CRASHCOURSE NINE. SUSTAINABILITY

About the crashcourses  

There are 10 online crashcourses. These crashcourses are linked to the Technology Impact Cycle Tool (tict.io). This free online tool, powered by Fontys University, helps you assess, design, invent, deploy or use technology that makes a (positive) impact on society. The tool offers quick scans, improvement scans and full questionnaires. The tool consists of 10 different categories.

You get the most out of the tool when you are informed on the different categories and, even better, inspired about the categories. That is the goal of this crashcourse: inform you and inspire you on SUSTAINABILITY so you are better equipped to assess the impact of technology.  All crashcourses take one hour to compleet.

About this crashcourse
This online crashcourse is number nine: sustainability. In the Technology Impact Cycle Tool is a category considering sustainability. In this crashcourse we are going to explore why it is important for technology to be sustainable and what it means. We do that by exploring the relationship between technology and the environment. This course, like every course, has one mandatory assignment to help you understand and practice. During the course we will offer all kind of further optional suggested reading, watching and optional assignments for those who crave for more!

The goal of this course is to educate you! To inform you! To inspire you! To entertain you! To dazzle you! To make you think! This is explicityly not a boring crashcourse for beginners, or a basic course with just some theory. We cherry picked our way through the topics. We looked for fun examples. We do not strive to be complete, we strive to be interesting, to inform you and most of all to inspire you! If you think we failed you, no problem, we are open for improvements. Just sent us an e-mail on: info@technofilosofie.com.

Some time management directions 
Again: it will take you approximately one hour to complete this course. This course consists of plain text, pdf’s, articles, videos and assignments. Every section lists reading time, viewing time and assignment time, so you can plan accordingly. If it takes longer than one hour, maybe that means your slow, maybe it means we calculated poorly. You figure it out yourself.

ONLINE CRASHCOURSE NINE. SUSTAINABILITY

This 60 minute online crashcourse consists of the following sections:

  1. Sustainable Development Goals (SDG’s) (2 minutes)
  2. Environmental Sustainability (5 minutes)
  3. Materials (15 minutes)
  4. Energy Efficiency (33 minutes)
  5. Ecomodernism (5 minutes)

SUSTAINABLE DEVELOPMENT GOALS

Reading time: 1 minute / viewing time: 1 minute

In september 2015 as part of the 70th session of the UN General Assembly 17 Sustainable Development Goals were adopted. This one minute video lists them all.

Sustainability is more than environmental sustainability alone. Some of the SDG’s have a direct relation to the environment (like climate and affordable and clean energy) and others a indirect connection (like infrastructure, production and consumption). In this crashcourse we focus on the environmental impact of technology. We take a look at the relation between environment and technology from four different angles.

  • First we look at the impact of technology on the environment;
  • Second we look at the assessing the impact of technology by the materials used;
  • Third we  look at the assessing the impact of technology by energie used;
  • Finally we look at a movement called ecomodernism, in which technology is the solution for the environmental issues.

Further optional suggestions:

  • Everything about the SDG’s on a website;

Key Take aways:

  • Sustainability is more than just environmental sustainability.

ENVIRONMENTAL SUSTAINABILITY

Reading time: 5 minutes

In crashcourse one we posed the question: does technology make the world better? There were a lot of arguments that it does. A lot of important Key Performance Indicators like child mortality, literacy, lifespan, conflicts, poverty and so on were looking really, really good. At the same time we stated that another very important indicator was looking very bad. This indicator concerns the environment. Things like climate change, pollution, depletion of natural resources, destruction of forests and extinction of animals. All very red indicators.

It seems that so far technology did not have a positive effect on the environment.

Please read this essay by an anonymous student (pdf) summing up the negative effects. It will take you 4 minutes.

Further optional suggestions:

  • A boring video of 6 minutes on the effects of technology on the environment;

Key Take aways:

  • Technology increases the demand for material and energy;
  • This demand has a very negative effect on the environment.

MATERIALS

Reading time: 3 minutes / Viewing time: 12 minutes

In the previous section we stated that technology is bad for the environment. In the next two sections we look at two specific topics concerning the relation between technology and the environment: materials and energy. We focus mainly on digital technology and start with materials.

