic.

[xiii] For my much more detailed analysis of these issues, see Tim Unwin (26 March 2020), collaboration-and-competition-in-covid-19-response, https://unwin.wordpress.com/2020/03/26/collaboration-and-competition-in-covid-19-response/

[xiv] For more on this see Tim Unwin (2017) Reclaiming ICT4D, Oxford: Oxford University Press, and for a brief comment https://unwin.wordpress.com/2016/08/03/dehumanization-cyborgs-and-the-internet-of-things/.

[xv] Although, significantly, Chinese companies are also involved; see https://en.unesco.org/covid19/educationresponse/globalcoalition

[xvi] For the work of the Gates Foundation and US pharmaceutical companies in fighting Covid-19 https://www.outsourcing-pharma.com/Article/2020/03/27/Bill-Gates-big-pharma-collaborate-on-COVID-19-treatments

[xvii] There is a huge literature, both academic and policy related, on this, but see for example OCHCR (2014) Online mass-surveillance: “Protect right to privacy even when countering terrorism” – UN expert, https://www.ohchr.org/SP/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=15200&LangID=E; Privacy International, Scrutinising the global counter-terrorism agenda, https://privacyinternational.org/campaigns/scrutinising-global-counter-terrorism-agenda; Simon Hale-Ross (2018) Digital Privacy, Terrorism and Law Enforcement: the UK’s Response to Terrorist Communication, London: Routledge; and Lomas, N. (2020) Mass surveillance for national security does conflict with EU privacy rights, court advisor suggests, TechCrunch, https://techcrunch.com/2020/01/15/mass-surveillance-for-national-security-does-conflict-with-eu-privacy-rights-court-advisor-suggests/.

[xviii] Kharpal, A. (26 March 2020) Use of surveillance to fight coronavirus raised c oncenrs about government power after pandemic ends, CNBC, https://www.cnbc.com/2020/03/27/coronavirus-surveillance-used-by-governments-to-fight-pandemic-privacy-concerns.html; but see also more critical comments about the efficacy of such systems as by Vaughan, A. (17 April 2020) There are many reasons why Covid-19 contact-tracing apps may not work, NewScientist, https://www.newscientist.com/article/2241041-there-are-many-reasons-why-covid-19-contact-tracing-apps-may-not-work/

[xix] There are widely differing views as to the ethics of this.  See, for example, Article 19 (2 April 2020) Coronavirus: states use of digital surveillance technologies to fight pandemic must respect human rights, https://www.article19.org/resources/covid-19-states-use-of-digital-surveillance-technologies-to-fight-pandemic-must-respect-human-rights/ ; McDonald, S. (30 March 2020) The digital response to the outbreak of Covid-19, https://www.cigionline.org/articles/digital-response-outbreak-covid-19. See also useful piece by Arcila (2020) for ICT4Peace on “A human-centric framework to evaluate the risks raised by contact-tracing applications” https://mcusercontent.com/e58ea7be12fb998fa30bac7ac/files/07a9cd66-0689-44ff-8c4f-6251508e1e48/Beatriz_Botero_A_Human_Rights_Centric_Framework_to_Evaluate_the_Security_Risks_Raised_by_Contact_Tracing_Applications_FINAL_BUA_6.pdf.pdf

[xx] See, for example, https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200326-covid-19-the-impact-of-coronavirus-on-the-environment, https://www.msn.com/en-gb/news/world/the-environmental-impact-of-covid-19/ss-BB11JxGv?li=BBoPWjQ, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/mar/26/life-after-coronavirus-pandemic-change-world, and https://www.scientificamerican.com/article/how-the-coronavirus-pandemic-is-affecting-co2-emissions/.

[xxi] See The Guardian (23 April 2020) ‘We’re in a prison’: Singapore’s million migrant workers suffer as Covid-19 surges back, https://www.theguardian.com/world/2020/apr/23/singapore-million-migrant-workers-suffer-as-covid-19-surges-back

[xxii] Al Jazeera (6 April 2020) India: Coronavirus lockdown sees exodus from cities, https://www.aljazeera.com/programmes/newsfeed/2020/04/india-coronavirus-lockdown-sees-exodus-cities-200406104405477.html.

[xxiii] Financial Times (13th April) China-Africa relations rocked by alleged racism over Covid-19, https://www.ft.com/content/48f199b0-9054-4ab6-aaad-a326163c9285

[xxiv] Global Citizen (22 April 2020) Covid-19 Lockdowns are sparking a hunger crisis in the UK, https://www.globalcitizen.org/en/content/covid-19-food-poverty-rising-in-uk/

[xxv] Mahler, D.G., Lakner, C., Aguilar, R.A.C. and Wu, H. (20 April 2020) The impact of Covid-19 (Coronavirus) on global poverty: why Sub-Saharan Africa might be the region hardest hit, World Bank Blogs, https://blogs.worldbank.org/opendata/impact-covid-19-coronavirus-global-poverty-why-sub-saharan-africa-might-be-region-hardest

[xxvi] Bridging the Gap (2020) The impact of Covid-19 on persons with disabilities, https://bridgingthegap-project.eu/the-impact-of-covid-19-on-people-with-disabilities/

[xxvii] Statista (Januarv 2020) https://www.statista.com/statistics/269329/penetration-rate-of-the-internet-by-region/

[xxviii] For a wider discussion of the negative environmental impacts of climate change see https://unwin.wordpress.com/2020/01/16/digital-technologies-and-climate-change/.

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Collaboration and competition in Covid-19 response

A week ago, I wrote a post about the potential of crowdsourcing and the use of hashtags for gathering enhanced data on infection rates for Covid-19.  Things have moved rapidly since then as companies, civil society organisations, international organisations, academics and donors have all developed countless initiatives to try to respond.  Many of these initiatives seem to be more about the profile and profits of the organisations/entities involved than they do about making a real impact on the lives of those who will suffer most from Covid-19.  Yesterday, I wrote another post on my fears that donors and governments will waste huge amounts of money, time and effort on Covid-19 to little avail, since they have not yet learnt the lessons of past failures.

