The societal challenges of digital technology

Wed 09 Feb 2022

Taken in all its diversity, digital technology invites us to explore in a completely different way the paths of ecological transition by investing in the social and collective dimensions of this transformation.

Digital technology has become an essential lever for companies’ economic and social development strategy. At a time when climate change confronts humanity with unprecedented challenges, the digital and ecological transitions tie in very closely with one another. Transforming our societies and disrupting our daily lives, they call for Corporate Social Responsibility (CSR).

More and more companies are leveraging the digital transition to upscale their business, streamline their exchanges, optimize their activities across the entire value chain, facilitate the work of their employees, meet the expectations of their customers, and provide more efficient products and services.

Now seen as a strategic lever for opening up new economic and social opportunities, digital has become a daily reality. However, the proliferation of its uses augurs a sharp increase in its impact on societies and the environment.

So then, what are the real effects of digital technology on the environment and society? How can digital technology, in all its facets, make it possible to produce and consume products and services, or travel, while contributing to sustainable development?

New environmental challenges

The digital transition is generally perceived and experienced positively, thanks to the multiple benefits it offers companies and society (including increased collaboration, innovation, easier communications, open data, facilitated approaches). Nevertheless, the relentless development of digital technology raises questions due to an awareness of its increasing impacts. Concerns are focused on its environmental footprint and its capacity to transform the daily lives of populations as well as the working environment of company employees.

The fact is that digital technologies consume natural resources and energy throughout their life cycle, i.e. at every step in their development/manufacturing/transport chain right up to the end user and in their uses. And once they reach the end of their service life, they are sources of pollutant waste. These negative impacts affect the carbon footprint not only of all digital players, but also of consumers and users. Paradoxically, at the same time, these innovative technologies can help to reduce the footprint of other players in other sectors of activity: they often promote more efficient production practices that generate energy savings, or bring flexibility and efficiency to industry and the tertiary sector.

Accordingly, digital technology should not merely be broached in terms of economic productivity, but also in terms of environmental efficiency. Considered as a tool for economic development, it must be integrated into companies' strategies and business models to become a vector for the ecological transition.

Inclusion and social progress issues

The digital transformation has disrupted work in companies, giving employers new responsibilities, particularly in the context of the health crisis and the generalization of telecommuting. It has prompted the emergence of the platform economy, which calls into question the professions of the traditional economy. Some jobs are changing, others are disappearing, while new ones are emerging. Individuals’ digital skills and ability to use these new tools now have a direct impact on their employability.

Now essential for the functioning of companies and public services, digital technology imposes not only the acquisition of new skills, but also the transformation of the managerial model and, consequently, the organization of work and public utility.

If used to create value by being inclusive, digital technology can thus become a source of exclusion. Indeed, use of – and proficiency in – digital tools can come to represent a factor of selection and inequality for hiring and/or retaining people in work, or for access to public services.

Digital innovation for the benefit of a responsible and sustainable ecological transition

For all that, the collaborative and social dynamics of digital innovation have already proven that the digital transition can contribute to a responsible and sustainable ecological transition.

Digital technology has led to the emergence of new individual and social practices and new uses based on massive sharing and exchange: one merely has to consider the extent to which social networks have become an integral part of relaying causes and campaigns in different countries throughout the world, or the major place taken by online sales platforms such as Amazon, eBay, Veepee, etc.

Thanks to digital technology, new forms of coordination and collective action have become possible.

Collaborative economy platforms enable millions of people to share or exchange all kinds of consumer goods: their vehicles, bikes, homes, furniture, books, household appliances and digital devices, etc. These platforms also lend themselves to crowdfunding for all sorts of projects, or knowledge sharing in all fields (education, health, research, etc.). Based on the pooling of goods, spaces, services and knowledge, this collaborative economy offers a responsible alternative to the consumer society. Rooted in use rather than possession, it limits the need to produce new goods and waste, as well as the use of natural resources and energy consumption. It thus promotes ecological benefits.

In this sharing economy, data has become one of the “raw materials” essential to human activities, and the dominant medium for the production of information and decisions. It contributes to the monitoring and measurement of a great many activities, supports decision-making (particularly in the climate field) and public debate, facilitates modeling and exploration of future scenarios, and helps to develop new services.

As a result, the potential for reusing data outside of its initial production context lies at the basis of policies in terms of data openness and the development of big data. Here are some examples: measuring biodiversity is largely based on the contribution of thousands of amateurs to databases; in the field of energy, the co-production of data has made it possible to map the roofs best suited to the installation of solar panels; the sharing of production and consumption data promotes the management of networks and makes it possible to identify – on an individual scale – ways to reduce its consumption.

Making digital work for the ecological transition is not only about promoting smart agriculture, smart grids or smart cities, which generally rely on existing players in their respective sectors; it is about utilizing its disruptive potential, its ability to shake up existing players and transform dominant models rather than merely optimizing their operation.

If approached in all its diversity, digital technology invites us to explore the paths toward the ecological transition in a completely different way by embracing the social and collective aspects of this transformation.

Claire Khoury

Chief Marketing, Communication & CSR Officer

Leave a comment