Digital Sustainability: Exploring ethical challenges and opportunities for a sustainable digital revolution
Artificial Intelligence and associated digital technologies have environmental impacts. These include heavy carbon dioxide emissions linked to the energy consumption required to generate and process large amounts of data; extracting minerals for, and manufacturing of technological components; and the waste generated from the disposal of hardware and electronic components. These environmental impacts are receiving increasing policy and media attention. This project used interviews and bibliometric analysis to identify relevant stakeholders in this field, articulated their concerns and developed an agenda of underlying ethical questions that need to be further investigated in this field.
The project advanced knowledge in three ways:
1) it articulated what “sustainability” means for industry, research and policy actors operating in the digital innovation sector. Our findings suggest that in this sector, sustainability is often associated with narrow, technocentric and/or carboncentric approaches. As a consequence, appeals to sustainability are often used in practice to justify business as usual aiming at increasing efficiency (in opposition to, for example, addressing biodiversity) because they more easily align with a business’s need to reduce costs. These findings generated an important question: How to ensure that the principle of sustainability maintains its broader focus while ensuring that it can be operationalised in specific practices in the digital innovation sector?
2) Our project also showed the limits of relying on carbon calculators for digital technologies. Our interviews with actors in the field demonstrate that collecting, agreeing and acting on quantifiable data is a rather messy process: data are unavailable or incomplete, carbon calculation methods vary across different discipline, and there is a lack of standards and guidance for stakeholders. We noticed a vicious circle. Stakeholders call for more data to be able to make decisions to reduce emissions. However, the lack of data prevents reliable calculations of carbon emissions and the divergent methodologies and approaches prevent agreements on common standards. This leads to a lack of reliable data which, in turn, makes it difficult to calculate impacts. This leads stakeholders to call for more data. How to break this circle? How to make decisions to address carbon emissions of digital technologies in a context of incomplete data and competing methodologies?
3) Finally, we suggested that an overall vision is needed to guide a governance project capable of addressing issues relating to the sustainability of the digital and information society. This vision needs to address issues of responsibilities, value tradeoffs and inequalities.
Lucivero (PI), Samuel, G. (CI). Digital Sustainability: Exploring ethical challenges and opportunities for a sustainable digital revolution. British Academy small research grants scheme. UK. £9566.14.
Non-Academic Invited Talks
- Big data e Sostenibilità ambientale. In dialogo con il Foro regionale per la Ricerca e l'innovazione - ciclo di webinar (09/06/21)
- Digital shifts and sustainability. Invited speaker at the Research Library UK Digital Shift Forum (featuring “high-profile international speakers, from a wide variety of backgrounds and professions, who are at the forefront of current thinking around the digital shift”) (07/04/2021)
- Data (un)Sustainability: Exploring challenges and opportunities for a sustainable digital revolution. Centre for Sustainable Healthcare (29/06/2020)