Navigating the Intersection of Technology, Sustainability, and Society
By Ana Yong
There can be no doubt that technology influences sustainability and society. On one hand, it can improve efficiency and reduce waste thus leading to more sustainable practices. But it can also lead to increased consumption and the depletion of resources.
The relationship between technology, sustainability, and society is complex and we should consider the long-term effects of technological advancements on both the environment and human health.
The connection is multi-layered because technology not only provides solutions to environmental and social challenges, such as reducing carbon emissions and improving access to education, it can also aggravate sustainability issues like the production of e-waste and increased energy usage. Therefore, we need to examine the impact of new technologies so as to prioritize supportable and fair development.
Role of Green Technology in Sustainability
A research paper entitled “The role of technological advancement, supply chain, environmental, social, and governance responsibilities on the sustainable development goals of SMEs in Vietnam” published in the Economic Research-Ekonomska Istraživanja Volume 35, 2022 – Issue 1 (20 December 2021) showed that the sustainable development goals of SMEs (small and medium enterprises) in Vietnam were positively linked to not only the technological developments in the country but also to the ecological and societal obligations. Researchers came to this conclusion based on data collated from a questionnaire and the use of advanced digital technology to analyze the results. To get the full paper, click here.
Forbes in an article called “How ‘Green IT’ Can Make Smart Cities Sustainable” dated 5 June 2020 announced that the main objective of green technology is to reduce the adverse ecological outcomes from manufacturing and the using and disposing of digital devices. The graphic by Forbes highlights the challenges and solutions offered by green technology. The article is also available in audio (7 minutes) for readers who are visually challenged.
Technology plays a critical role in driving corporate sustainability which means enabling companies to operate in an ecologically and socially responsible manner. With the use of innovative technologies, companies can reduce their carbon footprint, improve resource efficiency, and enhance the quality of life for their employees and communities.
As with all things new, digital technology (including green technology) comes with risks. UpGuard, a business that offers digital solutions to the Finance, Technology and Healthcare industries, published “What is Digital Risk? Definition and Protection Tactics for 2023” (5 January 2023) defines digital risk as any unanticipated effect resulting from digital revolution which interferes with the attainment of business goals.
The 9 areas which are affected by digital risk are:
Such risks impact systems, people and processes and may stem from technical incongruities, slipups, and malfunctions.
This refers to the dangers posed when there is unlawful access to confidential information and data infringements.
Unintentional disclosures of personal data could evolve into data breaches. This happens when countless people are accessing data worldwide. In addition, the IT (information technology) system is expected to be available anytime and anywhere with no down time allowed.
When regulatory standards are not adhered to because of human error, compliance issues arise.
When existing processes are changed or innovative procedures are introduced, misalignment issues may become digital risks.
This refers to how fast a business can bounce back from a digital disruption.
This refers to how safe sensitive information is which is, in turn, evaluated by how easy it is to hack the IT system.
As more digital transactions and procedures are sub-contracted to third-party vendors, it becomes more difficult to oversee the actions of others which may result in intellectual property theft, and the sale of security information, among others.
UpGuard has defined this as “any talent gaps preventing the achievement of business objectives”.
There is no single universally accepted method for assessing countries on the use of technology to achieve sustainability. However, various schemes are in place worldwide.
The most well-known framework is the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals created in 2015. The SDGs consist of 17 targets for reducing poverty and inequality, defending the planet, and ensuring economic growth for all by 2030. Many of the SDGs are directly relevant to the use of technology for sustainability, as shown below:
Goal 7: Affordable and Clean Energy
The below infographic details the latest achievements for Goal 7.
Goal 9: Industry, Innovation, and Infrastructure
Goal 11: Sustainable Cities and Communities
Goal 12: Responsible Consumption and Production
Goal 13: Climate Action
Goal 14: Life Below Water
Goal 15: Life on Land
To help nations achieve the SDGs, the United Nations developed a set of indicators to measure the progress towards each goal and this includes assessing the role of technology to foster sustainability.
Another framework is the Global Enabling Sustainability Initiative by GeSI which “is a leading source of impartial information, resources and best practices for achieving integrated social and environmental sustainability through Digital technologies”.
The CCPI is “an instrument to enable transparency in national and international climate politics. The CCPI uses a standardized framework to compare the climate performance of 59 countries and the EU, which together account for 92% of global greenhouse gas emissions. The climate protection performance is assessed in four categories: GHG Emissions, Renewable Energy, Energy Use and Climate Policy”.
The infographic below shows the CCPI Ranking for 2023. At the time of writing, the first 3 positions in the leaderboard were still under consideration. Therefore, Denmark is ranked fourth.
