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May 6th, 2021: International Symposium "European approaches towards a Sustainable Digitalization"


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How can digitalization be shaped in a way that nurtures common goods and respects planetary boundaries? At the International Symposium “European approaches towards a Sustainable Digitalization” on May 6th, 2021, representatives from civil society organizations and science, as well as policy-makers came together in order to develop a European approach. The digital event was hosted by the Technical University Berlin (TU Berlin), the Einstein Center Digital Future (ECDF), the Institute for Ecological Economy Research (IÖW) and the Leuphana University Lüneburg.

The need for sustainable digitalization has been stressed once again by the EU Council, which, in December 2020, approved conclusions on how to shape “digitalization for the benefit of the environment”. Existing analyses show that current forms of digitalization increase resource demand and aggravate social inequalities. In order to change this, concerted action on the EU level is necessary: “We hope this symposium will push the debate, lift ambition and turn into ideas for collaboration across national borders. We believe this is essential in order to achieve a deep sustainability transition”, explains Tilman Santarius, professor at TU Berlin and ECDF, during the opening panel. Tilman Santarius, Daniel Lang from the Leuphana University Lüneburg as well as Friederike Rohde from IÖW, opened the event by emphasizing the importance of a specifically European approach in order to achieve sustainable digitalization: While Germany increasingly recognizes the need for a digital transformation towards sustainability, as of now, individual activities under the Green Deal are not enough but need goal orientation and policy actions, the three panelists agree.

During three parallel workshops, participants were able to dive deeper into certain questions. In the first workshop A three-level approach for a sustainable digital transformation, participants emphasized the need for regulation and a vision: “How can we make Europe both digital and green?”, Kim van Sparrentak, Member of the European Parliament (Greens/EFA), asked. In order to achieve this, individuals need to be empowered, a new perspective on commons needs to be developed and ethics in a digital environment need to play an increased role. Marc Schattenmann of the German Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety stressed the double load of this project: “It is a challenge to master two big transformations at the same time but absolutely necessary. While digital technologies have big potential to help us solve our environmental problems, they have a massive environmental footprint. Policy makers need to be made aware of this”. In addition, the civic society needs to be provided with the correct and accessible data in order to achieve a change in behavior.

Participants of the second workshop Forging a European interdisciplinary science network on digitalization and sustainability discussed a solution for the lack of knowledge transmission between various disciplines, despite the current momentum. Tilman Santarius introduced the Project Digitalization for Sustainability (D4S) of TU Berlin which aims to establish a solution to this: A European science network that delivers a comprehensive analysis of opportunities, risks and governance options regarding digitalization and sustainability; develops guidelines, policies and new institutions and outlines an inter- and transdisciplinary research agenda. The first panelists Angelika Hilbeck (ETH Zurich) and Mattias Höjer (KTH Stockholm) gave an overview of challenges within the sectors of agro-food, transport and building, and emphasized the need for a common agenda: “We need to be very clear on what we want and where we want to go. Technology is going forward full speed and the sectoral side is lacking way behind. We have to unite behind a transformation agenda and make sure that tech development is really in sync with sustainable transformation”, Hilbeck said. Höjer also pointed to the responsibility of research to highlight both, potentials and total consequences of digitalization and criticized current funding practices in favor of the first. Éliane Ubalijoro (Executive Director of Sustainability in the Digital Age) and Tim Unwin (UNESCO Chair in ICT4D) then agreed that what the discourse needs is more collaboration, especially across sectors and with policy makers, more reliable data on the impact of digital tools and, most importantly, a fast translation of the knowledge and ideas into real action. To have impact researchers must make sure that sustainability is included in already existing and future EU policies and there is no time left to act, the researchers settled.

