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Recap: "Sustainable digital transformation? Opportunities and risks for people and the climate".


Sustainable, digital transformation - can it succeed? In the second edition of the new ECDF format "One Room - Four Perspectives" on October 28, 2021, four guests again shed light on their different perspectives on the topic and what it takes in their eyes for digital transformation to be sustainable and social. 

The climate crisis is in full swing, with the World Climate Summit taking place in Glasgow amid protests. Technical innovation and digitization are often traded as the key to achieving greater sustainability and the urgently needed climate goals - but how are digitization and sustainability connected? This was discussed by ECDF Professor Tilman Santarius, Professor of Socio-Ecological Transformation and Sustainable Digitalization at ECDF and Technische Universität Berlin, Ann Cathrin Riedel, Theme Manager for Digitalization and Innovation at Friedrich Naumann Foundation, Rainer Karcher, Global Director IT Sustainability at Siemens AG, Line Niedeggen, Spokesperson Fridays for Future Heidelberg.

Right at the beginning of the panel, Ann Cathrin Riedel from the Friedrich Naumann Foundation pleads for a broader definition of sustainability: "We look a lot at climate and resources, I always try to make it clear that we have to design digitalization in such a way that it continues to protect citizens' rights and human rights in the future and enables freedoms"; Line Niedeggen, activist at Fridays for Future (FFF) and Rainer Karcher, Head of Global Sustainability at Siemens AG, also agree that the term is now being used rather inflationarily. Tilman Santarius therefore thinks a new term is besser suited: "I prefer to use the term socio-ecological transformation - the term is a little less catchy, but it underlines what it's all about: It's not just about doing things in such a way that they will still be sustainable in 10, 20, 30 years - or simply doing things a little better or differently, in the sense of ecological modernization; it's about the fact that we really have to fundamentally change, transform, do things differently, in production and consumption," says Santarius.

In the 21st century, civil society organizations like FFF are also organizing through platforms like Instagram, Twitter and Facebook to give their street protests the reach they need. "All of this needs electricity," explains moderator Katja Weber, "is that a contradiction, Ms. Niedeggen?" Niedeggen resolutely points out that while the actions of each and every individual are important "it's no good if I do without certain items, like my smartphone, but no political pressure is generated - that's not how we defeat fossil capitalism or curb the climate crisis. 71% of emissions are generated by 100 companies, so it has very little impact what electricity I use in my shared room," the student explains. She goes further: "We have to use the structural conditions to have a voice at all in this system in which we all grew up. Isolating ourselves doesn't help!". Niedeggen criticizes that the FFF activists and demonstrators are told at every demo that they should turn off their cell phones: "If I turn off my cell phone and lock myself up at home, the climate crisis will come anyway!”. For her, it's important to learn as a society how to use this technology wisely.

Tilman Santarius also sees the debate as completely misguided, and for him two points are particularly urgent: "What we have so far in terms of digitization in society should be used as sustainably as possible. To do this, we need to look at hardware production on the one hand, which is currently far from being socially or ecologically sustainable; but services, for example apps, also need to become more sustainable. The other question is: What else do we need in terms of digitalization to achieve sustainability goals?"

Rainer Karcher sees great opportunities for influence and great responsibility on the part of companies. Siemens is already passing on old hardware such as laptops and smartphones for recycling so that they can be used elsewhere - in schools, for example. For him, this is an example of what sustainability in practice can look like, without greenwashing. Siemens is represented in the resource- and energy-intensive sectors of infrastructure, mobility and medical technology, among others, and relies here on renewable energies wherever possible. "By 2030, Siemens wants to be climate neutral, and we are also working to become more transparent in our supply chains," says Karcher. At the same time, consumer decisions must become more transparent and easier for end customers, Santarius is certain. Together with his interdisciplinary team of economists, psychologists, sociologists and colleagues from other disciplines, the scientist is already researching a digital solution, the Green Consumption Assistant, which automatically suggests sustainable alternatives when shopping online.

In particular, the panel questions the concept of economic growth and simultaneous compatibility with climate goals: "We need more digital solutions that free our companies and entire societies from our compulsion to grow. That means good life, good income, good jobs without having to keep growing," says Santarius. For Karcher, the process of rethinking has already begun, even if companies like Siemens have not yet completely abandoned the idea of growth. While companies believe they are on the right track, Niedeggen is clear about what is problematic about this notion: "In the end, we come up against physical limits, regardless of whether I personally think we've already pushed a lot of things forward. We are in the middle of the climate crisis and do not manage to talk openly and honestly about what is actually necessary," the activist says in the livestream. Karcher sees the companies in the responsibility but also believes that the transformation must also arrive in the minds and indeed in all social classes, this has not yet happened for him. "Most people don't feel affected by the climate crisis, the political and economic communication about it has completely failed," says Line Niedeggen. Tilman Santarius believes that the transformation is already taking place in people's minds but "that's not enough!", he says, "the turnaround is not yet apparent, structures have to change". Rainer Karcher already sees this trend reversal at Siemens in the fact that the company is moving away from the concept of intellectual property when the sharing of experience and data serves sustainability.

The participants agree that the right to repair can make an important contribution to the socio-ecological transformation. Santarius also sees the extension of the warranty and the modularity of devices to make it easier to carry out repairs as important steps toward more sustainable digitization. In his view, it is important to have local contact points close to home that can repair electrical devices and thus extend their service life.

Line Niedeggen thinks it's important to keep talking about small things and the contribution of each and every individual, but "as long as the structural question isn't asked and we don't talk about the big destruction and the big exploitation, I'm not optimistic that we'll change much in the near future," says Niedeggen. Ann Cathrin Riedel concludes by emphasizing that laws must be created from the political side: "We can and must change the system from the political side. Specifications must be made that I can have devices repaired, that I can replace my battery, that I must have modular devices," explains the Free Democrat. In addition to the focus on the exploitation of people in the production of our devices, Riedel also directs the focus once again on the exploitation of user data: "One thing often comes up short for me and that is how human rights are abused when it comes to the generation of data, for example the use of data from surveillance cameras to make facial recognition better - we urgently need to think about that. In this case, regulation enables freedom." For these standards, companies, politicians and civil society need to come to the table, Santarius concluded.

Current developments in digitization from different perspectives - that's what the Einstein Center Digital Future's new event series "One Room - Four Perspectives" is all about. At regular intervals, actors from science, business, politics and civil society come together in a moderated panel. The next panel will take place at the beginning of 2022, more information will be available soon under Events and in our newsletter (sign up //here).


//Here you can find the video of the panel discussion and further information on the event series.

//Here you can find more information about our events.

//Here you can find more information about the Green Consumption Assistant.