Technology plays a vital role in improving sustainability by providing solutions to environmental and social challenges such as improving energy efficiency, reducing waste, and supporting access to resources. However, it can also add to sustainability issues such as resource exhaustion and environmental deprivation. Therefore, we should prioritize sustainable and equitable growth to ensure equitable access to resources.
The impact of new technology on sustainability is divided into 2 categories: positive and negative:
a. Energy efficiency: New technologies can make energy utilization more efficient, reducing the demand for energy and the accompanying environmental impact. For example, smart building technologies can reduce energy consumption while renewable energy technologies can provide clean and sustainable energy.
b. Waste reduction: This is done by streamlining production processes, minimizing packaging, and promoting recycling and waste control.
c. Sustainable agriculture: New technologies such as Precision Agriculture and Vertical Farming can improve crop yields while minimizing land and water usage, and the reliance on chemicals in weed and insect control.
a. Resource depletion: The production and disposal of new technologies have a negative impact on natural resources such as rare earth metals which are required to manufacture digital devices.
b. Pollution: The production and disposal of digital devices contribute to air, water, and soil pollution, leading to environmental degradation and health problems.
c. Carbon emissions: The energy consumption required by technology, particularly the use of electronic devices and data centers, lead to significant greenhouse gas emissions which contribute to global warming and climate change.
The impact of new technology on sustainability depends on the specific technology and its intended use, as well as the methods used to produce, use, and dispose of it.
The intersection of technology and society denotes the manner in which technology influences and is influenced by society, and how it shapes and is shaped by human behavior and values. The relationship can be both positive and negative.
Examples include the application of technology for social good, the effect of technology on employment and the economy, and the ethical and privacy alarms raised by cyber security.
One such example is the Digital Twin Technology which is a “digital representation of a physical object, process or service”. In other words, it is a virtual replica of a physical object or system that can be used for simulations, analysis, and monitoring of its real-world counterpart.
It involves using sensor data, IoT (Internet of Things) devices, and other information to create a digital exemplification of a physical asset, which can be used to predict its behavior and improve decision making to optimize operations. Digital Twin technology is widely used in industries like manufacturing, healthcare, construction, and energy. For more details, click here.
- Short-term vs. long-term goals: Economic growth is usually measured in the short-term while environmental sustainability requires long-term planning and implementation of ecologically beneficial technologies.
- Economic costs: Administering environmentally sustainable practices such as reducing carbon emissions can be expensive and impacts short term economic growth.
- Job loss: Some industries like oil refining may face job loss as the shift towards sustainability takes place. This can result in economic disruption and have negative impacts on communities.
- Competition for resources: Economic growth demands increased consumption of natural resources which defies the necessity to conserve those resources for future generations.
- Inequity: The conversion to a sustainable economy results in unequal distribution of benefits with some populations losing out on economic advantages.
- Balancing growth and sustainability: Matching the need for economic growth with sustainability necessitates careful consideration and planning to make sure that both are achieved over the long term.
Technology determines how we communicate, think, study, and learn. It supports human interaction on a global basis. Therefore, society is influenced by technology in the following ways:
a. Communication: Technology has transformed the way people communicate and retrieve information, thus producing new forms of social interactions including the creation of virtual communities and the use of avatars.
b. Employment: Technology has created job automation and fluctuations in the job market, affecting employment opportunities and the categories of jobs available.
c. Culture: Technology has altered cultural norms, values, and actions, determining new forms of entertainment, art, and creativity. Examples include the use of cryptocurrency for transactions and the use of non-fungible tokens (NFTs) as a form of digital certification confirming ownership and authenticity of an asset.
d. Education: Technology has revolutionized the way people learn with innovative means of acquiring expertise and skills. For example, new surgeons can learn how to operate on patients in a virtual reality scenario without stepping into a real operating theatre.
e. Economic growth: Technology has driven economic progress and modernization to positively impact the global economy.
f. Privacy and Security: Technology has generated concerns about confidentiality and safety as personal data is gathered, kept, and shared. For example, there have been incidents where the credit card details of customers were hacked and sold on the Dark Web.
7. What measures can ensure that Benefits of Technology for Sustainability are Accessible to Everyone?
- Bridge the digital divide: Provide access to technology and the internet, especially to underserved and marginalized communities.
- Affordability: Make sustainable technologies affordable and accessible to all members of society, regardless of income level.
- Education and training: Provide education and training programs to under-resourced groups to build the necessary skills to use sustainable technologies.
- Inclusivity: Ensure the development and deployment of sustainable technologies are inclusive and consider the needs and perspectives of diverse communities.
- Collaboration: Work with community organizations, governments, and businesses to develop and implement sustainable technology solutions.
- Government support: Governments could lead by promoting and funding the development and distribution of sustainable technologies including incentives and subsidies to make them more accessible to everyone.
