Smart new world? IÖW and TU Berlin jointly research the socio-ecological impact of digitalization

Can mobility apps relieve the environment or do they increase the CO2-emissions? Will onlineshopping increase consumption or will sharing platforms decrease it? The new junior research group “Digitalisation and Sustainability” will analyse whether resources can be spared or will rather be wasted due to the digital transformation and whether democratic processes will be supported or hindered. It is a cooperation of the Institute for Ecological Economy Research (IÖW) and the Technische Universität Berlin (TU Berlin) and funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research.

Digitalization is a social megatrend in full flow. It is not just production processes in factories that are affected by it, but also our everyday consumption and our communication: we shop online, stream videos from the internet and communicate via e-mails, text messages and social networks. Digitalisation will gain speed in the next few years – with billions of machines, products and people being connected more and more in the “Internet of Things” by means of computer-assisted technologies. This could lead to an increase in efficiency, as digital technologies can save time, ressources and money. Unknown are the effects on society and nature: Rebound-effects could lead to even more environmental impacts. A sustainable lifestyle could be easier with digital tools, but they could lead to more consumption at the same time.

Smart Green World or Digital Growth Economy?

Will the future be a smart green world in which everyone benefits from technological progress and the environment is preserved? Or are we heading into a digital growth economy in which wealth and influence are concentrated among few? “It is important to consider if digitalization matches our social and environmental standards” says Tilman Santarius, head of the research group at the TU and IÖW-Fellow. “Our main question is: Is there a rebound-effect or does digitalization lead to a more sufficient life? We want to find out whether the digitalization can contribute to a sustainable, social and democratic way of living together. The result can support politicians to develop strategies for a sustainable digitalization”.

In the research group, a team of young researchers will work in the fields of Environmental Engineering, Psychology, Marketing, Social Philosophy, Economics and Sociology. The six scientific research projects will cover digital services in the areas of mobility, online retail and living. For this purpose, the team will cooperate closely with partners in the field of start-ups, civic society and policy makers.

The five year project “Digitalisation and Sustainability” is funded by the Federal Ministry of Education and Research (BMBF) as part of the Research for Sustainable Development (FONA) program. Besides the Institute for Ecological Economy Research and TU Berlin, the Institute of Vocational Education and Work Studies - Economic Education and Sustainable Consumption as well as the Center for Technology and Society of TU Berlin are partners in the project. Project leader is Dr Tilman Santarius.