I still believe that crowdsourcing could have the potential, along with many other ways of gathering data, to enhance decision making at this critical time. However the dramatic increase in the number of such initiatives gives rise to huge concern.  Let us learn from past experience in the use of digital technologies in development, and work together in the interests of those who are likely to suffer the most.  Eight issues are paramount when designing a digital tech intervention to help reduce the impact of Covid-19, especially through crowdsourcing type initiatives:

  • Don’t duplicate what others are already doing
  • Treat privacy and security very carefully
  • Don’t detract from official and (hopefully) accurate information
  • Keep it simple
  • Ask questions that will be helpful to those trying to respond to the pandemic
  • Ensure that there are at least some questions that are the same in all surveys if there are multiple initiatives being done by different organisations
  • Work with a globally agreed set of terminology and hashtags (#)
  • Collaborate and share

Don’t duplicate what others are already doing

As the very partial list of recent initiatives at the end of this post indicates, many crowdsourcing projects have been created across the world to gather data from people about infections and behaviours relating to Covid-19.  Most of these are well-intentioned, although there will also be those that are using such means unscrupulously also to gather data for other purposes.  Many of these initiatives ask very similar questions.  Not only is it a waste of resources to design and build several competing platforms in a country (or globally), but individual citizens will also soon get bored of responding to multiple different platforms and surveys.  The value of each initiative will therefore go down, especially if there is no means of aggregating the data.  Competition between companies may well be an essential element of the global capitalist system enabling the fittest  to accrue huge profits, but it is inappropriate in the present circumstances where there are insufficient resources available to tackle the very immediate responses needed across the world.

Treat privacy and security very carefully

Most digital platforms claim to treat the security of their users very seriously.  Yet the reality is that many fail to protect the privacy of much personal information sufficiently, especially when software is developed rapidly by people who may not prioritise this issue and cut corners in their desire to get to market as quickly as possible.  Personal information about health status and location is especially sensitive.  It can therefore be hugely risky for people to provide information about whether they are infected with a virus that is as easily transmitted as Covid-19, while also providing their location so that this can then be mapped and others can see it.  Great care should be taken over the sort of information that is asked and the scale at which responses are expected.  It is not really necessary to know the postcode/zipcode of someone, if just the county or province will do.

Don’t detract from official and (hopefully) accurate information

Use of the Internet and digital technologies have led to a plethora of false information being propagated about Covid-19.  Not only is this confusing, but it can also be extremely dangerous.  Please don’t – even by accident – distract people from gaining the most important and reliable information that could help save their lives.  In some countries most people do not trust their governments; in others, governments may not have sufficient resources to provide the best information.  In these instances, it might be possible to work with the governments to ehance their capacity to deliver wise advice.  Whatever you do, try to point to the most reliable globally accepted infomation in the most appropriate languages (see below for some suggestions).

Keep it simple

Many of the crowdsourcing initiatives currently available or being planned seem to invite respondents to complete a fairly complex and detailed list of questions.  Even when people are healthy it could be tough for them to do so, and this could especially be the case for the elderly or digitally inexperienced who are often the most vulnerable.  Imagine what it would be like for someone who has a high fever or difficulty in breathing trying to fill it in.

Ask questions that will be helpful to those trying to respond to the pandemic

It is very difficult to ask clear and unambiguous questions.  It is even more difficult to ask questions about a field that you may not know much about.  Always work with people who might want to use the data that your initiative aims to generate.  If you are hoping, for example, to produce data that could be helpful in modelling the pandemic, then it is essential to learn from epidemiologists and those who have much experience in modelling infectious diseases.  It is also essential to ensure that the data are in a format that they can actually use.  It’s all very well producing beautful maps, but if they use different co-ordinate systems or boundaries from those used by government planners they won’t be much use to policy makers.

Ensure that there are at least some questions that are the same in all surveys if there are multiple initiatives being done by different organisations

When there are many competing surveys being undertaken by different organisations about Covid-19, it is important that they have some identical questions so that these can then be aggregated or compared with the results of other initiatives.   It is pointless having multiple initiatives the results of which cannot be combined or compared.

Work with a globally agreed set of terminology and hashtags (#)

The field of data analytics is becoming ever more sophisticated, but if those tackling Covid-19 are to be able readily to use social media data, it would be very helpful if there was some consistency in the use of terminology and hashtags.  There remains an important user-generated element to the creation of hashtags (despite the control imposed by those who create and own social media platforms), but it would be very helpful to those working in the field if some consistency could be encouraged or even recommended by global bodies and UN agencies such as the WHO and the ITU.

Collaborate and share

Above all, in these unprecendented times, it is essential for those wishing to make a difference to do so collaboratively rather than competitively.  Good practices should be shared rather than used to generate individual profit.  The scale of the potential impact, especially in the weakest contexts is immense.  As a recent report from the Imperial College MRC Centre for Global Infectious Disease Analysis notes, without interventions Covid-19 “would have resulted in 7.0 billion infections and 40 million deaths globally this year. Mitigation strategies focussing on shielding the elderly (60% reduction in social contacts) and slowing but not interrupting transmission (40% reduction in social contacts for wider population) could reduce this burden by half, saving 20 million lives, but we predict that even in this scenario, health systems in all countries will be quickly overwhelmed. This effect is likely to be most severe in lower income settings where capacity is lowest: our mitigated scenarios lead to peak demand for critical care beds in a typical low-income setting outstripping supply by a factor of 25, in contrast to a typical high-income setting where this factor is 7. As a result, we anticipate that the true burden in low income settings pursuing mitigation strategies could be substantially higher than reflected in these estimates”.

 

Resources

This concluding section provides quick links to generally agreed reliable and simple recommendations relating to Covid-19 that could be included in any crowdsourcing platform (in the appropriate language), and a listing of just a few of the crowdsourcing initiatives that have recently been developed.

Recommended reliable information on Covid-19

Remember the key WHO advice adopted in various forms by different governments:

  • Wash your hands frequently
  • Maintain social distancing
  • Avoid touching eyes, nose and mouth
  • If you have fever, cough and difficulty breathing, seek medical care early

A sample of crowdsourcing initiatives

Some of the many initiatives using crowdsourcing and similar methods to generate data relating to Covid-19 (many of which have very little usage):

Lists by others of relevant initiatives:

 

Global Covid-19 mapping and recording initiatives

The following are currently three of the best sourcs for global information about Covid-19 – although I do wish that they clarified that “infections” are only “recorded infections”, and that data around deaths should be shown as “deaths per 1000 people” (or similar density measures) and depicted on choropleth maps.

 

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Digital technologies and climate change, Part III: Policy implications towards a holistic appraisal of digital technology sector

This is the third of a trilogy of posts on the interface between digital technologies and “Climate Change”.  Building on the previous discussion of challenges with the notion of “climate change” and the anti-sustainability practices of the digital technology sector, this last piece in the trilogy suggests policy principles that need to be put in place, as well as some of the complex challenges that need to be addressed by those who do really want to address the negative impact of digital technologies on the environment.

Telecentre small

To be sure, various global initiatives have been put in place to try to address some of the challenges noted above, and the impact of digital technologies on “Climate Change” is being increasingly recognised, although much less attention is paid to its impact on wider aspects of the environment.  One challenge with many such global initiatives is that they have tended to suffer from an approach that fragments the fundamental problems associated with the environmental impact of digital technologies into specific issues that can indeed be addressed one at a time.  This is problematic, as noted in the previous two parts of this commentary, because addressing one issue often causes much more damage to other aspects of the environment.

