The Digitalised Sustainable Society

The Digital Age is opening the door to a new age of human civilisation. Major governance challengers are arising to unite the Digital Revolution with the necessary transformation to sustainability, that is, the development of prosperity, security, and democracy for almost ten billion people within the planetary boundaries. The transformation to sustainability must be achieved by around the middle of this century in order to avoid tipping points in the Earth system – such as the melting of Greenland’s ice sheet, the collapse of the monsoon system or the Amazon rainforest area.

In essence, the priority lies with decoupling increasing prosperity and socio-economic development over the next three to four decades from greenhouse gas emissions, managing resources in economic cycles, and radically reducing the pressure on ecosystems. Now, technical systems are arising that are able to increasingly and enormously expand the cognitive potential of humans. If we are to take the ‘Agenda 2030’ with its comprehensive sustainable development goals seriously, then this also entails abolishing extreme poverty and reducing inequalities that jeopardise the social cohesion and stability of many societies. Can digitalisation help accomplish these tasks for humanity? First of all, the dynamics, drivers, and characteristics of the Digital Age have to be decoded. In doing so, it becomes clear that with the conversion to sustainability and the digital change, two major transformations taking place simultaneously need to be brought together. However, politics, economy, and society are not geared up for these transformations yet.

The Civilisational Advances of Humanity

In order to understand digital innovations and their effects on societies and to categorise the magnitude of change, it is helpful to look back at human history. The successive and increasingly refined substitution and expansion of human abilities in dealing with the world through technology (or technologies) was central to the history of mankind. During the transition from hunter-­gatherer societies to sedentariness some ten thousand years ago, mankind’s first great civilisational push – the Neolithic Revolution – was characterised by the substitution and expansion of physical force: tools, the domestication and use of animals allowed for the ‘invention of agriculture’. This transformation extended over a few thousand years. In contrast, the second great transformation, which occurred in the nineteenth century, namely the Industrial Revolution, shook mankind within merely one hundred years. This time, the key driver for change was the substitution and expansion of human capabilities and practices through technological innovation – the use of fossil fuels and increasingly complex machines for industrial production. The consequences included unprecedented upheavals in production, explosions in productivity, huge increases in wealth for parts of the world population. However, it also resulted in profound and painful transformations of economic and social conditions, population growth, and, at first local and then global, environmental destruction – pushing the planet to the limits of its resilience. It was only over the course of lengthy social and political conflicts and after two world wars that governance systems attempting to contain these issues emerged in Western societies: progressive, but at the same time destructive market dynamics have been constrained by democracy to limit concentration of power. They have also been limited by social security systems meant to foster inclusion, and little by little also by environmental regulations to reduce the depletion of natural resources, even though these regulations remain to date completely inadequate.

With the age of digitalisation, a third globally effective process of change is now looming, fuelled once again by technological innovations. This age, however, is no longer just about supporting people’s physical capabilities and opportunities. Now, technical systems are arising that are able to increasingly and enormously expand the cognitive potential of humans, and perhaps even to substitute it. Man-made artificial (machine) intelligence (AI) with its algorithms and digitalised data, including self-learning technical systems, is radically challenging the previously ‘unique selling points’ of humans, not least their cognitive abilities and creativity, as well as current ways of thinking, economy, and social systems.

At the same time, sustainability research shows that the great developmental challenge of the twenty-first century now lies in creating prosperity within the boundaries of the Earth system in order to prevent the erosion of the natural foundations of human civilisation.

