Lecturer and Interdisciplinary Researcher Chad Manian examines the progress of sustainable IT in the age of the COVID-19 pandemic and discusses digital transformation as a means of crisis response
With the pandemic showing no signs of retreat, many researchers have asked what is perhaps the most significant question of our age: Can digital transformation be an answer to crisis?
The big tech firms, lobbied by governments and pharmaceutical corporations, have been forced to carefully consider innovation, developing online resources and, ultimately, digital transformation as a response to the crisis.
This only seems reasonable as the logical next step in our society since so much of our lives has moved online. From work, school and socialisation to medical diagnostics, online tools, technology and digital media are beginning to become a more permanent landscape in human life. Why then would it be farfetched to look to technology as a natural response to crisis? Technology, and more specifically digitisation, can be used to advance the agenda of sustainability or at least help deliver organisations’ sustainability goals. If the fourth revolution can help us navigate through a crisis, it surely has the potential to help further the effort towards sustainability. Digital sustainability is defined as the approach organisations can take towards achieving better sustainability through the use of technology. Although, it is not clear what the impact of over-reliance on digitisation would be as of yet. Some have warned against this. They advocate a more humane approach which embraces digitisation in a positive way to help reduce the environmental footprint.
The challenge would be to match the trends in digitisation that drive towards a more human-centric approach. Critics argue that we tend to rely quite heavily on machinery or their virtual counterparts, but it is still human ingenuity that we need in the end. Customers shopping online, banking clients and a range of other sectors, report that the human touch or connection is reducing, and this is becoming a rare, highly sought-after ingredient. Most online users in a survey responded that they prefer interacting with a live human being rather than an automated responder. This shows that the way forward would be to use technology without sacrificing the human component. Manufacturing and production-oriented firms would find this more challenging since the whole eco-management approach relies on better quality of machinery and robotic technology to help achieve sustainability goals. The delicate balance between sustainability objectives and human expectations needs to be maintained. The pandemic gave us an excellent opportunity to explore this potential. The world’s carbon footprint reduced significantly during the lockdowns when a new digital approach took over.
People realised that they can live without travelling or polluting. But the world will recover and move past the pandemic. Technology has enabled us to live and work in a whole new way, but no IT solution could ever replace the human-to-human interaction which the world has missed during the crisis. Perhaps the way to make technology more sustainable is to arrive at a finer balance between human-to-human interaction and technology. It is true that technology is only considered to work successfully when it enables, improves or adds value to human connection. The greatest triumph in technology was its ability to bring people together. Consider the success story of big tech – social media, as an example, became a sustainable model because it enabled a natural social process. As philosopher Thomas Hobbes once said, “Man is a social animal and needs fellow human community to thrive.” Any app or tech that helped humans to safely connect and communicate whilst respecting privacy and security became a success story.
Sustainability trends for our current age of pestilence lies in encouraging human connectivity. Perhaps looking to enable upcoming trends like online education which is driving the future, would be the way forward. Higher education has always benefited or been the driver of innovation, and the sector that brought apps such as zoom onto the headlines was intact education. The future of sustainability in regard to technology lies in improving safety, security and privacy. This would become the dominant trend as we go forward.