As I have noted elsewhere,[i] the Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI) is one of the most significant such initiatives, having produced numerous reports, as well as a Sustainability Assessment Framework (SASF) that companies and organisations can use to evaluate their overall sustainability.  This has three main objectives:

  • “Strengthen ICT sector as significant player for achieving sustainable development goals
  • Enable companies to evaluate and improve their product portfolios with a robust and comprehensive instrument
  • Address sustainability issues of products and services in a coherent manner providing the basis for benchmarking and voluntary agreements”.[ii]

However, GeSI is made up almost exclusively of private sector members, and is primarily designed to serve corporate interests as the wording of the above objectives suggests.  Typically, for example, it has shown clearly how companies can reduce their carbon imprint,[iii] and many are now beginning to do so quite effectively, but the unacknowledged impact of their behaviour on other aspects of the environment is often down-played.  Little of their work has, for example, yet included the impact of satellites on the environment.  Likewise, it has failed to address the fundamentally anti-sustainable business model on which much of the sector is based.

Similarly, civil society organisations have also tended to fragment the digital-environment into a small number of parts for which it is relatively easy to gather quantifiable data. Thus, Greenpeace’s greener electronics initiative focuses exclusively on energy use, resource consumption and chemical elimination.[iv] These are important, though, showing that most digital companies that they analysed have a very long way to go before they could be considered in any way “green”; in 2017 only Fairphone (B) and Apple (B-) came anywhere near showing a shade of green in their ranking.  Recent work by other organisations such as the carbon transition think tank The Shift Project has also begun to suggest ways through which ICTs can become a more effective part of the solution to the environmental impact of ICTs rather than being part of the problem as it is at present, although usually primarily from a carbon-centric perspective focusing on climate change.[v]

These observations, alongside those in Parts I and II, give rise to at least seven main policy implications:

Above all, it is essential that a much more holistic approach is adopted to policies and practices concerning the environmental impact of digital technologies.

These must go far beyond the current carbon fetish and include issues as far reaching as landscape change, the use of satellites and the negative environmental impacts of renewable energy provision.  There is a long tradition of research and practice on Environmental Impact Analysis that could usefully be drawn upon more comprehensively in combination with the ever-expanding, but more specific, attention being paid purely to “Climate Change”.

Such assessments need to weigh up both the positive and the negative environmental impacts of digital technologies.

This issue is discussed further below, but there needs to be much more responsible thinking about how we evaluate the wider potential impact of one kind of technology, which might do harm directly, although offering some beneficial solutions more broadly.

The fundamental anti-sustainability business models and practices of many companies in the digital technology sector must be challenged and changed.

The time has come for companies that claim to be doing good with respect to carbon emissions, but yet remain bound by a business approach that requires ever more frequent new purchases, need to be called to task.  Companies that maintain restrictive policies towards repairing devices must be challenged.  Mindsets need to change so that there is complete re-conceptualisation of how consumers and companies view technology.  Laptops, tablets and phones should, for example, be designed in ways that could allow them to be kept in use for a decade rather than a few years.  Until then, much of the rhetoric about ICTs contributing to sustainable development remains hugely hypocritical.

There needs to be fundamental innovation in the ways that researchers and practitioners theorize and think about the environmental impact of digital technologies.

It will be essential for all involved to create new approaches and methodologies in line with the emphasis on a holistic approach to understanding the environmental impact of digital technologies noted above.  Only then will it be possible to avoid the piecemeal and fragmented approach that still dominate today, and thus move towards the use of technologies that can truly be called sustainable.

In turn, it is likely that such new theorizing will have substantial implications for data.

Much work on the climate impact of digital technologies is shaped by existing data that have already been produced. New models and approaches are likely to require new data to be created.

It is important that there is open and informed public debate about the real impacts of digital technologies on the wider environment, and not just on climate.

The vested interest of companies, still driven by their unsustainable practices, against such debate are huge.  However, if consumers could better understand the environmental damage caused by the digital technology system, they would be able to make improved choices about the sorts of technology they use, and how long they keep it for before replacing it.  This is why the work or organisations such as the Restart Project is so important.[vi]

Government action and international agreements are essential.

There is insufficient good evidence that the private sector will regulate itself sufficiently to make the fundamental changes necessary. Government action and international agreement are therefore essential elements of an integrated approach to the wiser use of digital technologies.  The European Union’s recent steps in 2019 concerning the right to repair are a beginning to move in this direction,[vii] but much more comprehensive action is necessary.  International organisations such as the International Telecommunication Union have a key role to play here, but their increasing alliance with private sector companies to fund their activities and their determination to show that the sector is indeed delivering on the Sustainable Development Goals make it difficult for them to respond to the extent required.  Leaders and Ministers in small island states, who are likely to be impacted most imminently by sea level change, might well be able to play an important role in sensitising the wider global community to the importance of these agendas.

The creation of a multi-sector commission

We can no longer rely on private sector funded and led entities to shape the global dialogue on the environmental impact of digital technology.[viii] If there is sufficient will in the international community, a strong case can be made for the creation of a new multi-sector global commission or similar such body to address these issues.  Amongst other things, this could shape the necessary holistic approach, disseminate reliable and trustworthy knowledge, commission new research, present unbiased conclusions, and advise governments on the actions they need to take to ensure that digital technology is developed wisely and environmentally responsibly.

 

This trilogy has been written to raise awareness of some of the challenges and issues relating to the impact of digital technology on the environment. It is by no means comprehensive, and many important issues have not been addressed.  Amongst the most significant of these are questions around the balance between serving broader good while doing localised harm.  For example, is it acceptable to use digital technologies that do indeed cause environmental harm, if such use actually reduces significant environmental harm caused by other economic or cultural activities?  Such questions are of profound importance, and can only be resolved effectively through ethical considerations and people’s moral agendas. There needs to be widespread public debate as to the kind of future we wish to create.  I have addressed some of these in my previous work, but they remain worthy of a much more comprehensive analysis.[ix]

 

It is time to unmask the hypocrisy of those shaping a future of anti-sustainable digital technologies whilst claiming that they contribute to sustainable development.  It is not yet too late to reject the false promises of the digital barons, and reclaim our full sentient experience of the physical environment. It is not yet too late to reject the digital slavery that they seeking to impose on us.  It is not yet too late for us to reclaim our role as guardians of our planet’s future.


[i] Unwin, T. (2017) ICTs, sustainability and development: critical elements, in: Sharafat, A. and Lehr, W. (eds) ICT-Centric Economic Growth, Innovation and Job Creation, Geneva: ITU, 37-71

[ii] https://gesi.org/platforms/sustainability-assessment-framework-sasf-1

[iii] Much of GeSI’s work has been driven by the need for companies to respond to the Carbon fetish, with its latest statements on ways through which the sector can deliver the 2030 sustainability agenda being replete with mentions of CO2 https://smarter2030.gesi.org/the-opportunity/.