Digital Solutions

Central questions arising against the background of the necessary transformation to sustainability in the age of digitalisation are, for example: what impact will digital automation have on labour markets and the international division of labour? Will the national and international trends of increasing inequalities increase? Are prosperity and Earth system stability more easily reconciled in the Digital Age than in the Industrial Era? Will the opportunities to achieve the goals of the Agenda 2030 and the Paris Agreement increase or decrease in the Digital Age? Do the dynamics of data economies challenge the tenets of democracy? Important social, economic, and ecological sustainability challenges can only be shaped and solved in the context of digital changes. What will the future of co-existence between technical self-learning systems and human civilisation look like? And thinking a step further into the future: will the ‘intelligent’ systems overtake people’s cognitive abilities; will we control the technical systems, or will they control us? The direction of the questions indicates that sustainability research and concepts are themselves being challenged by digitalisation. The good news is that there are many indications that important social, economic, and ecological sustainability challenges could be shaped and solved in the context of digital changes. Yet that is easier said than done, because until now, the sustainability sciences and the pioneers of the digital future have been researching in two separate silos with few connections between them.

That will have to change: we will have to rethink and refine the concepts of sustainable development and our notions of human development, as they are formulated in the Agenda 2030, for instance, where there is practically no mention of digitalisation. The responsibility of science in dealing with digital technologies and their applications has been discussed for a long time. One of the pioneers of critical, responsible computer science was J. Weizenbaum. Approaches such as responsible computing and social computing, which formulated human-­centric guidelines for responsible IT management, have been developed. Intense public discourses around the ethical questions of digitalisation have emerged in recent years. These discourses must now be brought together systematically with sustainability research and sustainability transformations.

What is the State of the Digital Revolution?

Already today, our society is vastly engineered along the lines of digital networking: robotics, autonomous systems, virtualisation, edge and cloud computing, data analytics, augmented realities, and AI are fundamentally changing the way people work and live. Procedures, methods, and processes developed over thousands of years are being modernised and revolutionised by digitalisation within the shortest possible timeframes. One of the most traditional sectors – agriculture – is already significantly automated and digitalised. Hardly an egg or wheat kernel is entering the market without the use of sensors and data analytics in the production process. Other fields such as the media industry have already undergone massive upheavals, and further sectors such as the automotive industry are currently facing major changes along the line of networked or autonomous driving, e-mobility, multimodal mobility services, and new sharing economy approaches. The energy industry is equally being revolutionised by digitalisation. Even if it is hard for many to grasp: in all the above mentioned developments data play a crucial role. Data are abstract, often technical, and they are digitisable. Being part of software, they are, like software and its algorithms, barely tangible or otherwise tactile. Through decision support, visualisation, or automated decision-making and control, they increasingly impact central societal processes such as production, energy, or traffic management. Digitalisation will ultimately affect the organisation and control of the economic, political, and social relations of our societies.

To begin with, the evolving Digital Age can be described by the sheer force of the technical changes and their multiple effects. Individuals, society, the economy, the earth, and the technology system itself are significantly being influenced and changed by digital transformation. Digital transformation goes so far as to even challenge our image of mankind, shaped by the Age of Enlightenment: in what relation will a possible machine civilisation stand to the human one? And even right now, the digitally supported automation of decision-making processes is challenging a core element of Western democracies: deliberation. Will more and more social negotiation and decision-making processes, even in the judiciary, in parliaments, or also in science, be transferred to autonomous, self-learning technical systems in the future?

System Levels Influenced by Digital Transformation

Impacts of digital transformation on the Earth system, society, infrastructures, economy and individuals.

Multiple System Changes

The effects of digital transformation are often primarily described from an economic perspective (innovation gains, displacement effects across sectors) or from an individual perspective (opportunities and risks of using digital technologies, such as better networking versus surveillance), but other levels, including society and its infrastructure systems as well as the planet, are also influenced by digitalization (see Figure 1).

An analysis of the effects of digitalisation on the five ­levels mentioned above – individuals, social systems, economic systems, infrastructure systems, and the Earth system – paints the following picture:

The Internet has reached humanity across the board. According to statistics, more than fifty per cent of the world’s population have had access to the Internet since 2017. In 1995, this figure was still less than one per cent of the world population. Between 1999 and 2013, the number of Internet users increased tenfold, with the first billion reached in 2005, the second in 2010, and the third in 2014.

