ICT for a global sustainable future? The PARADISO Project

The PARADISO initiative was launched in 1997 by Sigma Orionis and the Club of Rome with the aim of exploring how Information and Communication Technologies (ICT)-based solutions can enable a transition towards a more sustainable future. The name PARADISO is formed from the words PARADIgm and SOcietal in a reference to the goal of creating a better world. Since 2008, the project has received funding from the European Commission’s research funding arm under FP7. PARADISO recognizes that:

PARADISO 2011 International drawing competition, "The internet of the future seen by today's children", 3rd Grade Phillippines Tiong Se Academy, Miranda De Arga, The Phillipines. Photo CC BY Rachel Tansey

  • In order to avoid major risks of breakdown, industrialized, emerging and developing countries will need to agree, sooner or later, on an alternative way forward based on a true sustainable development, more sustainable economic and financial models, more equally shared resources;
  • ICT has a potentially key role in the perspective of such a paradigm shift concerning global societal developments; ICT-based solutions enabling a transition towards this “other future” should therefore be promoted.

The PARADISO Foundation held an “Internet and Societies” conference on 7th-9th September 2011, in Brussels. QCEA attended a section of the conference entitled 1st DIALOGUE ON “PLATFORMS FOR COLLECTIVE AWARENESS AND ACTION”. This event caught our attention because the sustainability challenge is a challenge that will only be met if individuals act both individually and collectively towards a sustainable future, requiring mobilization on a scale unlike any other. The significant role of ICT – particularly the internet and social networks – in collective action is no longer questioned, with evidence as diverse as the Internet’s role in the Arab Spring uprisings to the repeated success and growing profile of environmental and human rights e-campaign groups like Avaaz. As Peter Madden, from Forum for the Future, put it, ‘the use of ICT can solve the “I will if you will” problem of collective action.

Relating to sustainability, energy and resource consumption, a couple of pertinent issues discussed at the conference, which I think are worth sharing, are the following:

  • It is crucial that ICTs designed to promote sustainable behaviour, or energy and resource efficiency, are designed to reduce the total impact, taking into account the whole complex, evolving system. ICTs must enhance overall resilience, not merely improve efficiency. Familiar reasons were given for this, from the rebound effect (if you make things cheaper and more efficient people may end up spending more money and time on consuming even more of them) to systems analysis (for example, employers encouraging “homeworking” leads to individuals switching their computer off in the office and not driving to work one day a week, but they then use not only their computer at home, but also lighting and heating, and therefore it may not lead to total energy savings – systems analysis is required in order to ascertain whether it will).
  • There are diverging understandings of buzz words like “consumer empowerment” – but simply throwing information at consumers is most definitely not empowering. For example, in the UK, consumers have been encouraged to switch energy suppliers to cheaper/greener energy, but were provided with no tools to assess their options. Consequently, 80 per cent moved to suppliers which were worse for them! The planned smart metering of European homes faces similar challenges, as simply supplying data on energy consumption will not guarantee anything. The interface and design must be user friendly, energy consumption must be displayed not only in kWh but also as cost, the meter must be somewhere on display (not in a basement!) and complementary advise on how you can make savings from your current consumption are all prerequisites for any degree of success.

    PARADISO 2011 International Drawing Competition, "The Internet of the future seen by today's children", Grade 6 Mettawittaya School, Lom Sak, Thailand. Photo CC BY Rachel Tansey

  • Some EU funded research projects about ICT and energy savings have attempted to recognise that “reduction of energy consumption is a societal challenge that requires a combination of technical, economical, and social means. So far, energy conservation has focused on new technologies and automation, treating users as passive consumers. However, strong evidence suggests that users can actively adapt their behaviour to energy saving with suitable feedback, support, and incentives” (FP7 project ‘BE AWARE’). An example of such active participation in energy consumption is the idea of products using intuitive feedback methods, such as colour and light intensity, to inform people of how much energy they are using. The aim is to stimulate interest and emotional engagement to produce long-term changes in understanding and behaviour. But it is the broader sense behind this idea that is the critical point: If we are serious about reducing energy consumption from buildings we need to add an energy sixth sense to our everyday lives. This theme was evident in the keynote speech by NESTA’s Geoff Mulgan who reminded the audience that technology cannot, in itself, change behaviour. Mulgan however went further to indicate that success in this area will resemble less of the “Wisdom of Crowds“, or a simple “Nudge” that gently transforms societies, and more of an outright “Shove!”
  • Amelia Andersdotter, MEP from the Swedish Pirate Party, had a message about finite resources and competing demands for them. For example, one of the biggest demands for copper in Europe is for use in facilities designed for the ‘permanent’ storage of nuclear waste. Copper is an integral component in these facilities, and nuclear cannot be used without provisions for ‘safe’ storage of radioactive waste. Yet copper is also an integral component in many ICTs, and the limited available copper is in great demand from these industries too.  Anderstotter’s point is that if we want sustainable ICT, we must first sort out sustainable energy.
  • Wikiprogress, an OECD-hosted global platform for sharing, measuring and evaluating social, economic and environmental progress, looks at indicators like well-being and gender-equality, as well as encouraging regions and countries to develop their own indicators of progress. Project Manager Angela Hariche remarked that there are significant implications for democracy as the gap between official economic statistics (e.g. GDP per capita) and how people perceive their own lives (e.g. their own well-being, access to resources (food, energy etc.),  access to healthcare and education, social inequalities, etc.),  grows. This can lead people to have less confidence in the ability of those who govern them to identify what is important in their lives.
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About Rachel Tansey

Rachel was a QCEA Programme Assistant on Sustainable Energy Security between November 2010 and November 2011.

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