[iv] See https://www.greenpeace.org/archive-international/en/campaigns/detox/electronics/Guide-to-Greener-Electronics/. See also Greenpeace’s (2017) Guide to Greener Electronics, https://www.greenpeace.org/usa/wp-content/uploads/2017/10/Guide-to-Greener-Electronics-2017.pdf.

[v] The Shift Project (2019) Lean ICT – Towards Digital Sobriety, https://theshiftproject.org/wp-content/uploads/2019/03/Lean-ICT-Report_The-Shift-Project_2019.pdf.

[vi] https://therestartproject.org/

[vii] https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_19_5895

[viii] Although GeSI has produced much interesting work, its private sector focus means that it is by no means impartial.  Eight of its Board members, for example, are drawn from the private sector, with the ninth being a representative of the ITU; most of its staff have an industry background; and almost all of its members and partners are private sector companies or entities.

[ix] Unwin, T. (2017) Reclaiming ICT4D, Oxford: Oxford University Press.

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Digital technologies and climate change, Part II: “Unsustainable” digital technologies cannot deliver the Sustainable Development Goals

This is the second of a trilogy of three posts about the interface between digital technologies and climate change.  It argues that the current design and use of digital technologies are largely based on principles of un-sustainability, and are therefore having a seriously damaging impact on the environment.  The digital technology industry is one of the least sustainable and most environmentally damaging industrial sectors in the modern world.  Its leaders have long been unwilling to face up to the challenges, and continue to focus primarily on the claim that they are contributing significantly to delivering the so-called Sustainable Development Goals.[i]  If digital technologies are indeed to do “good”, especially with respect to the physical environment that sustains us all, it is time for a dramatic rethink of all aspects of the sector’s activities.

Four areas of particular concern need to be highlighted:

Redundancy and unsustainability

Redundancy and unsustainability are frequently built centrally into the digital technology business model. At least three key issues can be noted here:

  • Most of the sector is based on the fundamental concept of replacement rather than repair. Those old enough will remember fixed line telephones that lasted virtually for ever.  Now, many people replace their mobile phones at least every two years.  New models come out; new fashions are promoted.  To be sure there is a growing mobile phone and digital repair sector emerging in many poorer countries, but the fundamental business model across the sector is based on innovation to attract people to buy the latest new technology, rather than to build technology that can be re-used.  Initiatives, such as Restart,[ii] are thus incredibly important in trying to change the mentality of consumers, and thereby companies and governments.  They note that: the average mobile creates 55 kilograms of carbon emissions in manufacture, equal to 26 weeks of laundry; 1.9 billion mobile phones were projected to be sold in 2018, and their total carbon footprint in manufacture was at least equal to the Philippines’ annual carbon emissions, a country of over 100 million people; if we used every phone sold this year for 1/3 longer, we would prevent carbon emissions equal to Ireland’s annual emissions.[iii] Yet, many digital companies, especially Apple, have for a long time fought against enabling consumers to repair their own devices or have them repaired more cheaply elsewhere.[iv]
  • The hardware-software development cycle forces users to upgrade their equipment on a regular basis. Innovation in the digital technology sector means that hardware developments often make old software unusable on newer devices, and new software (particularly operating systems) requires newer hardware on which to run.  Inevitably, the consumer has to pay more to replace equipment or hardware with which they were previously perfectly happy.  Not only does this increase the profits to the companies at the expense of consumers, but it also leads to massive redundancy with older equipment frequently simply being thrown away.  This is scarcely sustainable.Computer waste in Starehe Boys' School, Nairobi in the early 2000s
  • The net effect is that despite efforts to recycle digital technology, e-Waste remains a fundamental problem for the sector. Much e-waste contains concentrated amounts of potentially harmful products, and this shows little sign of abating.  In 2014 41.8 million tons of discarded electrical and electronic waste was produced, which represented some US$ 52 billion of potentially reusable resources, little of which was collected for recycling.[v] Reports in 2019 suggested that there were currently just under 50 million tonnes of e-waste, with only 20% of it being dealt with appropriately.[vi]  In recent years a substantial trade has developed whereby poorer countries of the world have become dumps for such waste, with severe environmental damage resulting.[vii] Whilst waste-processing communities such as Guiyu in China[viii] have developed to gain economic benefit from e-waste, and recycling can help provide a partial solution for many materials, the fundamental point remains that the sector as a whole is built on a model that generates very substantial waste, rather than one that is focused inherently on sustainability.[ix]

Mobiles

Digital technologies are one of the main reasons for rising global electricity demand.

Digital technology, almost by definition, must have electricity to function, and as industry and society become increasingly dependent on electricity for production, exchange and consumption, the demand for electricity continues to rise.  Moreover, most electricity production globally is currently generated by coal-fired power stations, which has led authors such as Lozano to claim that “The Internet is the largest coal-fired machine on the planet”.[x]  Four interconnected examples can be given of the scale of this environmental impact.

  • As noted briefly above, much more electricity is often consumed in manufacturing digital devices than in their everyday use. A startling report by Smil in 2016 thus noted that in 2015 all the cars produced in the world weighed more than 180 times the weight of all portable electronic equipment made that year, but only used 7 times the amount of energy in their production.[xi]
  • The overall demand for electricity from the digital technology sector is growing rapidly. Smil goes on to note that ICT networks used about 5% of the world’s electricity in 2012, and this is predicted to rise to 10% by 2020,[xii] and to 20% by 2025.[xiii] Most measures of electricity demand focus on the direct uses of digital technology, such as powering servers, equipment and charging mobile devices (phones, tablets, and laptops), but indirect demand must also be recognised, notably the air-conditioning required to reduce the temperature of places running digital technology. The heat generated by such technologies is also actually an indication of their inefficiency.[xiv]  For example, two-thirds of the power used by mobile base stations is wasted as heat.[xv] If digital technologies were designed to use energy more efficiently, rather than as something to be wasted, then this dramatic increase might be somewhat curtailed.  However, the increased emphasis on data storage, management and analysis, and the ever-growing demand for data-streaming, does not seem likely to fall in the foreseeable future, and thus much more energy efficient systems need to be put in place to manage these processes.[xvi]
  • Specific new technologies, notably blockchain, have been developed with little regard for their electricity demand and thus their environmental impact. The dramatic impact that blockchain has on electricity demand is now beginning to be more widely realised.[xvii]  For example, in 2017 the World Economic Forum even posted an article that suggested that “by 2020, Bitcoin mining could be consuming the same amount of electricity every year as is currently used by the entire world”.  Currently at the start of 2020, Bitcoin alone has a carbon footprint of 34.73 Mt CO2 (equivalent to the carbon footprint of Denmark), it consumes 73.12 TWh of electrical energy (comparable to the power consumption of Austria), and it produces 10.95 kt of e-waste (equivalent to that of Luxembourg).[xviii]  The demand is simply driven by the design of Bitcoin technology which relies on miners frequently adding new sets of transactions to its blockchain, and then all miners confirming that transactions are indeed valid through the proof-of work algorithm.  The machines that do this require huge amounts of energy to do so.  Those who like to argue that blockchain more generally can contribute positively to achieving the Sustainable Development Goals, usually fail to recognise that such technology systems are inherently very demanding of energy and can scarcely be called sustainable themselves.
  • Future projections relating to Smart Cities, 5G and the Internet of Things give rise to additional concerns over energy demand. There is much uncertainty about the environmental costs and benefits of upcoming developments in digital technology, and some efforts are indeed being made to reduce the rate of increase of energy demands. In the case of 5G, for example, the necessary denser networks will place much heavier demands on electricity unless more energy efficient technologies are put in place.[xix]  Likewise, the massive roll-out of the Internet of Things has the potential dramatically to increase energy use, not least through the management of the vast amount of data that will be produced.  Yet there are advocates who also argue that the use of these technologies will actually enable more efficient systems to be introduced.[xx]  On balance, it is certain that most of these new technologies will themselves generate greater electricity demand, but only likely or possible that systems will be introduced to mitigate such increases.  There needs to be a fundamental shift so that those designing new digital technologies in the future do so primarily based on environmental considerations.  An alternative might be for governments and regulators across the world to start now by imposing very substantial penalties on technology developers who fail to do so.

