Nowadays, digital technologies occupy most of the interstices of society. While the global pandemic exposed glaring gaps, especially in developing countries, avoiding their mantra seems torturous. Undoubtedly, their rapid diffusion in the last 30 years is historical (Comin & Mestieri, 2018). However, once touted as unstoppable drivers for social change, many now perceive modern Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) as triggers of some of the world’s societal challenges, climate change included.
Surprisingly, digital technologies are conspicuously absent from high-level policy discussions on the environment, from the 1997 Kyoto Protocol through the 2015 Paris Agreement to the recent 2021 CoP26 in Glasgow. Indeed, the views on how ICTs can impact the environment are far from uniform. Recent research (Dwivedi et al., 2022) (Pan et al., 2022) (Santarius et al., 2020) (Zhang & Wei, 2022) provides a comprehensive overview of the links between the two.
However, that body of research bypasses the concept of Sustainable Development (SD) and thus does not examine ICTs under such a lens. This commentary addresses that gap and explores ways ICTs could foster overall SD. It first reintroduces SD into the discussion and traces its relation to ICTs, as depicted in global development policy documents. It then critically reviews the main perspectives on their environmental impact and explores ways digital technologies could foster comprehensive social inclusion, one of SD’s core pillars. Finally, it concludes with suggestions for further ICT and SD research.
Sustainable Development Revisited
The Brundtland Commission introduced Sustainable Development in 1987 (World Commission on Environment and Development, 1987). It has changed over time, albeit slightly. While the 2015 UN Sustainable Development Goals (SDG) agenda emphasized poverty reduction and inequality, it enshrined the concept as the overall outcome (United Nations, 2015). And over the years, the original social equity pillar has been replaced by social inclusion.
SD comprises the intersection of three developmental outcomes: 1. Economic growth. 2. Social inclusion. And 3. Environmental sustainability. Note that such crossover yields three additional components, on top of SD, arising from the interaction between outcome pairs.
Inclusive growth results from the overlap between economic growth and social inclusion. Typical examples are development agendas focused on poverty reduction, such as the UN Millennium Development Goals (MDGs) (United Nations, 2001). Green growth pops up when economic growth and social sustainability interact. While examples are more scarce here (Hickel & Kallis, 2020), such an outcome, when possible, can occur without furthering social inclusion. Finally, social sustainability is the product of environmental sustainability and social inclusion dynamics. The latter provides fertile ground for degrowth perspectives (Kallis, 2020; Meadows & Club of Rome, 1972; Soper, 2020). One critical result of the above is that economic development has four distinct personalities. Researchers should keep track of each of them.
ICTs in Development Agendas
Unlike climate change high-level policy development, ICTs have been part of global development agendas, albeit in a limited capacity.
Emerging digital technologies were mainly a non-issue at the 1992 UN Earth Summit in Rio de Janeiro. Still, the Summit’s outcome document, Agenda 21 (United Nations, 1994), included two references to “information technology.” The first called for increased access to ICT, a recurring theme since then. The second suggested research and development of relevant hardware, software, and other information technology components to tackle the specific needs of developing countries. However, while mentioning data, information, and knowledge, the Agenda’s Chapter 40, Information for Decision Makers, failed to find any links to the new ICTs.
In hindsight, the UN 2000 Millennium Declaration (United Nations, 2000) and the 2001 MDGs pushed SD back. Instead, the global development agenda steered towards poverty reduction, health, education, gender, and human rights, making SD one of the eight core goals, albeit rebranded as environmental sustainability. On the other hand, ICTs gained significant territory as they captured one of the targets of MDG Eight, which focused on promoting the then-emerging concept of public-private partnerships. Its scope, however, matched that of Agenda 21, emphasizing access only. Thereby, links between ICTs and all other goals and targets were still missing in action.
While supporting many of the now-defunct MDGs, the 2015 UN SDGs added seven new global goals addressing specific SD issues. Although the SDG official document avoided the acronym, ICTs gained important ground. The access target was preserved but limited to the least developed countries. For the first time, digital technologies were seen as part of the solution to achieving education, gender equality, and science, technology and innovation targets.
While significant, that brief history pinpoints the limited understanding of how ICTs connect to SD or any of its components described before. Indeed, the literature on the subject is extensive, but no consensus among academics has yet emerged (Avgerou, 2017; De’ et al., 2018; Heeks, 2010; Melville, 2010; Ordóñez, 2015; Sein et al., 2018; Thapa & Sæbø, 2014; Walsham, 2017; Zheng et al., 2018).
From a developmental viewpoint, ICTs should be seen as catalysts first and foremost. In chemistry, a catalyst is an agent that promotes transformation without being transformed in the process. In this light, as catalysts, ICTs can continuously amplify development processes, accelerate the achievement of development goals and targets, and transform how development gaps are tackled (Zambrano, 2021).
Furthermore, ICTs should not be standalone development outcomes. However, they can undoubtedly be development outputs that, combined with others, contribute to reaching specific development goals. Indeed, ICTs cannot achieve much independently, especially in limited access and slow diffusion contexts.
In this light, ICTs can impact any of the seven development outcomes generated by the actions and interactions of SD’s three core pillars. Indeed, researchers should be aware that not all roads lead to SD. For example, ICTs can support green growth initiatives but will not automatically transform them into SD. Furthermore, nothing in ICTs’ nature suggests their deployment should be socially positive by default. Instead, their actual impact will be a function of how they are positioned within a given development context.