If we design, invent or assess a technology it is important to look at the materials that we use. What is the impact of the materials that are used on the environment? What are the (environmental) cost of mining the materials? Can we circulate them? Re-use them? Do we really need all those materials? Are there alternatives? These questions are impotant for every technology, but certainly also for digital technology. Digital technology is growing exponential, so problems are growing too. In the last 30 years we have seen the rise of computers, servers, networks, data-centers in the cloud, smart devices and – of course – the smartphone. Let’s look at the smartphone for a moment.

Do you know what is in your smartphone? Let’s start with watching a somewhat older video from 2016 (when having an iPhone 6 was still very cool!) – 3 minutes

A lot of the materials in a smartphone have to mined and mining is incredibly destructive for the environment. Forests are decimated, ground and water is polluted and rare species are threatened everywhere, just because billions of people really need a new phone every two years. There are a lot of people that believe technologies like the smartphone have a deliberate short lifespan. Or is this just a conspiracy theory? In the further suggestions you will find an article that researches that question.

If you assess or design a technology you can ask pretty simple questions to find areas that you can improve on. Questions like:

  • What materials do I use that have a negative environmental impact and can I use different materials or are there other ways to obtain the materials?
  • What can I do to extend the lifespan of my product?
  • What can I do to enable people to repair my product?
  • Are my materials circular?
  • Is there any other form of improvement in the logistic system surrounding the production and shipment of the product?

An inspiring example is the Fairphone. A smartphone that is commited to giving the best answers possible to the questions above. Please watch this Talk about the fairphone (12 minutes):

Further optional suggestions:

  • The ‘truth’ about planned obsolescence of tech on bbc.com
  • Anatomy of an AI System (website);
  • An online course on circular economy by the TU Delft;
  • An online course for Engineering design of circular products;
  • Infographic on circular economy;
  • Website with all kinds of information on the circular economy.

Key Take aways:

  • Technologie need a lot of materials that are destructive for the environment;
  • Thinking about these materials and the logistics and production is therefore very important;
  • The same goes for the opportunity to circulate, repair parts of the tech or the lifespan of the tech.

ENERGY EFFICIENCY

Reading time: 6 minutes / viewing time: 12 minutes / assignment: 15 minutes

First watch this video!

Did you like it?

The music video for “Despacito” set an Internet record in April 2018 when it became the first video to hit five billion views on YouTube. In the process, “Despacito” reached a less celebrated milestone: it burned as much energy as 40,000 U.S. homes use in a year. And even if you did not watch this video it’s probable you’ve already replied to a couple of emails today, sent some chat messages and maybe performed a quick internet search. As the day wears on you will doubtless spend even more time browsing online, uploading images, playing music and streaming video.

Digital technology uses a lot of energy and the amount of energy used is growing and growing. The energy consumption is estimated to be divided among the various components as follows:

  • Data centers: 19%
  • Networks: 16%
  • Computers: 17%
  • Devices: 20%
  • Smartphones: 11%
  • Smart TV’s & Other: 17%

Energy usage is generally bad for the environment. It adds to the so called carbon footprint. But what is – exactly – a carbon footprint? Watch this simple explanation in 2 minutes:

And now watch another video on the impact on the carbon footprint of digital technology:  (3 minutes):

The main problem, as stated, is that the use of digital technologies grows really, really fast. There is AI, cloud-computing, webshops, videoconferencing, internet of things, autonomous vehicles, and so on. For now, because this crashcourse only takes an hour, let’s look at two prominent developments: BitCoin and video traffic. Just to get a taste of the size of the ‘problem’.

First, a small explanation on BitCoin (3 minutes).

BitCoin is very, very energy consuming because of the mining and validation process. Let’s look at some figures. Bitcoin accounts for roughly 0.25 percent of the world’s entire electricity consumption. That’s Switzerland. That is as much energy as all the tea kettles in the UK use over 11 years. It’s well established that Bitcoin requires a huge amount of electricity, used by miners around the world running the computer hardware necessary to maintain the network and validate payments. But it’s also worth remembering these figures are very much estimates.