Exploitation of the environment

The exploitation of many rare minerals is unsustainable environmentally and frequently based on labour practices that many see as lacking moral integrity. Two aspects are important here.

  • First, most digital technologies rely on rare minerals that are becoming increasingly scarce. Many people are unaware, for example, that a mobile phone contains more than a third of the elements in the Periodic Table.[xxi]  Minerals such as Cobalt, the 17 rare earth elements, Gallium, Indium and Tungsten are becoming more and more in demand, and as supply is limited prices have often increased significantly.  They can also fluctuate dramatically.  Above all, as these minerals become depleted, new technological solutions will be needed to replace them.
  • Second, though, the actual exploitation of such resources is often hugely environmentally damaging, and the use of child labour is considered by many as being unacceptable[xxii] – yet such people still buy phones! Mine tailings, open cast mining methods, and waste spillages are all commonplace.  Violence and conflict over ownership of the resources is also widespread, as are the negative health implications of many of the mining methods.  Similarly, frequent reports highlight the plight of children exploited in mining the minerals necessary for digital technologies, particularly so in the Democratic Republic of Congo.[xxiii]

Direct impacts on “Climate Change” and the environment

Finally, all of these issues have varying extents of direct impact on “Climate Change” and the environment. Often this is not immediately apparent, and frequently this impact is difficult to measure, since it involves weighing up different priorities.  It is here, though, that the “carbon fetish” associated with “Climate Change” referred to in Part I, is so damaging.  Moreover, the general perception that new digital technologies are somehow “good” and “green”, and that objects such as smartphones are somehow inherently beautiful, beguiles many consumers into believing that they cannot possibly harm the environment.  This section thus points to four areas where digital technologies do have a direct impact on the environment.

Tower

  • The carbon impact of the digital technology sector is considerably more than most people appreciate.[xxiv] It has been estimated, for example, that the ICT sector emits about 2% of global CO2 emissions, and has now surpassed the airline industry in terms of the levels of its impact.[xxv]  Others suggest that the digital sector will emit as much as 4% of total greenhouse gas emissions in 2020.  A recent headline catching comparison is that it has been estimated that the watching of pornographic videos generates as much CO2 as is emitted in countries such as Belgium, Bangladesh and Nigeria.[xxvi]  Given the global fetish around the significance of carbon, these figures should be a wake-up call, and indeed there is at last some increased attention being paid to trying to use renewable energy rather than fossil fuels to supply electricity to large elements of the digital technology sector, and especially data centres. Nevertheless, such shifts invariably cause other damaging environmental impacts as noted previously in Part I.
  • Whilst the adoption of renewable sources of energy would undoubtedly reduce the carbon impact of digital technologies, their negative side-effects must also be taken into consideration. As noted above in Part I, unanticipated consequences, as well as those that are clearly already known about, also need to be taken into account.   Moreover, the environmental impact of digital technologies is compounded by the enabling impacts that it has for even greater demands to be placed on electricity production.  For example, digital technologies are a crucial enabling element for smart motorways and self-driving electric cars.  Unless electricity for these cars and communication networks is produced from renewable sources the replacement of petrol and diesel cars by electric ones will have little impact on carbon emissions.  However, the shift to renewable production will lead to a very significant environmental impact through the construction of wind turbines and solar farms.  A 2017 report, for example, estimated that wind farms would need to cover the whole of Scotland to power Britain’s electric cars.[xxvii] Even if this is an exaggeration, it makes the point that there is indeed an environmental cost (not least in landscape impact) of such technologies.[xxviii]. Furthermore, many of these technologies are themselves not environmentally friendly.  Wind turbine blades, for example, cannot be recycled, and once they are no longer usable they are currently generally disposed of in landfill sites.
  • Mobile tower 2 CatalunyaThe impact of the large number of new cell towers and antennae that will be needed for 5G networks, as well as the buildings housing server farms and data centres also have a significant environmental impact. It is not just the electricity demands for cooling that matter, but the sheer size of data farms also has a significant physical impact on the environment.[xxix]   The average data centre covers approximately 100,000 sq ft of ground, but the largest noted in 2018 was at Langfan in China and covered some 6.3 million sq ft (which is equivalent to the size of the Pentagon in the USA).[xxx] Furthermore, uncertainties over the health impact of new 5G networks have led to serious concerns among some scientists, as with the 5G appeal to the EU signed by a group of 268 (as of December 2019) scientists and doctors concerned about the impact of RF-EMF, especially with the higher frequency wavelengths being used in the 5G roll-out at high densities in urban areas.[xxxi]  Whilst a majority of those involved in developing and installing such networks do not share these concerns, it is interesting that they have indeed gained some traction.[xxxii]
  • A final very important, but frequently ignored, environmental impact is the proliferation of satellites in space. Far too often, space is seen as having no relevance for environmental matters, rather like the oceans were once considered, but in reality space pollution is of very important significance.  The environmental impact of rockets that launch satellites into space has until recently scarcely been considered.  As noted in a commentary in 2017, “Nobody knows the extent to which rocket launches and re-entering space debris affect the Earth’s atmosphere”.[xxxiii]  The increasing problem of space congestion, though, is indeed now beginning to be taken seriously.  As of January 2019, it was estimated that there have been about 8950 satellites launched into space of which around 5000 were still in space, with only 1950 still functioning.[xxxiv]  The debris from satellites is potentially very hazardous, because every object of a reasonable size from a disintegrating satellite is potentially able to destroy another satellite.  The European Space Agency estimates that there are 34,000 objects >10 cm, 900,000 objects <10 cm and > 1 cm, and 128 million objects <1 cm and > 1mm currently in orbit.