As part of our technical infrastructure, since 2014 there have been more mobile phones than humans. In 2014, for example, there were 7.2 billion active SIM cards in the world, and their numbers are growing five times faster than humanity. In addition, it is expected that the Internet of Things and with it the sensors and control devices connected to the Internet will overtake mobile phones as the largest group of connected devices with an annual growth rate of twenty-three per cent for the 2015–2021 period.

In the digital economy, e-commerce stores have achieved sales in excess of 1.5 trillion US dollar. Sales of more than 2.5 trillion US dollar are expected for 2022. Here, the commercial Internet is dominated by a few providers. In addition to e-commerce, significant ­further developments are expected in the context of ­‘Industry 4.0’.

Digitalisation is also making rapid progress in the social realm. Smart City approaches are being propagated worldwide to increase the quality of life and work in urban areas. E-government approaches are being discussed and implemented at national and international levels to modernise politics and administration and to increase the effectiveness of interactions with citizens, businesses, and civil society organisations.

In addition, the compliance with planetary guard rails could benefit massively from the improved monitoring, simulation, and prediction of material flows, emissions, and Earth system dynamics through digital technologies and AI support.

However, the possible positive impacts of digitalisation can only be mobilised if the technological upheavals are shaped by and aligned with sustainability goals. This in turn requires an understanding of the quality and direction of digital change.

A Characterisation

The interactions of digital infrastructures with the Earth system, society and the economy, humans, and other technology systems can be understood through the essential characteristics of the Digital Age. Sustainability scientists and the pioneers of the digital future have been researching in two separate silos with few connections between them. Within their interactions, these five essential characteristics – networking, cognition, autonomy, virtuality, and the explosion of knowledge – that derive from the six basic functions of digitalisation – computing, remembering, perceiving, communicating, cooperating, and acting – produce tremendous forces of change that will significantly reconfigure all levels of the system. While none of these five characteristics is fundamentally new – in many ways, they are historically rooted –, digitalisation is transforming them into powerful forces of change. Driven by rapid dynamics or enormous quantities of digital transformation, qualitatively new entities are emerging on all system levels and in their interactions.

Networking of Things, People, and Organisations

The massive networking of technical systems and things, people, and organisations at every level of operation is already so omnipresent that its radicality and consis­tency could almost be overlooked. For decades, machines have been able to easily communicate with each other and in doing so, to adopt, expand, or substitute the basic communicative abilities of humans. The possibility of dense networking that penetrates all life and work areas is increasing massively, not least in the course of the emergence and spread of the Internet and its current development through the Internet of Things.

This network has vastly advanced globally. Even remote regions have access to the Internet; economic globalisation and the possibilities of transnational cooperation between societies are the consequence and drivers of this technical networking. Comparable to the basic structure of the Internet as a network of networks, polycentric structures are formed from interaction, and linkage culminating in the intertwining of a variety of individual and collective players of different sizes and constitutions.

In a positive light, this intensive networking enables exchange and cooperation on an unprecedented scale. Like the printing press in the sixteenth century, digitalisation multiplies the networking between people, the diffusion of knowledge, and learning processes. New patterns of interdependency and governance emerge. These include, for example, the relationships between end-users and large transnational corporations (such as Google), between states and communities of states and transnational corporations (such as Microsoft), or among individuals themselves. These dynamics often overwhelm traditional governmental policies and require political innovations to allow digitalisation to be shaped democratically.

Another effect of the increasing digital networking of technical systems is the potential amplification of the criticality of infrastructures. Already in the majority of cases today, energy, water, heat, food, transport, or healthcare supplies no longer function without reliable, secure, and efficient digitalisation. The necessary resilience and robustness must be newly regulated and demanded. Cyber-attacks must be prevented with the necessary consistency and should in principle be banned internationally.

Mind-controlled Neuroprotheses

A second fundamental characteristic concerns the transfer of cognitive abilities to technical systems and thus a far-reaching extension, in part also substitution, of human intelligence. Even today, machines have the ability to perceive, analyse, assess, logically conclude, plan, learn, and even solve problems. While many of today’s applications still deal with relatively simple cognitive behaviours, developments in AI, neural networks, and machine learning show the potential for the advanced cognitive autonomy of machine systems.