- Public awareness: Raise public awareness about the benefits of sustainable technologies and their potential impact on sustainability and quality of life to drive adoption.
a. Ecological impact: Such consequences include resource reduction, contamination, and waste creation. Such negative effects can be overcome through environmental enhancements.
b. Resource management: Technology relies on limited reserves like minerals and energy, and sustainability deliberations can promote responsible resource utilization to minimize wastage.
c. Social responsibility: Since technology has a significant impact on society, sustainability considerations will endorse equitable and socially responsible procedures such as safeguarding workers’ rights and allowing technology to be accessible to all.
d. Long-term viability: Sustainability is critical for the long-term feasibility of technology and the companies that produce and use it. By limiting the negative social and environmental impacts of their products and practices, businesses can create long-term value for stakeholders as part of their corporate social responsibilities.
9. What are the benefits of using technology in sustaining the environment?
a. Energy efficiency: Technology can improve energy proficiency, reduce greenhouse gas emissions and resource depletion.
b. Waste reduction: Technology can support waste minimalization and control, improve resource application and decrease pollution.
c. Renewable energy: Technology allows for the deployment of renewable energy supplies, reduces reliance on non-renewable energy and mitigates the impact of energy creation on the environment.
d. Conservation: Technology can support conservation efforts such as monitoring ecosystems, controlling wildlife populations, and reducing deforestation.
e. Sustainable agriculture: Technology can improve sustainable agriculture practices like precision farming and water control, decreasing environmental impact and intensifying food security.
f. Transportation: Technology can support sustainable transportation such as electric vehicles and sustainable mobility services, thus reducing greenhouse gas emissions and air pollution.
10. Differences between Environmental, Social and Governance (ESG), Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR), Corporate Sustainability (CS) and Corporate Environmental Sustainability (CES)
ESG is a “quantifiable assessment of sustainability” and CSR is a “self-regulating business model that aims to improve society and the environment”. They are both techniques that businesses use to show their alignment with commercial green methodologies. CSR can be recognized as the predecessor of ESG.
An article by finscience entitled “ESG Scoring: what it is and how to calculate it” dated 20 May 2022 explained that ESG criteria provide a more detailed assessment of a company’s environmental, social, and governance impact by assigning a specific score. This is known as sustainability reporting on the 3 ESG dimensions.
CS refers to a company’s overall approach to being environmentally and socially responsible and ensuring long-term business viability. It considers a range of sustainability issues, such as reducing waste and emissions, improving resource efficiency, promoting diversity and inclusion, and ensuring ethical governance.
CES, on the other hand, specifically focuses on a company’s impact on the environment. It involves reducing the environmental footprint of operations, minimizing waste and pollution, and adopting environmentally friendly business practices. In this sense, CES is a subdivision of CS.
It depends on the context and the specific goals of an organization. Each of the concepts is important in their own way and contribute to the overall sustainability of a company.
In general, a comprehensive approach that considers all models is likely to be most effective in achieving sustainability goals and creating long-term value for a company and its stakeholders.
a. Adopt sustainable business methodologies: Such practices can be implemented throughout the entire operations like reducing energy and water consumption, using renewable energy sources, and applying waste reduction and recycling programs.
b. Develop sustainable merchandise: Such products are designed to minimize their environmental impact like products made from recycled or sustainable materials, or items that are designed for easy disassembly and recycling at end of life.
c. Implement a circular business model: This is achieved by keeping resources in use for as long as possible through reuse, repair and recycling. It also includes designing products for longevity and reuse, implementing take-back and recycling programs, and developing closed-loop supply chains.
d. Engage stakeholders: Businesses can communicate with customers, employees and suppliers to promote sustainability.
e. Set sustainability targets and measure progress: This involves measuring and reporting on environmental impacts like greenhouse gas emissions and water use, and setting targets for improvement.
f. Collaborate with others: This involves working with suppliers to promote sustainable practices, collaborating with competitors to drive industry-wide sustainability improvements and partnering with NGOs (non-governmental organizations) and government agencies to drive sustainability in a particular sector.
The intersection of technology, sustainability, and society presents both challenges and opportunities for creating a more sustainable and equitable future. Technology has the potential to drive innovation and efficiency in the use of resources. However, it must be developed and utilized in a responsible manner that considers the impact on the environment and society.
The adoption of sustainable technologies is not only necessary for mitigating the negative effects of climate change but also for improving the quality of life for people across the globe. The role of society is critical in determining the direction and pace of technological development and in promoting the adoption of sustainable practices.
As we navigate this intersection, it is important to consider the inter-relatedness of these three factors and strive towards a future that balances economic, social, and environmental feasibility.