Sustainability and Innovation—How Does It Fit Together?
When you turn on the news, you sometimes wonder if the world is on the brink of collapse— climate change, deforestation, water pollution, and the list goes on and on. Unfortunately, the driver of all of this is mostly technical innovation. Industrialization in particular has not necessarily done the world much good with regard to the environment. But there is also light at the end of the tunnel—technical innovation!
Today, we are using 1.7 earths every year, according to earthovershootday.org, which means we are using far more resources than our planet can renew in the entire year. The day that marks this specific date is called the Earth Overshoot Day (or Ecological Debt Day). In 1987, this day was December 19 (according to Wikipedia). In 2018, this day has significantly moved forward to August 1! So, it is easy to understand that there is a need to change our behavior and the way we treat our environment.
The Road so Far
Let us take a look at how the whole thing started and how we ended up at this point in time. At the end of the 18th century, the industrial revolution was of course not the starting point but a significant point in time from when things started to go down for our environment. Manufacturing of goods moved from homes and small shops to large factories, which produced high quantities at a lower price for the customer. This was possible because of several innovations that came out of that time—steam machines, the mechanical loom, machine tools, and so on. The production time became shorter and shorter, leading to an increase of raw material consumption for various products.
Back then, nobody was really interested in sustainability and environmental issues. So, for example, contaminated sewage, such as was produced during the dyeing of textiles, was simply dumped into the next river. Workers handled toxic chemicals without any safety measures whatsoever, and when coal was needed for the blast furnace, the waste gases were blown into the air without filters—the good old days, right?!
It remained that way for quite a long time, but as more and more people began to live in industrial centers like London or New York, the need for certain regulations grew among ordinary people. But as usual, it took some time for legislation to be passed to improve the lives for everyone. One of the first regulations that took place was a law on occupational safety standards for working with hazardous substances.
Unfortunately, this is preceded by a sad story of course. In this case it is about the so-called Radium Girls who had to work with the radioactive element radium completely without protective measures. At the beginning of the 20th century, it was not known that radium could be dangerous, so there were no regulations regarding its use. But as the workers became seriously ill one by one, the incidents began to be investigated and finally regulations were enacted.
The same thing happened with environmental regulations. The Great Smog of London, an environmental disaster of epic proportions took place from 5-9 December, 1952, in the British capital and caused the deaths of an estimated 4,000 to 12,000 people. But when the British parliament wanted to pass the so-called Clean Air Act they had a huge challenge ahead of them. Opponents said that passing this bill would mean that it would be harder for the London based industry to compete with its overseas rivals since they had to invest a lot of money in modernizing their plants. The law was nevertheless passed because London citizens could no longer bear the continuing fear of death.
The Beginning of a New Era
For a very long time, the equation was Innovation + Progress ≠ Sustainability. However, new technologies give us the opportunity to switch the ≠ to an =. New technologies can completely change the economy and society in a very short period of time. But usually the process is a slow one, one that we are not even aware of. At the moment, a change is taking place that most people do not even recognize—artificial intelligence has arrived almost everywhere in our everyday lives. From speech recognition services, search engines, driver assistance systems in the car, etc.
It’s all part of what has long been known as the Digital Revolution. Like the industrial revolution, it’s making a profound impact on society, both politically and in terms of labor itself. It basically describes the switch from analogue electronic technology to digital electronics.
The digital revolution gives mankind once again the possibility to turn the rudder around and put earth on the right, sustainable course. One way to achieve this is to use the processing power of computers to, for example, predict optimal planting and irrigation conditions for plants.
This opportunity was taken by the United Nations (UN) to determine 17 Sustainable Development Goals. The list includes everything from better education, to eliminating hunger, to gender justice, and clean water for everyone in the world.
New technologies play a central role in more than half of these points. This ranges from the intelligent use of new digital technologies and high-tech materials on a natural basis to resource-friendly methods of food production. In any case, the efforts made to develop sustainable technologies are also paying off for many actors in the long term.
An international research group has examined these goals and identified which transformations should have priority on the way to a better world. They have identified six points to be met in order to achieve improvements in all 17 goals:
- Improvements in education and health enhance people’s lives in general, lead to higher incomes, and better environmental choices.
- Responsible consumption and production make it possible to achieve more with less; this also makes it possible to reduce resource consumption and establish a circular economy.
- By increasing energy efficiency and expanding renewable energy, decarbonisation of the economy and, at the same time, better access to clean and affordable energy is possible.
- More efficient and sustainable food production is a precondition for ensuring access to food and clean water for all, while protecting the biosphere and oceans.
- Intelligent infrastructure, adequate living space, and a high level of connectivity can significantly improve life in cities, where the majority of the world’s population lives today.
- Science, technology, and innovation are a strong driver. However, the direction of change must support sustainable development—among other things—through the way in which the revolution in information technology is used.
As you can see, there is a lot to do if humanity want’s to change course and live a sustainable life. In the future, we will publish articles about what can be done to achieve this.