This second part of the trilogy of posts on digital technologies and climate change has argued that the digital technology sector is very largely based on business models that have been designed specifically to be unsustainable.  Moreover, these technologies and their use have very significant impact both on the environment in general and also on the constituents of the Earth’s climate.  As these technologies become used much more widely their negative impacts will increase.

In concluding Part II, it is interesting to conjecture over the extent to which this has been a deliberate process by those involved in conceptualising, designing and selling these technologies, or whether more generously it is an unintended consequence of actions by people who simply did not know what they were doing with respect to the environment.  Digital technologies in many ways separate people from the physical environments in which they live.  This reaches its most extreme form in Virtual Reality, but every aspect of digital technology changes human experiences of the physical world.  Opening the envelope containing a letter is thus very different from opening an e-mail; receiving a digital hug is very different from receiving a physical hug from someone.  I cannot help but wonder whether digital technologies, by increasingly separating us from the “real world” physical environment of which we have traditionally been a part, actually also serve to prevent us from really seeing the environmental damage that they are causing.  It is as if these technologies are themselves preventing humans from understanding their environmental implications.  Someone living in a their own virtual reality in a smart home in a smart city bubble, being moved around in autonomous smart vehicles when required, and communicating at a distance with everyone, will perhaps no longer mind about the despoliation of hillsides, the flooding of valleys, the carving out of canyons to feed the machines’ craving for minerals…

For the third part of this trilogy, see Digital technologies and climate change, Part III: Policy implications towards a holistic appraisal of digital technology sector

[Updated 13 July 2020]


[i] See for example, Unwin, T. (2018) ICTs and the failure of the SDGs, https://unwin.wordpress.com/2018/04/23/icts-and-the-failure-of-the-sdgs/; and Sharafat, A. and Lehr, W. (eds) ICT-Centric Economic Growth, Innovation and Job Creation, Geneva: ITU.

[ii] https://therestartproject.org/

[iii] https://therestartproject.org/the-global-footprint-of-mobiles/

[iv] See for example https://www.vox.com/the-goods/2019/7/3/18761691/right-to-repair-computers-phones-car-mechanics-apple. Although increasing legislation is beginning to have an impact, and Apple did announce a shift of emphasis in late 2019 to make repair easier – https://www.circularonline.co.uk/news/apple-announces-out-of-warranty-iphone-repair-programme/.   The EU also passed significant legislation in late 2019 that emphasised the need for the “right to repair”, and included it in their Ecodesign Framework – https://ec.europa.eu/commission/presscorner/detail/en/IP_19_5895

[v] See https://unu.edu/news/news/ewaste-2014-unu-report.html

[vi] https://www.weforum.org/reports/a-new-circular-vision-for-electronics-time-for-a-global-reboot

[vii] Frazzoli, C., Orisakwe, O.E., Dragone, R. and Mantovani, A. (2010). Diagnostic health risk assessment of electronic waste on the general population in developing countries’ scenarios. Environmental Impact Assessment Review, 30: 388-399.

[viii] See for example http://www.environmentandsociety.org/arcadia/electronic-waste-guiyu-city-under-change

[ix] Note that the UN’s STEP (Solving The E-waste Problem) initiative is one attempt to address these issues at a global scale, although it is as yet having little impact.

[x] Lozano, K. (2019) Can the Internet survive Climate Change?, The New Republic, 18 Dedcemebr 2019, https://newrepublic.com/article/155993/can-internet-survive-climate-change

[xi] https://spectrum.ieee.org/energy/environment/your-phone-costs-energyeven-before-you-turn-it-on

[xii] https://spectrum.ieee.org/energy/environment/your-phone-costs-energyeven-before-you-turn-it-on

[xiii] https://www.theguardian.com/environment/2017/dec/11/tsunami-of-data-could-consume-fifth-global-electricity-by-2025; see also BBC, Why your internet habuits are not as clean as you think, https://www.bbc.com/future/article/20200305-why-your-internet-habits-are-not-as-clean-as-you-think

[xiv] For an early paper, see Carroll, A. and Heiser, G. (2010) An analysis of power consumption in a smartphone, USENIXATC’10: Proceedings of the 2010 USENIX conference on USENIX annual technical conference June 2010

[xv] https://www.theguardian.com/sustainable-business/2014/sep/10/energy-consumption-behind-smart-phone

[xvi] Jones, N. (2018) How to stop data centre from gobbling up the world’s electricity, Nature, 13 September 2018.

[xvii] An interesting alternative model is provided by Holochain, https://holochain.org/

[xviii] See the excellent work and graphics by Digiconomiost at https://digiconomist.net/bitcoin-energy-consumption

[xix] See Frenger, P. and Tano, R. (2019) A technical look at 5G energy consumption and performance, Ericsson Blog, but note that this is published by a corporation with deep vested interests in showing that impacts of 5G are not likely to be severe; see also https://www.cfr.org/blog/what-5g-means-energy and https://spectrum.ieee.org/energywise/telecom/wireless/will-increased-energy-consumption-be-the-achilles-heel-of-5g-networks

[xx] See for example https://www.digiteum.com/internet-of-things-energy-management

[xxi] Jones, H. (2018) Technology is making these rare elements among the most valuable on earth, World Economic Forum.

[xxii] See, for example, https://en.reset.org/knowledge/ecological-impact-mobile-phones, https://phys.org/news/2018-08-ways-smartphone-environment.html, and https://www.unenvironment.org/news-and-stories/story/your-phone-really-smart

[xxiii] https://www.theguardian.com/global-development/2018/oct/12/phone-misery-children-congo-cobalt-mines-drc

[xxiv] For a useful infographic, see https://climatecare.org/infographic-the-carbon-footprint-of-the-internet/; see also https://www.lovefone.co.uk/blogs/news/how-much-co2-does-it-take-to-make-a-smartphone.  Recently the ITU, GeSI, GSMA and SBTi announced on 27 February 2020 a new “science-based” pathway in line with the UNFCCC Paris Agreement for the ICT industry to reduce greenhouse gas emissions by 45% by 2030, but as with so many other initiatives this focus primarily on carbon emissions, and fails to grapple with the wider environmental impact of the tech sector.  See https://www.itu.int/en/mediacentre/Pages/PR04-2020-ICT-industry-to-reduce-greenhouse-gas-emissions-by-45-percent-by-2030.aspxhttps://www.itu.int/ITU-T/recommendations/rec.aspx?rec=14084, and https://www.itu.int/en/mediacentre/Documents/Documents/GSMA_IP_SBT-report_WEB-SINGLE.pdf,

