The digital footprint and the limits to growth part 2: Digital Sufficiency

In the first part on the digital footprint and the limits to growth, I have focused on how digitalization impacts ecosystems via energy use. I raised doubts, whether digitalization will save the promised efforts of greening growth and concluded that digitalization will not become green by itself but requires political steering. Such proactive strategies to ensure digitalization leads to more sustainable economies can follow different approaches and in this piece I want to briefly introduce you to the strategy of digital sufficiency

Broadly speaking, sustainability strategies can be distinguished into efficiency, consistency and sufficiency. To illustrate their differences, imagine you want to lower the ecological impact of a transport system based on 100 fossil fuel driven cars. If you follow an efficiency strategy, you might think of replacing all 100 cars by more efficient electric cars. Per car, ecological impacts decrease. If you apply a consistency approach, you would further want to make sure the electricity for these e-vehicles is consistently renewable. Maybe you even want to have compostable seats in the interior to ensure circularity. From the sufficiency perspective you might say: all these changes are reasonable but the problem is that we still have a total of 100 cars requiring a lot of energy and materials, so that the efficiency and consistency gains are not enough to reach the absolute ecological targets. Sufficiency is about “how much is enough” and asks for the scale of economic activity. This often gets misunderstood as appeals to individual behavior changes and asceticism. But sufficiency rather wants to design systems in a way that allows us to meet needs with fewer products and consumption, to reduce dependency in the first place and avoid excess consumption. In this example, expanding public transport or redesigning the town to have daily essentials close-by reduces the need to travel by car. Sufficiency addresses the root cause of ecological impact. To put it bluntly: every product not produced saves 100% of the product’s impact, whereas efficiency improvements lower only a smaller percentage of that products impact. Now let’s transfer the idea of sufficiency to the process of digitalization. To give you some inspiration, I mainly summarize research by Santarius and others [1] who have advanced the idea. Digital sufficiency describes “any strategy aimed at directly or indirectly decreasing the absolute level of resource and energy demand from the production or application of ICT” [1, p.4]. We can think of sufficiency in four areas of digitalization, each coming with different policy measures and potentials.

  1. Hardware sufficiency aims at fewer and long lasting hardware devices like smartphones or laptops, thus reducing ecological impact all across the life cycle. This can be facilitated by legislating sustainable design principles in production, by establishing a “right to repair” or having companies implement leasing devices instead of buying. 
  1. Software sufficiency means reducing necessary data use of applications and lower hardware capacity required. This mainly concerns developers and cloud operators. Policies could include labelling energy sufficient software. 
  1. User sufficiency aims at using ICT more sustainably and have ICT support us in practicing sustainable modes of living. Measures include awareness building programs on using digital tools, but also limiting the extent of online advertisement fueling unsustainable lifestyles. 
  1. Economic sufficiency is an indirect and most complex form of digital sufficiency and aims at using ICT to transform the economy towards sustainability as a whole. One of the main challenges here is to channel the labor productivity gains by digitalization into reduced working hours rather than expanding production. This requires measures to shorten and distribute working hours.  

All of these points are highly debatable and complex. The main take away points is that digital sufficiency is a way of thinking that reminds us to avoid the trap of relying solely on efficiency of digital tools to solve all our challenges. It is grounding us in reality and inspires a collective debate about the role of digitalization in creating sustainable well-being. 

[1] Santarius, T., Bieser, J.C.T., Frick, V. et al. Digital sufficiency: conceptual considerations for ICTs on a finite planet. Ann. Telecommun. (2022). 

Image credits: Smartphone addiction or nomophobia by Marco Verch under Creative Commons 2.0

Author: Sven-David Pfau, Wirtschaftsuniversität Wien / Austria

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