Digitization – curse or blessing for a sustainable future?

It is difficult to assess whether the harm or benefit of digitization currently outweighs the disadvantages in terms of social and ecological concerns.

digitization – curse or blessing?

Digitization (from digit = number) refers to the phenomenon that information previously stored in analog form is now available digitally as zeros and ones. Digital photos and music, for example. In the private sphere, the record collection becomes a folder with MP3s, and in companies, the paper file becomes a PDF document. This development began with the use of the first computers. So far so good. So we invest in the digital office, banish all files and have successfully completed the digital transformation. You guessed it – of course not.

Digitization is the prerequisite for digitalization, but it is only the beginning. The relevant changes will be shaped by the new, creative use of this digitally available data. This can even lead to changes in user behavior and the transformation of entire business models. Music streaming services are a good example of this. Instead of simply selling digital music files, a completely new model of how music is consumed, purchased and, in the future, produced has emerged. As long as I continue to send an electronic file from A to B to C, the process is only minimally more efficient than with analog paper files. If I use the data from the files to make decisions automatically or assign them to the right colleagues, real added value is created. The availability of digital information is a necessary prerequisite, but not sufficient for the successful, holistic digitization of organizations.

Digitization itself can make a contribution to sustainable development by, for example, creating alternative forms of joint consumption (sharing approaches), enabling new types of production processes (3D printing) and thus reducing resource consumption, or making the energy turnaround possible in the first place through smart networking. In addition, digital platforms and apps can promote low-resource and thus more environmentally friendly consumption and lifestyles, for example by making information about sustainable behaviors or sharing options easily accessible. In addition, new technologies such as sensors and satellites are also helping to make environmental degradation more visible so that targeted action can be taken.

However, as outlined in this article, digitization comes with an ecologically and socially very critical footprint because it is, in its current form, energy-hungry and resource-intensive. So we will only achieve sustainable digitization if we learn to use digital tools and services in the right places in a measured way. And we need to pay attention to sustainability over the entire lifecycle, continue to tinker with energy requirements and sources, and look more often for alternatives to the big players in our digitized world. Equally important for sustainable digitization is to develop more efficient IT products and make them recognizable.

Decisive action at the political level is needed for truly sustainable digitization that takes into account ecological and social criteria along the entire value chain and is powered entirely by renewable energies.