Vol. 5, No. 1, December 2003

ICT for Sustainable Consumption?

Not Without a Sustainable-Values Social Framework

Robert Rattle, Ottawa, Ontario

Recent years have seen the enthusiastic adoption of the Internet and communications technologies (ICT)--development of the knowledge economy-- notwithstanding the recent technology bubbleexperienced in global stock markets. ICT has been widely promoted as, among other things, an important strategy to improve the energy and materials intensity of the economy and, correspondingly, reduce energy and materials consumption. The reasoning is that dematerialising the economy and immaterialising consumer preferences can lead to greatly improved efficiencies. It is assumed that by shifting economic activities towards a service oriented economy, environmental impacts can be reduced.

Efficiency improvements in general have been widely advocated in this context for decades, dare I say centuries (Jevons 1865). Nevertheless, energy and materials consumption continues to rise. Indeed, efficiency gains often produce unexpected results, whereby consumption levels increase, often exceeding the gains in efficiency. Complex social processes establish powerful motivational forces through which such efficiency increases may provide an effective conduit to increase throughput consumption.

Detailed studies are beginning to reveal that just such a phenomenon may be occurring through the application of ICT. For example, while there is much hope that audioconferencing, teleconferencing and web-based meetings may be able to dramatically reduce physical mobility, studies have found that face-to-face communications appear to supplement virtual alternatives rather than substitute for them. (Traxler and Luger 2000; Gaspar and Glaeser 1996; Gillespie et al 1995; Thrift 1996); Moss and Townsend 1998). Similarly, expectations that telework arrangements might allow reductions in needed office space as well as reductions in the energy and materials associated with commuting are instead yielding to arrangements that generate additional suburban sprawl, increasing both infrastructure demands for new housing developments, as well as increasing commute distances when people need to attend meetings or be in the office.

Similar results are appearing in other sectors where ICT is being applied, such as intelligent vehicle highway systems, just-in-time delivery, e-commerce, urban development, housing and households, digital media, e-learning, product development (such as mass customization), packaging, product design, and the controversial issue of networking.

According to Moore's law, electronics dematerialise by a factor of four every three years. Yet despite the trend towards reduced energy intensity per appliance, product or process, there has not been a corresponding reduction of the total energy and material flows since the introduction and application of ICT. In fact, the energy and materials utilised by this sector continues to increase and is proving to be significant. Although these levels are small on the order of national economies, it represents increasing levels of throughput consumption which previously did not even exist. The proportion of this consumption which could be considered a shift versus new consumption is not at all clear. Still, the production, consumption and disposal of wastes from the ICT sector are creating significant environmental hazards worldwide.

Research and policy have typically focussed on the proximate causes of environmental damage. More recently, attention is being directed towards the underlying social and economic driving forces. By shaping the context in which choices are made, values can establish powerful motivational forces which can produce, indirectly, tremendously greater environmental and social consequences (Rosa and Dietz 1998; Vayada 1988; Brown and Cameron 2000; Kilbourne et al 2001).

Many factors influence our decisions, activities, and behaviours. By focussing on improving energy and materials intensity, it is widely believed the contentious issue of behaviour change may be avoided. However, conventional approaches have achieved limited success. That is often precisely because of the intractable and complex nature of human behaviour and lifestyles, and the intransigence of belief and value structures. These structures profoundly influence behaviours through socialization and cultural conditioning. Conventional social norms and institutions appear to generate behaviours which favour increasing consumptive practices (Manno 2000; Lintott 1998; Cogoy 1999).

Clearly, within such a framework, changing behaviours will be essential to move towards more sustainable development. This will necessitate confronting complex human factors, deeply held beliefs and social pressures, institutions and goals. Yet it is these factors which define conventional tools and strategies, and how they are employed, to achieve sustainable development. In other words, conventional activities to reduce the throughput consumption of energy and materials may implicitly embody the very values and social forces which produce overconsuming decisions, lifestyles and behaviours. The evidence strongly implies the adoption and application of ICT appears to manifest these values and social forces, and thus it is probably exemplary when it is applied in this context. Therefore, understanding the factors responsible for these forces is an essential and often ignored step to identify appropriate tools and strategies to reduce energy and materials consumption.