The third workshop The ‚Bits & Bäume Movement‘ goes Europe discussed, how civic society can become part of the process of sustainable digitalization on the EU level. “Literacy and social power dynamics shape who has a say and is heard within the discussion about sustainable digitalization – we need to make an effort to move beyond this”, Vivian Frick from IÖW, one of the organizers of the conference Bits & Bäume and the event series Forum Bits & Bäume, emphasizes: “It’s not enough to talk about technical details – we also need to make the connection between social justice and sustainability part of the discussion”. Marie-Kathrin Siemer from Liquid Democracy points out that digital participation can be a part of the solution: “It is independent of time and space, it’s scalable and indicates the level of participation: Were people merely consulted or part of decision making process?”. The panelists also discussed the need for concerted action: there are many similar processes happening within national borders but actors do not sufficiently communicate with each other, as Gauthier Roussilhe points out, designer and researcher at ENS Saclay.

The closing panelists Michelle Thorne (Mozilla Foundation), David Jensen (UNEP Digital Transformation Task Force), and Kim van Sparrentak (MEP, Greens/EFA) then discussed the vision for future collaboration: Academia and the scientific community need to set a focus on engaging with the civil society and actors like the tech industry in order to achieve real change. For Jensen, there is one central issue – the business model of big tech companies: “How can we regulate or get them to transform their business models towards sustainability? Currently, there are little incentives”. Michelle Thorne pleads for a holistic approach when it comes to the usage of digital tools: “The environmental impact of certain tools is not yet part of the equation, this needs to change. Carbon Accounting is central for sustainability”. All panelists agreed that a common assessment framework on the EU level is necessary, in order to achieve broad sustainability. But what will the future look like? “We need rules and regulations and ambitious proposals for a sustainable digitalization which will benefit businesses and society”, Sparrentak summarizes.

May 6th, 2021: International Symposium "European approaches towards a Sustainable Digitalization"

In December 2020, the EU Council has approved conclusions how to shape ‘Digitalization for the benefit of the environment’. In the same month, the European Commission has proposed the ‘Digital Services Act package’, which will now be further developed in a two-year process and may pave the way for a truly ‘European Way’ for governing the digital economy. This Symposium wants to provide a forum for debate amongst civil society organizations, science, and policy-makers how to join forces to address the question: How can digitalization be shaped in a way that nurtures common goods and respects planetary boundaries? 

Existing analyses show that current forms of digitalization increase resource demand and aggravate social inequalities. Therefore, there is an urgent need for concerted action from civl society, science and politics, including strong regulatory frameworks to reap the sustainability benefits of digitalization and to include such demands into ongoing policy processes at national and EU levels. The event is a joint initiative by the Einstein Center Digital Future/ TU Berlin, the Institute for Ecological Economy Research (IÖW) and Leuphana University. The Opening Panel will introduce the issue and the scope of the Symposium and three parallel breakout groups will discuss the European approach for a sustainable digitalization from different perspectives:

  • With a view to policy-makers, the Symposium will discuss which enablers are needed at a social, organizational, and individual level for a sustainable digital transformation;
  • With a view to the science-policy interface and scientists from all disciplines, the Symposium will bring together researchers from European academia and think tanks on the nexus of digitalization and sustainability and discuss potential cooperation;
  • With a view to representatives from civil society organizations, the Symposium would like to provide a forum to discuss how collaborative action between green and digital advocacy groups as experienced within the German “Bits & Bäume” movement can be internationalized in order to join forces for shaping the ongoing policy processes at the EU level.

The Closing Panel consists of a concluding discussion, with a focus on required initiatives, collaborations and key levers on the way to implement elements of a sustainable digitalization within current political frameworks at the EU-Level.

The main topic of the International Symposium is also discussed in a Special Issue of the journal OekologischesWirtschaften (Ecological Economy). Several articles of the open access issue explore the nexus of digitalization and sustainability.

More information about the event can be found here.

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May 6th, 2021, 15.00-18.00 CEST, online via Zoom

Opening Panel
A European Way for a Sustainable Digitalization – introduction to the topic and the scope of the Symposium


  • Tilman Santarius, TU Berlin
  • Daniel Lang, Leuphana University Lüneburg
  • Friederike Rohde, Institute for Ecological Economy Research (IÖW)

Parallel Workshops
The European approach for a sustainable digitalization from three perspectives

Workshop I: A three-level approach for a sustainable digital transformation

For this workshop we invite political actors to discuss with us necessary political and administrative framework conditions at different levels. What enablers do we need at a social, organizational, and individual level? What consequences derive from our findings? What is needed to promote individuals, organizations and society for design of appropriate framework conditions for the 21st century?