[xxv] See, for example, https://www.theguardian.com/commentisfree/2018/jul/17/internet-climate-carbon-footprint-data-centres ; see also https://www.dw.com/en/is-netflix-bad-for-the-environment-how-streaming-video-contributes-to-climate-change/a-49556716

[xxvi] https://www.newscientist.com/article/2209569-streaming-online-pornography-produces-as-much-co2-as-belgium/

[xxvii] https://wattsupwiththat.com/2017/10/30/16000-additional-wind-turbines-required-to-power-british-electric-car-fleet/

[xxviii] Likewise, there are many other very direct impacts on the environment.  Elon Musk, for example, is reported to be planning to cut down at least 220 acres of forest in Germany by the end of March 2020, in preparation for building a large new factory to produce 500,000 new electric cars a year (The Times, “Musk taxes axe to forest as factory plans accelerate”, 13 January 2020, p.35; see also https://www.teslarati.com/tesla-forest-endangered-bats-gigafactory-4/)

[xxix] https://www.colocationamerica.com/blog/data-center-environmental-impacts

[xxx] https://www.datacenters.com/news/and-the-title-of-the-largest-data-center-in-the-world-and-largest-data-center-in

[xxxi] https://www.5gappeal.eu/

[xxxii] See https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-europe-48616174

[xxxiii] David, L. (2017) Spaceflight pollution, Space.com, https://www.space.com/38884-rocket-exhaust-space-junk-pollution.html

[xxxiv] European Space Agency data https://www.esa.int/Safety_Security/Space_Debris/Space_debris_by_the_numbers.   For a recently reported near miss when two non-operational satellites came very close to each other (possibly within 12 m) over Pensylvania in the USA on 30 January 2020, see https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/world-us-canada-51299638.  More recently still, the dramatic increase in satellite swarms as a result of constellations of small satellites being launched https://slate.com/technology/2019/12/space-satellite-constellations-spacex-starlink-junk.html, as with Elon Musk’s SpaceX programme, is now receiving further criticism from those complaining about space pollution, not least from a visual perspective in the nighths sky.  See for example https://www.theverge.com/2020/3/24/21190273/spacex-starlink-satellite-internet-constellation-astronomy-coating.  In January 2021 a new “record” was set when 143 satellites were launched into orbit by a single SpaceX Falcon rocket https://www.bbc.co.uk/news/science-environment-55775977.

Updated 24th January 2021

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ICTs, sustainability and development case studies: the Restart Project

Earlier this year, I was privileged to work on a co-authored book project for the ITU.  This was published by the ITU as ICT-Centric Economic Growth, Innovation and Job Creation, and was launched at the World Telecommunication Development Conference in Argentina in October.  The chapter that I led was entitled ICTs, sustainability and development: critical elements, and provided a challenging account of ICTs and sustainability.

Each chapter was accompanied by a single case study – although I had argued strongly that there should be more than one case study for each chapter, so that a range of different examples and perspectives could be included.  I had worked with several colleagues to produce great examples that would exemplify some of the key arguments of the chapter, but sadly these were not published.

Hence, as a supplement to the book, I am including these now as blog posts.  This is the first, and was written with the help of the amazing Ugo Vallauri, co-founder of the Restart Project:

The Restart Project: local, community driven initiatives moving beyond the throw-away economy

One effective way of reducing the environmental impact of ICTs is simply to use them for longer.  The Restart Project, a London-based social enterprise that encourages and empowers people to use their electronics longer in order to reduce waste, is an excellent and innovative example of such initiatives.  Launched in 2012 with its first “Restart Party” pop-up community repair event in the UK, it has inspired groups in 10 other countries to replicate similar initiatives in  Europe, North Africa and North America.

Restart

Most energy used and most emissions generated during the life of mobile phones occur during its production process.  Hence, if people use their mobile phones for longer, and repair them when they are faulty, their overall energy impact can be dramatically reduced.  The figures are striking: the average mobile phone made in 2015 produced 36 kg of carbon emissions in manufacture, equivalent to 16 weeks of laundry in affluent countries; the total carbon footprint of the 1.9 billion mobiles sold in 2015 was roughly equivalent to Austria’s total carbon emissions; if every mobile phone were used for one-third longer than the typical 3 years, there would be an emissions saving equivalent to Singapore’s total annual emissions.

The Restart Project is both about changing people’s attitudes and also helping them to make a practical difference.  It works with communities, schools and companies to value and use ICTs longer, and to document the barriers to so doing.  This is done through convening hands-on learning events, known as Restart Parties, where volunteers  help people fix their own small electrical and electronics, and also through helping others to do the same globally, not least through developing educational resources to inspire younger people and sharing tips  for repairing different kinds of equipment.  Acting together, they draw on the skills that everyone has, and collect and publish data on the products they fix. Just over 50% of all products taken to Restart events get fixed by volunteers. By collecting data on common failures and barriers to repairability, Restart hopes to inspire designers, manufacturers and policy makers to fix some of the problems that cannot be solved: early software obsolescence, ease of disassembly and availability of spare parts are all common problems. The combined impact of the over 200 Restart Parties held  by April  2017 prevented 4,011 kg of waste, and 88,687 kg of CO2 emissions, which is equal to driving a car 739,000 km or the emissions caused in the manufacture of 15 cars.

Their guidance for hosting Restart Parties is clear and simple:

  1. Offer free entry to the public (although you can suggest a donation);
  2. Promote a collaborative learning process;
  3. Fix other stuff like bikes if you want, but you’ll need at least three-to-four electronics repairers;
  4. Tell the Restart Project about your party beforehand, and share the results with them; and
  5. Be insured! The Restart Project is not liable for events we do not organise. If uninsured, please work in partnership with a group that is.

Such efforts, though, require funding, at least of the central team running and administering the parties and undertaking the research.  Not everything can be done by volunteers.  The Restart Project has to date been funded by the Esmée Fairbairn Foundation and the Shuttleworth Foundation. Some of their activities are supported by running special events for local authorities, cultural institutions and companies. They are actively looking to  generate additional income from consultancy built on their insights on participants’ frustrations and recurrent faults and direct donations from the general public.

Many more initiatives such as the Restart Project can readily be created by local community groups across the world; as the Restart Project claims, “We’re fixing our relationship with electronic – putting people and planet first”.  Such initiatives are truly focused on finding ways through which ICTs can indeed deliver a more sustainable world, and thus help to make progress in achieving the SDGs.  If everyone kept their mobile phones, tablets or laptops longer, manufacturers would have to prioritise provision of better repair services, spare parts and refurbishing of devices, and the environmental impact would be significant.  It would be one way through which everyone in the world who owns a digital devices could contribute to achieving the SDGs.

