Fresh thinking needed if tech is to help fight climate change

Turbulence and disruption ahead. Takver, CC BY-SA

The IPCC has re-iterated its concern that climate change is a serious threat to human safety and security in its latest series of reports. And while energy, transport, water, tourism and health are highlighted as being particularly vulnerable, markets connect different sectors to each other in a way that puts many more at risk too.

We need bright ideas to help industries in this turbulence and in doing so, we will produce technologies and services that will make life better for us all in the long term.

The impacts of climate change in one area spill over into others. That has never been more true than in the present day, when digital technologies allow us to overcome space and time and cause industries to blur into each other.

Technology is often touted as a tool to help face up to climate change and organisations are seen bringing in technological measures all over the world. In Oslo, intelligent street lighting aims to decrease “wasted” light and in Vancouver the hope is that data can be gathered from other cities to make more informed environmental choices.

This is a crucial point in economic history where digital technologies are in the process of tearing down traditional barriers and increasing spillovers between sectors. Mobile applications, cloud computing and all kinds of advances in computer functioning and usability mean users and customers can access a broad range of information, be it about their daily commute or their buying patterns.

All this information could be used to help make smarter choices but there is a huge amount of it to process. Governments can be just as befuddled. Armed with technology, they can be good at identifying what sustainable transport and food looks like, but they can struggle to promote a sustainable society. They can see how many food miles a certain product clocks up but that isn’t enough information on its own to recommend we stop buying it.

In the past, we worried that technology could not meet our needs, now we are overloaded with information from all angles.

Our future vision is informed by horizon scanning to identify areas where digital technologies can be applied to make our lives better over the long term, be that environmentally, socially or in terms of economics.

This thinking is needed in areas as diverse as energy utilities, food, retail, governance, financial services and transport.

We are considering issues such as whether the broadband networks we have in place can serve us effectively in the future or how our energy use affects our sociability, not just our wallets. When the cost of turning the kettle on at home is known, will you really gather the family for tea? Industry and government are very interested in the answer as they design and sell products and policies.

We are also looking at the positive contributions that social media makes to modern problems. We’ve recently seen how social media can be used when a disaster such as a flood strikes and can be used to start sharing economies between individuals looking to spend less or use fewer resources.

The path to a sustainable society that is safe and secure from climate change will not be smooth. It will need what Sikdar calls “a wise balance among economic development, environmental stewardship, and social equity”.

As technology breaks down barriers between sectors, it also encourages change in ways that we could not have anticipated. We can start by improving energy, transport, water, tourism, and health, as the IPCC suggests, and then we can see the solutions they develop spread into the parts of society that are largely insulated from the more direct impacts of climate change. That in turn will empower individuals to make better decisions about their lives.