  • Uwe Gartenschlaeger, EAEA and DVV International
  • Ilias Iakovidis, Adviser on Societal challenges at the European Commission, DG CONNECT
  • Marc Schattenmann, Federal Ministry for the Environment, Nature Conservation and Nuclear Safety Germany
  • Kim van Sparrentak, MEP, Greens/EFA

Workshop II: Forging a European interdisciplinary science network on digitalization and sustainability

This track will introduce the thematic approach of the European dialogue project “Digitalization for Sustainability – Science in Dialogue”, and offer discussions with participants on mutual findings and blind spots on the road towards a deep sustainability transition. Moreover, we want to reflect on the ongoing policy processes at EU and global level.


  • Angelika Hilbeck, ETH Zurich
  • Mattias Höjer, KTH Stockholm
  • Éliane Ubalijoro, Sustainability in the Digital Age initiative
  • Tim Unwin, UNESCO Chair in ICT4D
  • Tilman Santarius, TU Berlin

Workshop III: The ‚Bits & Bäume Movement’ goes Europe

The third session aims at discussing ideas and prospects for collaborative action of civil society and science to call for a European policy for sustainable digitalization. What can we learn from the German ‘Bits & Bäume Movement’? How can a comprehensive agenda for sustainable digitalization encouraged by European civil society organizations look like? What could be joint activities?


  • Vivian Frick, Bits & Bäume and IÖW
  • Alexander Sander, Free Software Foundation Europe
  • Gauthier Roussilhe, Designer and researcher, Design Research Center, ENS Saclay
  • Marie-Kathrin Siemer, Liquid Democracy

Closing Panel
From concept to action: How can elements of a sustainable digitalization be implemented?

In the closing panel discussion, next concrete initiatives, collaborations and key levers on the way to implementation will be discussed. Furthermore, it is discussed to what extent the Digital Services Act/EU Council Decision in their current forms are suitable for pushing forward a sustainable digitalization across Europe.


  • Michelle Thorne, Mozilla Foundation
  • David Jensen, UNEP Digital Transformation Task Force
  • Kim van Sparrentak, MEP, Greens/EFA

More information about the event can be found here.

2. November 2020: Wie viele Bits braucht die Energiewende? Gestaltungsoptionen für ein intelligentes, zukunftsfähiges und nachhaltiges Energiesystem

Die Energiewende soll den Übergang zu einem Energiesystem gestalten, das von fluktuierenden erneuerbaren Energien geprägt sein wird. Dies erfordert den Einsatz von Informations- und Kommunikationstechnologie, um einen Ausgleich von Angebot und Nachfrage zu gewährleisten. Doch zu den verschiedenen Aspekten der Digitalisierung des Energiesystems gibt es eine Vielzahl an Diskursen: An welchen Stellen sind digitale Lösungen sinnvoll und notwendig? Brauchen wir intelligente Netze, intelligente Verbrauchssteuerungen und intelligente Erzeuger? Kann die Digitalisierung unser Energiesystem effizienter und dezentraler machen? Wird es dadurch resilienter oder verwundbarer? Und: Wie kann das digitale Energiesystem gerecht gestaltet werden? Auf dem 5. Forum Bits & Bäume wurde diskutiert, wie die politischen Rahmenbedingungen diesen Fragen unter der Prämisse des Klimaschutzes begegnen können.

  • Diskussionspapier – folgt in Kürze

Präsentationen der Referierenden:



15. Juni 2020: Von Commerce zu Commons – Ein gemeinwohlorientiertes Internet gestalten

Das Internet assoziieren wir mit Freiheit, Offenheit, Kommunikation, Vernetzung und freien Informationen. In den letzten Jahrzehnten nahmen jedoch kommerzielle Interessen so stark zu, dass der digitale Raum immer mehr einem Marktplatz gleicht. So ist unter den 50 weltweit meistbesuchten Webseiten Wikipedia das einzige nicht-kommerzielle Angebot. Anwendungen, die im Sinne der Commons-Idee entstanden sind, werden monetarisiert – so z.B. Videoplattformen. Auch in der Sharing Economy sind private Übernachtungsmöglichkeiten wie bei Couchsurfing unter dem Label der Gastfreundschaft zu einem Business geworden, an dem nun vor allem die Plattform Airbnb verdient.

