Connect, collaborate, change
Dr James Taplin, principal sustainability advisor at Forum for the Future, describes the role ICT can play in the transition to a sustainable society.
Forum for the Future’s recent Connect, Collaborate, Change report explored the potential application of ICT to sustainability, finding significant opportunities to connect people, enable collaboration and nurture new ideas.
People do wonderful and amazing things. We’re surrounded by products and services that have come from the ideas of individuals, and been brought to life by the hard work and collaboration of other individuals. Most of these ideas haven’t been focussed on sustainability, but imagine the opportunities for addressing the challenges of society if more of them were, and if those ideas were given the infrastructure they needed to grow and thrive.
This is one of the conclusions of our recent report – “Connect, Collaborate, Change” – supported by Telefónica O2 UK. Our goal was to determine the ways in which Information and Communications Technology (ICT) could be used for sustainability, to map the areas where most activity was already taking place, and so identify where more attention was needed.
The result is a simple framework showing the basic ways in which ICT is applied to sustainability. It is split between two broad strands of application – information & analysis, and communications, and across three levels of social impact – direct, indirect and systemic change.
The framework serves as a tool for action as well as a stimulus for fresh thinking about where interventions can successfully be made. At a macro level, it can be used to look for interventions that can be made in a specific sector – by identifying blockages for instance. It could equally be used at a micro level by an ICT business, device or technology to help assess whether they are pursuing all potential sustainability avenues. And it may also be possible to look at the powerful systemic changes that we need to shift our society to a more sustainable footing, then work upwards through the framework to understand what ICT interventions and equipment are needed to deliver it.
One of the reasons that Telefónica O2 UK were so interested in this work is because they wanted to use it to help shape their new sustainability strategy. So, in addition to developing the framework we also wanted to use it to look for opportunities – and we did this by reviewing a number of recent reports on the subject. Studies on ICT for sustainability are nothing new, but their lack of a common approach can make it difficult for others to use them – one of the challenges that our framework tries to overcome. However, these studies do contain a lot of detailed information about sector – or impact-specific ICT initiatives which we compared to look for common themes, and then mapped onto our framework. Having done this, it became clear where the opportunity gaps for Telefónica O2 UK might be.
The results showed that, somewhat unsurprisingly, most attention is predominantly focussed on the information and analysis side of ICT. Most of the initiatives that are termed ‘Smart’ – smart cities, smart grids, smart logistics, smart buildings, smart motors – are based on using data to optimise, simplify and automate. There is often a communications element to them as well, but this is frequently machine to machine (m2m), and the general focus of this work is on business and business efficiency – where individuals benefit, it tends to be because of something that business has done for them.
2012 is the year of ever-greater collaboration. You see it online in the rise of collaborative consumption & goods sharing (from handbags to cars & everything else in between), or in new financial mechanisms that allow people to support one another in loans or crowdsourced funding, and also offline in the growth of skills-sharing networks and events. Just as the information-based initiatives also have a communication element, so these collaborative and educational initiatives also have a critical data element, but they are driven by people communicating.
When you think about it, it’s somewhat obvious really – the more people there are having more ideas, the more likely it is that we’ll develop the next wave of astounding products and services that help us transition to a sustainable society. And ICT provides us with the platform we need to do that. Not only does it allow us to rapidly test ideas and learn from failing fast, but it gives an unparalleled ability to link individuals and ideas – to help them develop and then scale to system-changing proportions. Why stick to the wisdom of a few when you can also harness the ingenuity of many?
This wasn’t what we set out to find when we started our work, but it became clear that is an important opportunity for network operators like Telefónica O2 UK to use their power and networks better – to connect people, nurture their ideas, and to provide the platforms that help take those good ideas to a scale that fundamentally alters the way we live.
- Connect, Collaborate, Change: further details and report download on the Forum for the Future website.
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