ICTs and the Environment
Three competing perspectives on how ICTs can impact the environment are available (Pan et al., 2022; Zhang & Wei, 2022). The first argues digital technologies help reduce emissions given their efficiency gain effects and global informational spread (Santarius et al., 2020). The second argues the opposite by poking more deeply into ICT-generated emissions (Zhao et al., 2022). While both tend to ignore SD and are somewhat static, the third piggy-backs on the Environmental Kuznets Curve (Özokcu & Özdemir, 2017), thus introducing a dynamic approach. Indeed, when first used at scale, ICTs exacerbate the issue. But, in the long term, they can play an essential role in reducing carbon footprints (Haldar & Sethi, 2022).
Fully grasping these seemingly antagonistic perspectives demands a closer examination of ICTs’ internal dynamics.
First, like any other tangible and intangible commodities, ICTs must be initially produced at scale. That assumes the existence of sophisticated global and multi-sectoral supply chains ranging from mines in poor developing countries to sophisticated data centers and applications elsewhere (Crawford, 2021). Once produced, ICTs must enter the distribution, exchange and consumption spheres to reach final users. The Greenhouse Gas (GHG) emissions generated by the overall ICT production cycle should then be factored in. And they are certainly not limited to ICTs’ energy consumption, as is generally assumed (Perez, 2014; Stoll et al., 2019).
Second, ICTs are consumed as inputs in the overall production processes of many other commodities. That is the role those endorsing its environmental benefits highlight. Digitalization of goods has obvious ecological benefits (Court & Sorrell, 2020), albeit they also produce many sophisticated tangible goods. Efficiency gains translate into fewer inputs and lower costs per production unit. And information massification levels many traditional asymmetries, thus potentially empowering users and communities.
In principle, the net balance of ICTs GHG emissions is the difference between what is generated during production and what is saved when used as inputs or intermediaries in other production and consumption processes. The literature labels each side of the equation as the direct and indirect effects of ICTs.
There is, however, a third layer that can emerge as a result of ICTs’ indirect impact. As costs go down and access to ICTs expands, overall commodity demand increases while producing a whole new set of tangible and intangible goods takes off. That generates feedback mechanisms that impact the direct and indirect ICT effects. Known as the rebound effect, such feedback can push ICT GHG emissions in different directions.
Measuring such a complex process can be challenging, as it requires showing that the indirect effects are more significant than the combination of direct and rebound effects for all ICT-emitted GHGs (and not just pollution or carbon, for example). All three perspectives face this same problem.
ICTs and Social Inclusion
Nevertheless, none of the above is unique to ICTs, as many other modern technologies generate similar effects. After all, constant innovation and technical change are crucial drivers of capitalism. For example, an economy-wide rebound effect is regularly a much-sought outcome as it expands markets globally, with the environment not showing up on that radar screen.
While the alleged environmental potential of ICT seems to hinge on its peculiar indirect effects, all three perspectives remain oblivious to SD. The shared assumption is that all economic growth is inclusive by default, thus ignoring its different facets. Moreover, all three approaches implicitly embrace green growth, not SD, as the critical outcome, with ICTs pulling in either direction. As a result, they all largely overlook social inclusion.
The latter is a multidimensional concept that comprises economic, social and political elements. Therefore, while targeting its economic side via growth-driven interventions is entirely possible, more is needed to bring change into the other two dimensions. Social exclusion, the other side of the coin, can increase while, for example, green growth outcomes are blindly pursued, especially if top-down environmental policies target the poor.
One crucial step for tackling social exclusion complexity is to avoid such a top-down approach where stakeholders and potential beneficiaries usually remain voiceless and faceless. Instead, engaging and giving them a voice in the actual design of development initiatives can make a substantial difference. After all, stakeholders and communities are best positioned to identify and prioritize the local issues impacting their lives and preventing the advance of sustainable human development.
Here, ICTs can play a crucial role thanks to their interactive informational capacity, a unique trait of digital technologies. Accordingly, the physical networks, data, information, and knowledge that runs through them are part of the equation. And much of the latter is user-generated and user-driven anyways. Therefore, ICTs can empower communities without access to such networked and interactive information and communication channels and give them a seat at the decision-making table.
Any development investment could thus get a reality check spearheaded by stakeholders and beneficiaries, including potential environmental impacts. Moreover, here, ICTs will help decide if they are indeed needed as part of the solution on a case-by-case basis. Finally, this process can also generate a virtuous cycle where social inclusion begets more social inclusion, catalyzed by the diffusion of digital technologies.
Fortunately, a whole body of academic research on ICTs and participation is available (Andreasson, 2015; Fung et al., 2013; Fung & Wright, 2003; Janssen & Helbig, 2018; Kassen, 2021; Krishnan et al., 2017; Macintosh, 2004; Mærøe et al., 2021; Zambrano & Eymann, 2014). Thus, researchers should connect such dots and explore how social inclusion can be more prominent when exploring the links between ICTs and SD.
However, challenges are still dangling on the horizon. First, the rapid development of disinformation and misinformation is critical as it might significantly impact stakeholder engagement. Second, researchers should avoid focusing only on “online” stakeholder engagement and participation, especially in contexts where access is unavailable or unaffordable. ICTs are much bigger than access. Third, digital resilience efforts that popped up during the global pandemic face most of the issues described above and should thus be revisited. Finally, any new perspectives on the role of ICTs in SD should clearly understand the seven outcomes the latter offers, as digital technologies could play very different roles in each. These should be spelled out and theorized accordingly.
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[This is the first draft I developed of a commentary submitted to an academic Journal with other colleagues that will not be published. So I am publishing here!]