Diese „Kommerzialisierung des Internets“ geht mit einer Ausweitung des Online-Marketings einher. Durch Personalisierung in Kombination mit On- und Offlinetracking und KI/Big-Data-Anwendungen wird kommerzielle Werbung im Netz immer effektiver. Diese Entwicklungen gefährden nicht nur den Datenschutz. Durch die unternehmensseitige Informationsgewinnung fördern sie auch Machtasymmetrien zugunsten von digitalen Unternehmen gegenüber den Nutzenden. Zusätzlich werden Konsumanreize gesetzt und mehr Energie verbraucht – mit Auswirkungen auf die Umwelt.

Eine Kommerzialisierung einzugrenzen ist jedoch herausfordernd, da viele digitale Geschäftsmodelle auf Datenhandel und Werbung basieren. Darüber hinaus bestimmen große Tech-Unternehmen wie Google, Amazon, Facebook oder Apple den Markt, verdrängen nicht-kommerzielle Unternehmen und beeinflussen gesellschaftliche Meinungsbildung.

23. April 2020: Langlebig, offen, reparabel und datensparsam. Gestaltungsoptionen für nachhaltige Hard- und Software

Wie können Hard- und Software nachhaltig gestaltet werden? Bei der Herstellung und Nutzung von Hardware spielen Aspekte wie Langlebigkeit, Reparierbarkeit und der schonende Einsatz von Ressourcen eine entscheidende Rolle. Bei Software geht es neben der Energiesparsamkeit auch um langfristige Updatefähigkeit, Datenkomprimierung oder auch Transparenz und Autonomie. Ein wichtiger Schritt ist die materielle und die immaterielle Basis der Digitalisierung stärker zusammenzudenken.

27. Januar 2020: Welche umwelt- und wirtschaftspolitischen Instrumente machen die Digitalisierung zukunftsfähig?

Digitalisierung und Klimaschutz – zwei heiße Eisen, über deren politische Ausgestaltung derzeit viel diskutiert wird. Im Gespräch ist dabei vor allem eine alte Bekannte: Die Steuer. Eine Digitalsteuer, damit Digitalkonzerne zur Finanzierung öffentlicher Aufgaben beitragen. Eine CO₂-Steuer oder ein erweiterter Emissionshandel, um klimaschädliche Emissionen zu senken. Im zweiten Forum Bits & Bäume werden die beiden Herausforderungen Digitalisierung und Klimawandel zusammengedacht. Wie können Steuern und andere Instrumente in der Digitalen Ökonomie ökologische Lenkungswirkung entfalten und zugleich soziale Gerechtigkeit unterstützen? Reichen Konzepte wie die CO₂-Steuer, um die Digitalisierung umweltgerecht zu gestalten? Und reicht die Digitalsteuer, um eine Polarisierung der Gesellschaft im digitalen Zeitalter zu verhindern? Braucht es neben diesen bekannten Instrumenten innovative Ansätze wie einen CO₂-Zoll für die digitale Welt oder eine Steuer auf Datenverkehr?

Zum Nachbericht…

10. September 2019: Künstliche Intelligenz für nachhaltige Entwicklung?

Künstliche Intelligenz (KI) wird zunehmend diskutiert und wirft viele Fragen zu wirtschaftspolitischen, ethischen, sozialen und ökologischen Erwartungen und Umsetzungspotenzialen auf. Wir diskutieren grundsätzliche Aspekte: Wie nachhaltig und energiehungrig ist KI angesichts großer Datenverarbeitungsmengen? Welche ethischen Fragestellungen sind mit einer nachhaltigkeitsorientierten KI verbunden? In welche Anwendungsfeldern kann die Nutzung von KI zur Lösung von ökologischen oder sozialen Zielsetzungen beitragen? Was sind politische Gestaltungsoptionen, um sicherzustellen, dass KI-Anwendungen dem Gemeinwohl dienen?

Zum Nachbericht

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