Can digitalisation be part of the solution to pressing sustainability challenges? Or are current developments going to impede a socio-ecological transformation? The answer is not black and white; it is complex and cross-cutting. We analyse key problems and give an outlook on possible solutions.
The United Nations Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) provide a guiding framework for worldwide policies that ensure a good life for present and future generations. If the SDG are to be met, resource consumption, greenhouse gas emissions, poverty and inequality have to be reduced as far as possible, while education, welfare, climate protection, and biodiversity should be promoted to expand and flourish in future years. Digitalisation, here understood as the permeation of various information and communications technology (ICT) devices and applications (hard- and software) into diverse areas of everyday life, society, and economy, may have significant implications on how the SDG can be achieved.
On the positive side, digital tools and applications may serve as levers and can trigger dynamic sustainability transformations in various sectors. For instance, several reports outline the potentials of digitalisation to increase energy efficiency, avoid resource waste, improve access to sustainable services, and innovate new sustainable practices (e.g. Digital Future Society 2020; GeSI/Accenture 2018; Hilty/Bieser 2017).
On the negative side, digitalisation can aggravate ongoing trends that are polarizing income or education level, and encouraging further economic growth that demands additional energy and resource consumption. This, in turn, could affect certain consumption patterns to become more instead of less energy or resource intensive (e.g. WBGU 2019; Lange/Santarius 2020). And with filter bubbles and echo chambers in digital space buttressing polarized discourses on climate change (Williams et al. 2015), successfully arguing sustainability cases is likely to become increasingly difficult. These examples suggest what has been found by more solid studies (e.g. Hilty/Aebischer 2015; Santarius et al. 2020): It is hard to draw an overall conclusion on how digitalisation impacts sustainability. Instead, politics, companies, and individuals must actively shape societal digitalisation processes to maximize their potentials for sustainability. Opportunities, risks and options for policies and actions need to be analysed in more detail.
This journal volume contributes to the endeavour to dive deeper into certain topics and to explore further the nexus of digitalisation and sustainability. In the following, we present the problems and challenges associated with digitalisation for sustainable development in infrastructure and services, hardware and software, energy systems and Artificial Intelligence (AI). Noticeably, the high expectations of digitalisation as a panacea have not yet been fulfilled and they depend heavily on the social, economic and political framework conditions. In particular, the question of what policies for a sustainable digitalisation can look like in distinctive fields of action is examined in the articles of this journal volume.