The value of ICT when looking at sustainability
Sustainability does not, initially at least, seem to share very much in common with Information and Communication Technologies (ICT). Not because it is an unsustainable product – in fact much of ICT must rank as one of the most sustainable products ever invented when you compare it to products with a similar level of take-up such as the car.
The value of ICT is in the software which is the product of ones and zeros stored electronically and the physical system is usually mostly air and sand and those elements which would become in hundreds of years more rare such as copper and plastics are now frequently recycled. No – the reason that ICT doesn’t have too much attention paid to it is because the focus is on reducing the perceived negative impact of products rather than looking at the nature of the impact of a particular product and its greater impact in the sustainability debate.
This is crucial with ICT because when looking at its impact as a product it can be arrayed with other physical products as something to be controlled and the damage reduced – we look at plastic recycling, power usage etc. However at the heart of sustainability is the concept that we should pay attention to the manner in which we use the tools that we create and this includes their better use as well as their lesser use. So the two concepts – ICT and a sustainable world and economy should be closely entwined.
ICT and Sustainability
There are numerous different aspects to ICT that should be considered when addressing the issue of sustainability. There is the potential to manage the movement of people around the world by reducing the number of commuter-journeys by expanding work-from-home. There is the potential for revising our energy consumption and the pollution that is caused locally by the need to move people across what are often relatively short, but congested, distances. There is also the potential for reducing the volume of materials taken up by the technologies themselves (consider the reduction in size of ‘personal computing’ to modern iPhones and Notebooks even with the high replacement rate when compared to 1970s desktop machines).
ICT in sustainable education
However the real impact on sustainability of ICT may not be so obvious. At present in areas of high unemployment or deprivation there needs to be a considerable investment in educational facilities to be able to give the same chances in life to young people as those who live in affluent areas. This means that educational provision always falls some way behind economic development – when a local authority or school board has the funds to build a facility or repair or extend an existing one it is usually because the local economy has picked up.
In positive cases a considerable investment may be made in an area of deprivation in order to try and stimulate the areas’ growth but this is a very top-down approach and the provision is limited to the topics and facilities made available by the authority as well as being only those that such an authority deems fit. Remote and self-motivated learning on the other hand empowers young people to take their education into their own hands.
This does not necessarily mean remote courses, though that is certainly the logical conclusion, but rather the ability to explore knowledge in an informative and enjoyable way via interactive tools. These can include Wikis and Forums and other user-led resources as well as remote course provision. There is some debate over the value if wikis as they can be amended by anyone including those with either less than perfect knowledge or that have a particular bias via within the subject. But to criticise the entire concept is throwing the baby out with the bathwater. Much useful information and opinion exists – it is more a case of selecting that which is both relevant and true.
Perhaps one of the most useful skills in this world of total information availability will be to train young people in logic and critical thinking so that they can plough through the volumes of material that exist and ask the right questions to find the information that is valuable, relevant and to ensure that they are forming their own opinions and not being a mouthpiece for someone else’s.
ICT and sustainable society
This leads to the next potential positive impact that ICT can play on sustainability – the support of society itself. Margaret Thatcher, a UK prime minister, once said ‘there is no such thing as society’. How she would hate Facebook! If the Internet has done anything it has enabled people to maintain contacts and relationships with other human beings but on a much richer and interactive level than was previously possible via phone or proprietary e-mails systems. Ideas can be better explained and explored between individuals because there is less room for misinterpretation when multiple channels of communication are employed.
Greater freedom and variety in channels of communication also make education a richer experience because firstly it becomes possible to create interactive and entertaining tools that educate as they entertain, and secondly people can discuss and become more engaged with the topic – as anyone who visits a movie forum will discover! The act of debate and disagreement / agreement can solidify key concepts in the mind of the individual as well as forever linking supporting and opposing arguments to those concepts which can in turn make the process of learning and interaction richer. But more importantly forumites are learning from each other as much as from a sanctioned authority figure and this is perhaps where true society lies – it is a mechanism for the free expression of ideas and the knowledge that you are part of a community of people who are thinking about the same topics, even if they disagree with you.
ICT and sustainable decision making
A final and again less obvious benefit is the better management of society and its resources. Partly this is due to better decision support techniques that are in turn dependent upon better software that is in turn dependent on the quality, reliability and timeliness of data. But interpretation of data is also dependent upon the interpreter and the ability to make sense of the information that is available is a key skill – the greater the depth of educated opinions brought to bear on a topic the greater the chance that the decisions taken will be at least well thought out (though not necessarily correct!).
So the focus on sustainability in controlling or reducing the impact of certain negative aspects of our society – pollution, commuting, isolation and work/life balance – are certainly one positive aspect of the use of ICT in the modern world. However I like to think that potentially those aspects with the greatest long-term benefits for society as a whole will be those I’ve discussed – education, accessibility, communication, interaction and more effective decision making and government.