Digitalisation: from growth to purpose

Depending on the purpose with which digital technologies are developed and deployed, digitalisation can be a double-edged sword for sustainability. How do we ensure that digital technologies become a powerful force for sustainable transformation, while managing and minimising the risks associated with them?

Digitalisation: high potential and (hidden) risks for sustainability

Digitalisation – the increasing application of ICT throughout the economy and society – is a complex and dynamic process, which is permeating every aspect of our lives with far reaching environmental, social and economic implications. Digital infrastructures are now a key feature of many systems, including manufacturing, commerce, energy, health, logistics and finance. Digitalisation comes with high expectations to help achieve the Sustainable Development Goals, based on the promise to make production and consumption systems more energy efficient, less resource intensive, and less wasteful.

Digital tools as additive manufacturing, for instance, can optimise production processes, through design and the creation of more light-weight products. Internet of Things, trough the use of sensors, can collect large amounts of data about the environmental impact of products, leading to continuous monitoring on the ecological performance of devices. Digital product passports can provide a new push to product transparency and traceability, with more information on products’ composition and environmental impact. Artificial intelligence can be applied to optimise supply chains, while blockchain has been used to share data in a secure and transparent manner, enabling greater product stewardship. Digitalisation can also help in end-of-pipe solutions, such as in the case of smart waste management, which can increase efficiency in the waste and recycling industries through more efficient collection and sorting of waste.

All these use-cases are but a small selection of examples on how digital technologies hold a high potential to drive decarbonisation and dematerialisation. More broadly, digitalisation can have systematic effects and enable new circular business models to satisfy customer needs with lower resource utilisation (i.e. product-as-a-service). However, while the expectations for digital technologies to become a sustainability-enabling tool are widespread, successful implementation is not to be taken for granted.

As a complex and systemic transformation, digital technologies can also create negative direct and indirect effects. Due to the growing operations of digital devices, systems and infrastructures, digitalisation is directly driving an increase in energy and materials consumption, and associated greenhouse gas emissions. The manufacture of physical devices and facilities require large amounts of raw materials, especially mineral resources as rare earth elements. Disposal issues are also being exacerbated worldwide by mounting electronic waste, which has become the fastest growing waste stream globally. Technology redundancy and planned obsolescence lead to short service life, which is a significant driver for the increased resource consumption of digitalisation.

Apart from the direct environmental impacts of digital devices and infrastructures, also indirect effects need to be taken into account. Digital services have an impact on business models, lifestyles and consumption patterns. The efficiency gains enabled by digital technologies might lead to higher demand, causing rebound effects which result, in the aggregate, in a negative net result. That is, an increase in resource and energy demand, rather than a decrease.

Due to these risks and challenges, which often remain not fully understood and measured, it remains unclear whether the growing application of digital technologies will foster or impede the transition towards sustainable development. In order to become an enabling factor, all the challenges need to be recognised and solved. For instance, by extending the useful life of digital devices through improved durability, repairability and recyclability of end devices.

This is an urgent discussion that all stakeholders need to be part of, including ICT companies, policy-makers, materials and energy providers, and citizens. If we wish digitalisation to become a force for sustainability, we might need to shift the focus from digitalisation as a driver for growth, towards digitalisation as a deliverer of purpose.

Shaping the debate at WRF’23

During the conference programme, we’ll dive into both the opportunities and risks that digitalisation offers for a sustainable use of natural resources, through a focus on the following thematic areas:

  • Enabling sustainability through digitalisation
  • Digital technologies & business models
  • Environmental footprint of digital technologies
  • Greening of digital technologies: solutions & examples
  • Rebound effects and behavioural aspects
  • The geopolitics of digitalisation

Are you working on the topic of digitalisation and wish to partner up for the conference? Get in touch with us at!

About WRF’23

The World Resources Forum (WRF) is a world-leading conference in the field of sustainable natural resource management. We act as a multi-stakeholder platform to foster an open and solution-oriented dialogue among policy-makers, scientists, businesses and civil society organisations. Following previous conferences which engaged over 15,000 participants in Switzerland, Japan, China, Peru, Costa Rica, Australia and Ghana, WRF’23 ‘Rethinking Value – Resources for Planetary Wellbeing’ will take place in a hybrid format in Geneva (Switzerland) and online, on September 4-6 2023.

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