Regardless of the exact figures, the energy usage of Bitcoin is certainly eyebrow raising. It’s increased rapidly, sometimes doubling in less than six months, and this sort of energy usages comes with a significant carbon footprint. Though, again, exact estimates of this environmental impact vary significantly because of the difficulty of determining how the electricity used to power Bitcoin’s mining hardware is generated.

BitCoin also looks unwieldy in terms of day to day utility. The network processes fewer than 100 million transactions per year, a “completely insignificant” figure compared to the 500 billion payments processed by the traditional financial industry. Still estimates are that Bitcoin uses more energy per transaction than all the rest of the world’s banks combined.

And, to make this figures more shocking, BitCoin has only been around for 11,5 years.

Next: video traffic. Another very large consumer of energy is video traffic: 80% of all data transferred online is video data, with nearly 60% of that being online video, meaning streaming videos stored on a server and viewed remotely, via sites like Netflix, YouTube or Vimeo.

The problem: transferring videos online is data-intensive. In 2018, online video traffic was responsible for more than 300 million tons of CO2, equivalent to what a country the size of Spain releases in a year — for all sectors combined. The higher a video’s resolution, the more data that’s required. Ten hours of high-definition film consumes more bits and bytes than all the English-language articles in Wikipedia put together.

The way we consume videos and movies has also changed radically. In the past, films told a story with moving pictures and music; today, online videos are primarily used to hook a person’s attention for as long as possible. It moves, and there’s sound, and that’s attractive to our brain. But it can lead to addictive behavior. Platforms like YouTube, Facebook and Netflix have increasingly exploited this biological preference. The autoplay function lets videos start automatically, without sound and with subtitles, making information even easier to consume. That’s just the way to make you watch the whole video — and it works. We have seen how this work in crashcourse 2.

Mandatory assignment (15 minutes): You are launching a new video streaming app. You are branding this as a very, very environmental friendly app. What characteristics make your app so energy efficient and environmental friendly? Use the PowerPoint template.

If you read about digital technologies and energy use and carbon footprint you will find a lot of analogies with other things that enlarge our carbon footprint. For example, a video like this (and yes, we do know that showing all these videos is also not really good for the environment) – 1 minute

Sending e-mail for a year is like driving 200 miles in your car. Watching one Netflix-series is like flying to… etc..  These analogies also mean that you can flip them. Maybe videoconferencing is very energy – consuming, but 5 people driving to a meeting has a much larger carbon footprint. E-mail is bad for the environment, sending a letter is even worse. Or not? This makes the discussion on energy efficiency very fuzzy. When you add the element of the type of energy used than it becomes even more complicated. Some energy is more environmentally friendly (wind, sun) than others (burned fossile fuel). YouTube for example has an A-rating, while the rating of Netflix is D.

Further optional suggestions:

Key take aways:

  • Digital technology has a very large carbon footprint;
  • Especially technologies like BitCoin and streaming video are very energy consuming;
  • On the other hand, digital can also replace analog activities that are even more energy consuming.

ECOMODERNISM

Ecomodernism is an environmental philosophy which argues that humans can protect nature by using technology. This is a very sensitive subject. It is the topic of heated debates and a lot of people think it distracts us from doing something ourselves. Then again, the corona lockdown only led to a 9% decrease in Co2 – emissions, which is very low considering the enormity of the measures.

Watch the video, read the comments, maybe some further suggestions and think for yourself.

Further optional suggestions:

  • Talk by Hidde Boersma on ecomodernisme (15 minutes);
  • Ecomodernism manifesto & website;
  • A critical article on ecomodernism.

Key take away:

  • Technology created environmental problems but is also the solution;
  • At least, that is what ecomodernist think.

A VERY SHORT SUMMARY OF THIS CRASHCOURSE

Congratulations. You have completed crashcourse number nine, so you got a very small taste of thinking about technology and the importance of environmental sustainability of technology.  An appetizer, if you want. Maybe you did some further reading, so you started on the soup. Good for you. Remember: environmental sustainability of technology is very important. It helps us to design and assess technologies with a less negative impact on the environment. When assessing, designing, using or inventing technology we urge you to think hard about things like materials, lifespan, circulating and energy efficiency.