Complex social processes and norms, directed by underlying value structures, can strongly influence behaviour and lifestyles choices. At present, those values which predominate are inconsistent with many objectives of sustainable development, and prevailing economic values are quite contrary to reducing consumption. Even as attitudes and perceptions are becoming ever more environmentally sensitive, powerful social forces militate against the requisite changes. While individuals are exposed to the knowledge that there are environmental problems and that they should be sensitive to them, the more subtle message of these social forces imply that existing political, economic, and technological institutions will solve the problems for them (Kilbourne et al 2001). While this social bias may manifest a predisposition towards reduced energy and materials intensity, it exhibits no intrinsic desire to reduce consumption nor environmental impacts at the level of society.

Technologies are never neutral, as they reflect cultural values and biases. Indeed, the development and application of ICT is, as with all science and technology, inherently value-laden. Clearly, a technology itself does not determine how it will be applied. If not carefully managed, the introduction and application of ICT may simply continue to reflect this social bias, and provide the conduit with which to increase energy and materials consumption, although it may simultaneously improve energy and materials intensity.

When advocates for the "technical fix" fail to recognise the social embeddedness of their inventions, the underlying values motivating its development, and the differences between the micro and macro effects of technological adoptions, much needed and appropriate guardrails are neglected, and unsustainable social processes tend to guide the adoption and adaptations of ICT. For example, Heinonen et al (2001) conclude that economic forces are primarily responsible for driving the development and adoption of ICT, and these do not consider their sustainability. Nuij (2002) similarly observes that the initial, and creatively essential, phase of ICT development neglects environmental considerations.

Geels and Smit (2000) suggest many technological shortcomings are a function of several factors, most notably the A performative role of expectations and future images in technological development.In this sense, expectations function as an intervention to affect the direction and speed of technological developments. Due to the risks of developing new technologies and their initially low performance characteristics, they are unable to immediately compete on the market. Development therefore requires advocates to establish a specific "niche" in order to further develop the application. This niche consists of a network of actors such as funding organisations and technology developers who share a common belief in the future value of the technology. Future expectations represent generalisations of the technologies'potential. This is intended to influence the relevant actors, such as policy makers or scientists, to invest resources in the technologies'development and establish a process of political and/or technological agenda setting. As specific goals can be established, resources become available to achieve those targets. Outcomes are assessed and new, more specific goals are established in a repeating cycle. As this process continues, optimistic expectations are shifted towards more pragmatic expectations. Thus, initially optimistic expectations function as a strategic activity to attract the needed actors (financial) to stimulate the agenda setting process (technical and political) and establish niches.

In effect, the efficiency gains achieved through the application of ICT are only realised on a per unit level of analysis. Once diffused throughout the economy, these micro level benefits are rapidly eroded by the macro societal effects, including economic, behavioural and other complex social forces. In essence, ICT are employed to help achieve greater economic growth, often layered upon existing technologies to enable greater economic penetration Hilty and Ruddy (2000).

The important role of economic forces to businesses or firms fashioning ICT cannot be understated. For example, Sonntag (2000) argues that, while cost is still an important factor of production, it is not the only driver in market evolution. Industry consensus has identified the attributes of competitive products in today's markets as cost, quality, time to market, and performance based on distinctive product features. Thus, while accelerated product cycles support cost reduction strategies, the strategic advantage of faster cycle times propels firms in this direction. Policies promoting competitiveness seek to maximise the adoption of advanced manufacturing technologies and processes, such as ICT.

However, such strategies create the dilemma of technological equipment cost recovery over reduced product and process lifetimes. Thus the faster cycle times and speed to market assumes strong market growth. Immediate sales growth is required for companies to justify the significant investments (in agile technologies) needed to sustain economic growth and future earnings.Agility Forum (1997) Effectively, consumption must increase at an ever greater rate to offset capital substitution for labour in the production process (Schnaiberg 1980).

Accordingly, market growth and accelerated product cycles predict new product variants and more rapid obsolescence linked with consumer desires. Mass customization precisely describes strategies to accommodate increasing consumer demands. Thus, the economic rationale underlying increased product diversification and market fragmentation counteracts the problems of market saturation and over-capacity. The inevitable result is increasing energy and materials consumption.