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Participating in the e-Borneo Knowledge Fair 6 held in Ba’Kelalan, 25-27 October 2017

Far too many ICT4D initiative are thought up by the rich and privileged, often, but not always, with the intention of using technology to improve the lives of poor and marginalised peoples.  More often than not, well-intentioned researchers and academics in Europe and north America, or those living in major urban centres of economically poorer countries, try to develop new “solutions” that will help to eliminate poverty or deliver on some aspect of the Sustainable Development Goals agreed by the global elite.  Invariably, they have little understanding of the real needs of poor people or marginalised communities, and all too often such initiatives prove to be unsustainable once the initial funding for them has dissipated.

Some initiatives do, though, run counter to this all too familiar tale of woe.  One of these is the work of the Institute of Social Informatics and Technological Innovations at the Universiti Malaysia Sarawak, which has over many years sought to work with local communities in some of the most isolated areas of Sarawak.  This action research started almost 20 years ago with the creation of the e-Bario telecentre initiative in 1998. It was therefore a real privilege to be invited to give a keynote presentation at their 6th e-Borneo Knowledge Fair, held on the theme of community-based sustainability in Ba’Kelalan from 25-27 October (EBKF6).  The first e-Bario Knowledge Fair was held in 2007, and a decade on the change of name indicates a broadening of its focus beyond the village of Bario to be more inclusive of other initiatives across Borneo.

The central belief underlying these knowledge fairs has been the importance of sharing understandings between communities and researchers in co-creating new knowledge.  In a fundamental reversal of the normal conference format, where participants usually meet in major cities of the world, the e-Bario and now e-Borneo Knowledge Fairs have been held in isolated rural communities, with participating academics being encouraged to learn as much from those living there as the latter do from the conference and workshop speakers.  To emphasise this difference, outside participants were encouraged this year to travel to Ba’Kelalan on a nine-hour journey along roads cut through the forests initially by logging companies.

The knowledge fair consisted mainly of a series of workshops that placed as much emphasis on the views of the inhabitants of Ba’Kelalan and other isolated communities in Malaysia as they did on the experiences and knowledge of outside academics.  Great credit is due to the Co-Chairs of EBKF6, Narayanan Kulathu Ramaiyer and Roger Harris, and their team, for having brought together an amazing group of people.  The pictures below hopefully capture something of the refreshing energy and excitement of these workshops (link here to the official video).  Many things impressed me about them, not least the commitment of all involved to work together collaboratively to focus on delivering solutions to the needs and wants of people living in these very isolated communities, and ensuring that “development” does not irrevocably damage the essential elements of life that they wish  to maintain.  It was also very impressive to see three community healthworkers present, who were offering a free service of health checks (blood pressure and blood sugar levels) for those participating.

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The most important feature of the Sixth e-Borneo Knowledge Fair for me was that it was all about working with isolated communities rather than for them.  I came away  I am sure very much more enriched by the experience than will other participants have been by my keynote!  For those interested in what I had to say, though, the slides from my keynote are available here: Safeguarding the interests of the marginalised: rhetoric and reality of global ICT4D initiatives designed to deliver the SDGs.

Thanks again to everyone involved for making this such a special event!

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Filed under Conferences, Development, Environment, ICT4D, ICT4D conferences, ICTs, Inequality, Malaysia, Photographs, Sustainability

Making money from meeting the SDGs? An overarching approach to sustainable development

I am delighted to have been asked to moderate the session on “Making money from meeting the SDGs?” at ITU Telecom World in Bangkok on Monday 14th November (4:45 PM – 6:00 PM, Jupiter 10), although I wonder a little why I have been chosen for this task given my past criticisms of the SDGs!  Perhaps the “?” in the session title will give me a little freedom to explore some of the many challenges and complexities in this theme.  Following in the footsteps of the Millennium Development Goals (2000), the globally agreed Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) still generally focus on the idea that economic growth will eliminate poverty; indeed, they assert that poverty can truly be ended.  This is a myth, and a dangerous one. For those who define poverty in a relative sense, poverty will always be with us.  It can certainly be reduced, but never ended.   It is therefore good to see the SDGs also focusing on social inclusion, with SDG 10 explicitly addressing inequality.  We need to pay much more attention to ways through which ICTs can thus reduce inequality, rather than primarily focusing on their contribution to economic growth, which has often actually led to increasing inequality.

This session will explore the implications of such tensions specifically for the role of ICT businesses in delivering the SDGs.  Key questions to be examined include:

  • How can the ICT sector contribute to accelerating the achievement of the SDGs by providing ICT-enabled solutions and building feasible business models?
  • Is the SDG agenda relevant for the ICT industry?
  • What roles should the ICT industry, and its corporate social responsibility (CSR) departments in particular, play in working towards the SDGs?
  • Can the SDG framework provide an opportunity to accelerate transformative ICT-enabled solutions around new solutions like big data or IoT?

Underlying these are difficult issues about the ethics of making money from development, and the extent to which the ICT sector is indeed sustainable.  All too often, the private sector, governments and even civil society are now using the idea of “development” to build their ICT interests, rather than actually using ICTs to contribute to development understood as reducing inequalities; we increasingly have “development for ICTs” (D4ICT) rather than “ICTs for development” (ICT4D).  To be sure, businesses have a fundamentally important role in contributing to economic growth, but there is still little agreement, for example, on how best to deliver connectivity to the poorest and most marginalized, so that inequality can be reduced. As my forthcoming book argues, we need to reclaim ICTs truly for development in the interests of the poorest and most marginalized.

We have a great panel with whom to explore these difficult questions.  Following opening remarks by Chaesub Lee (Director of ITU’s Telecommunication Standardization Bureau, ITU), we will dive straight into addressing the above questions with the following panelists (listed in alphabetical order of first names):

  • Astrid Tuminez (Senior Director, Government Affairs. Microsoft)
  • Lawrence Yanovitch (President of GSMA Foundation)
  • Luis Neves (Chairman Global e-Sustainability Initiative (GeSI), and Climate Change and Sustainability Officer, Executive Vice President, at Deutsche Telekom Group)
  • Ola Jo Tandre (Director and Head of Social Responsibility, Telenor ASA, Norway)
  • Tomas Lamanauskas (Group Director Public Policy, VimpelCom).

Magic happens when people from different backgrounds are brought together to discuss challenging issues.  This session will therefore not have any formal presentations, but will instead seek to engage the panelists in discussion amongst themselves and with the audience.  We will generate new ideas that participants will be able to take away and apply in their everyday practices.  Looking forward to seeing you on the Monday afternoon of Telecom World in Bangkok!

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Filed under Conferences, Development, ICT4D, SDGs, Sustainability