The Deep Transitions project has emphasised how much the shaping of technology since the industrial revolution has been crucial in bringing us to the current environmentally threatening situation. Mass production, in particular, has brought the use of earth’s material resources and the emission of CO2 to dangerous levels. Excess possessions and waste in mass consumption have made us all agents in that result. Environmentalists everywhere warn of the risks and some recommend stopping or even reversing growth. Scepticism about a green future abounds. And yet, all the conditions are there for shaping technology towards a good life in a green and fair society.
The cultural obstacles
One of the problems we face when considering an environmentally sustainable future is that it is much easier to see what is wrong with the current system of production and consumption than to imagine one that can realistically replace it.
Another problem is the widespread cultural bias towards associating prosperity with possessions. This becomes a formidable obstacle for accepting a more frugal –though fully satisfying– model. Much more so given that many of the advocates of a green future emphasise guilt and the need to give up what has been seen as the ‘good life’, ignoring the natural trend of people towards fulfilling their aspirations.
A third obstacle is the disconnect between the ICT community and the environmentalists. Of course, the ICT industry adopted the planned obsolescence model characteristic of mass production since the 1960s, so they have become part of the waste problem. They are also, up to now, massive energy users.
And finally, there is globalisation as a dividing phenomenon. It is in the nature of the ICT revolution because the internet knows no frontiers and distance bears no cost. The process has lifted millions out of poverty, while it has impoverished many in the advanced world. The latter has become the fertile ground for the nationalist, anti-immigrant, resentful populists and want nothing to do with a green future, which seems to precisely question what their ‘better past’ was about.
I would like to suggest that all those problems can only be faced successfully if we can build an image of a credible future that is a win-win game between business and society, between the elites and the majorities, between advanced, emerging and developing countries and between humanity and the planet. Not a small challenge!
Recognising the necessary elements
The first requirement for such a future is to recognise that it must be built with the technologies currently available or credibly capable of being developed with our current knowledge. We are very lucky that, despite its wasteful beginnings, the ICT revolution is about intangibles. It tends to dematerialise the fulfilment of needs and reduce the need for physical mobility. We have seen it already in films, music and books and in our newly found capacity –thanks to the Covid-19 lockdowns – for communicating, teaching and meeting on the web. If well directed, ICT is the best potential tool for a green future.
The second requirement is to understand that lifestyles and aspirations are historically changing phenomena shaped by each of the successive technological revolutions. The Victorian boom led to an urban lifestyle, different from that of the landowning aristocrats in the countryside, overflowing with handmade objects, together with the industrial Wedgewood pottery and interconnected by the railway network. The Belle Époque saw a cosmopolitan way of living, in flourishing major cities with high buildings, elevators, telephones and the flourishing of education and entertainment, newspapers, theatre, music halls, restaurants, cafés and a universal outlook, suited to the world view of the first globalisation. The post-war boom was a much more national phenomenon, centred in the advanced world of the so-called West. It spread the American Way of Life as a form of mass consumption, based on suburban homeownership, and suited to the mass production revolution. Such lifestyle changes are part of the paradigm shift induced by each revolution, but also the essential way of providing dynamic demand for successful innovation and investment and therefore also one of the main routes for moving towards full employment.
The final requirement is to recognise the role of the state in shaping the context that accelerates the new lifestyle and guides business models, innovation and investment in synergistic directions. Such directions are indicated by taxation, regulation, subsidies, income distribution policies, procurement practices and other measures that modify both the relative cost structure and the territorial advantages.
Can we imagine a future where government policy can redirect innovation towards an aspirational smart green lifestyle that will be a win-win game for all the parties concerned? I believe we can.
Prefiguring a sustainable future
The ICT revolution emphasizes intangibles and services, opposite to physical goods. We need only to think about Software as Service, Cloud Computing, streaming services, online learning, the sharing economy, the care economy to understand to what enormous extend the Information Age will shape our lives in the immediate future.
The basics of a new economy have already been laid out. We´ll move from the “burden of ownership” to a rental and leasing economy. A great example of the coming transformation is what will happen to planned obsolescence, which obliterated the maintenance sector for appliances. But with ICTs, we are looking to a close future where very high-tech and durable appliances produced in emerging economies will be maintained in centres in the advanced world, with life cycles of 100 years, in a circular economy of ownership, renting, leasing, sharing, maintenance, upgrades, refurbishing, disassembling and recycling, where producers (or sellers) of goods will “own” their products and accompany them throughout their life span. Thanks to the Internet of Things the history of the product will be tracked, making pricing for reselling or leasing as well as maintenance completely transparent. Waste dumping will reduce dramatically, not only because under this scheme the amount of materials will be so much less while serving more people, but also because materials will be entirely reused or recycled in new products. Hundreds of thousands of people will be employed, and this maintenance circuit will be best suited to absorb most of the deskilled workforce of our factories. We are already transforming products back into services, and this planned obsolescence parable is around the corner. The way we went from services to products during the mass production paradigm is going to be walked back thanks to the Information Revolution.
Health and care will also shift their focus, from war to germs, emergency and costly surgeries and treatments of extreme illnesses, to a healthier lifestyle, and preventive and primary care, in a health system that will be more resilient and -less spectacularly- more self-managed and integrated in our routine instead of waiting for trouble to pile up downstream. Quality of life will be defined by health, exercise, experiences, caring, sharing, learning and creative activities, not by mere possessions or passive entertainment.
Global institutions will be set up to handle global issues such as finance and the climate threat, while local and regional levels will gain importance as centres of development and life-shaping. We’ll move away from tinned and frozen foods from afar to fresh and organic foods from nearby. Yet full economic growth should be pursued globally, perhaps in a sort of Marshall Plan that could be financed with an international transactions tax, bringing on board emerging economies with already strong development in the manufacture, as well as those with natural resources that will be highly technologized. Together with a focus on biotechnologies and nanotechnologies, this would lay the ground to create new service jobs in those places. The advanced economies, in turn, would be the main providers of capital goods for sustainable and environmentally friendly production in the appropriate scales, in a circuit of global, regional and local specialisation that would, however, be more resilient than today, since at this stage of development any part of this ecosystem will be susceptible of being produced elsewhere, regardless of specialisation.
The spectrum of social ventures, non-profits and NGOs has gained enormous traction in the last decades. Cooperatives and community-led initiatives will increasingly become part of the mix. They all will change the way we interact, consume, and relate to each other.
All those elements together will indeed be a deep transition. But they will only happen if they are led by politics and policy and if they gain the support of the majority by providing a hopeful future.
Covid-19 made clear to all that many service jobs that were somehow disregarded are essential for the survival of society. Teachers, nurses, care and maintenance personnel, therapists, supermarket cashiers, delivery people, all kept the world running during the pandemic. The level of their wages is a social and political choice, just as was the case with assembly workers during the mass production revolution (those salaries went down as soon as they got to Asia). Well paid service jobs will mean a strong and dynamic demand that will propel the new paradigm.
When society thrives, so does business. It is necessary to understand that governments and institutions are to create the conditions for this to happen. Taxes, subsidies and regulation, laws and institutions much be clearly directed towards the transition.
Technology provides the potential. But politics, policies and culture decide the direction and ultimately shape the future.