In effect, this rebound effect consists of the following five effects:

1) Substitution: Replacing an existing product, process or activity through the application of ICT.
2) Optimisation: Optimising the efficiency of an existing product, process or activity through the application of ICT.
3) Induction:
The application of ICT induces the greater use of an existing product, process or activity.
4) Supplementation:
A new ICT product, service or process supplements or complements (adds to) an existing product, service or activity.
5) Creation:
Creating a new niche or application for a new ICT product, service or activity.

Not surprisingly, it is usually only the first two categories that are considered when consumption or environmental considerations are made and technologies are advocated. This can largely be attributed to the assumption that the introduction of ICT is exogenous to existing social processes and needs (Geels and Smit 2000). Future expectations from ICT are also typically biased by conventional reductionist thought. For example, the substitution of physical shopping by ICT alternatives (e-commerce) is largely based on the assumption that shopping is a purely functional activity of purchasing the required goods. That is, functional equivalence is assumed. Functional Equivalence is the term given intensity improvements, such as those achieved through eco-efficiency or dematerialization, intended to maintain the output ("functional unit" or "service unit"), while reducing the physical input to the process of providing the output. Not only is this an imprecise term, and therefore very difficult to compare alternatives, it is also misleading, because it is assumed that different alternatives (such as e-commerce versus shopping in a mall; or telework versus working in the office) are assumed to be comparable. Rather, the choices we make between alternatives is done so precisely because they are different, not functionally equivalent! Such reductionist thought neglects other social and psychological, or human, factors.   

In the case of shopping, Sindhav and Balazs (1999) outline a number of other factors which suggest the continued relevance of traditional retail practices in the face of increasing ecommerce trade. Additionally, the social interaction of shopping and the cultural phenomenon of shopping are important factors determining the importance of physical shopping (Cook 1999). Therefore, from a purely reductionist perspective, certain ICT applications may appear very appealing, as they may promise to fulfil a certain function in a much more intense manner. Nevertheless, by neglecting the complexity of social processes and their interactions with the natural and physical world, future expectations about the role of ICT in reducing energy and materials intensity, consumption and environmental impacts may be overly optimistic, not to mention simplistic. Thus, multifarious pathways will prevent the optimistic expectations from being fully realised, and may even produce some quite unintended, if not harmful effects. The initial development of a technology is often driven by very these narrow visions.

Tulbure (2002) stresses that "Social factors are very important and do influence in a decisive way" whether the application of ICT will lead to a reduction in energy consumption and environmental emissions. Similarly, Plepys (2002) stresses the decisive role of human behaviour in determining the significance of environmental impacts resulting from the adoption of ICT.

Youth, for example are early adopters of ICT and typically develop new and quite innovative adaptations for a given application. Frequently, these technologies are employed for their intended purposes as well as developed into new, novel, and personally unique forms of adaptations asserting self-expression, group participation and other social statements. As such, the youth market forms a key driving force for the development and marketing of new technologies.

Identity formation and other social processes lend themselves to increasing the consumption of ICT applications and thus often lead to a physical increase in the energy and materials consumed in the aggregate. Thus, the adoption of ICTs and their multifarious adaptations by youth worldwide must be preceded, or at least accompanied by the necessary value changes so that technological options are embedded within a sustainable-values social framework.

The beneficial transformational effects of ICT are a function of their potential to reduce energy and materials intensity through dematerialisation, e‑substitution, production optimisation, and product efficiencies. However, these benefits will only be realised if they are accompanied by the necessary social changes, including behaviour, social norms and lifestyle choices. This suggests that particular attention must be given to the social processes and institutions from which these needed changes will be derived - in essence, attention must now focus on the human dimensions of the challenge. For example, this may necessarily mean direct and indirect interventions in social processes previously considered sacrosanct. However, as of yet, there is little interest in this approach. This is interesting, since the stated misgivings focus on the interference of socially accepted values, such as freedom of choice, economic growth, and technological progress. However, through government action and inaction, such specific values, and their concomitant social processes, institutional arrangements and lifestyles are regularly intervened upon and promoted or discouraged, as the case may be. Values simply must be consistent with sustainable development goals if we are to achieve more sustainable development without merely limiting the concepts "to the global management of contemporary capitalism in a green framework" (McManus 1996).


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