The Digital Anthropocene needs to be embedded within normative narratives and framework conditions that are yet to be invented and developed.

Another line of development includes research on brain-machine interfaces and mind-­controlled neuroprotheses. Computer-based medical technology can mitigate previously untreatable neurological diseases or correct disabilities caused by accidents. However, these developments, which should be supported, can also be used to improve and optimise human beings per se. When it comes to the non-­necessary use of technical components on and in humans, we need to investigate whether such cases can be compared to drugs or non-medically indicated interventions and think about comparable regulations.

Humanity is approaching a critical point: after humans became the strongest force of change in the Earth system as a result of the Industrial Revolution, the technological dynamics of the Digital Age are allowing a new door to be opened: humans can transform people fundamentally, re-determining humanity itself. Many and possibly even irreversible ‘side effects’ are conceivable. The Digital Anthropocene needs to be embedded within normative narratives and framework conditions that are yet to be invented and developed.

The Autonomy of Technical Systems

A third momentous characteristic concerns the increasing autonomy of technical systems. This is essentially about the independent decisions of technical systems, for example in industrial robotics, automated driving, flight control, or train control. Through the combination of AI, data analytics, and networking, the possibilities of automatisms are continuing to expand: technical systems can detect patterns that are potentially based on correlations inaccessible to human cognition. Other areas of application include early crisis detection or the prediction of likely patterns in prosecution by the police, tax, and financial authorities.

In addition, robotics (for example, industrial robotics, medical robotics, and humanoid robotics) continue to evolve rapidly along functional, sensory, and motor lines. Continuing the centuries-long transfer of physically demanding work and tasks otherwise unsolvable for humans to machines, the development of intelligent robotics represents the next step and has the potential to solve social and environmental problems, for instance through massive increases in efficiency or through the simple fact that robots are more enduring, more reliable, and more accurate than humans. Transferring responsibility for implementation to robotics is often very successful. However, the transfer of responsibility for resolution and decision-making is still undergoing discussion for good reason.

Autonomous technical systems have the potential for faster and more efficient administration, faster (individualised) access to information, or early detection in various fields (health, traffic regulation, and so on). The risks lie in intransparency and possible individual or group-based discrimination; questions of responsibility and liability have not yet been settled. In an extreme case, there may be substantial loss of control or a technical sphere in which, instead of humans, machines act on a domain-specific or even fully independent basis. A shared understanding must be reached concerning when the transfer of responsibility might be useful, as well as whether there are areas where decision support by technical systems should always be accompanied by competent humans (individuals or committees) as decision-­makers. Society and politics must determine in which societal, economic, and social areas autonomous systems should advance, and which role they should be allocated. These areas can be decisive for the erosion, destruction, or perhaps even further development of freedom and democracy.

Virtuality and Hybrid Experiences

A fourth central characteristic of the Digital Age is the substitution of elements and (sub-)systems of the physical world by the virtual and its extensions. From virtual meetings (of individuals in different places and soon in different times) and hybrid discussions between individuals, avatars, and bots, through events with hundreds of thousands of participants in virtual rooms, down to individual and shared virtual or hybrid experiences (using augmented reality technologies) – in all these settings occurs the virtualisation of planning, design, and even production, and in the future perhaps even the virtualisation of social processes. Then again, the same digital opportunities contain the risks of falsified data or facts, corrupted models or analyses. Thereby, the potential increase in knowledge can be thwarted by an increase in falsehoods. Virtualisation in these contexts enables more accurate predictions, preventative action, better needs-based products, optimised production, or even circular economies.

For this purpose, more and more complete digital images, exemplary details, and models of the physical world are being developed, which are then refined and calibrated through monitoring, simulation, and validation. Similarly, creation can draw from previously unattainable parts of our world (such as at micro or nano-­level or from other time periods), ­either borrowed from our world (such as for the prediction of possible futures) or stemming from completely different worlds (such as the design of alternative worlds). These creations can then be used for education, research, or decision-­making. In this way, humanity is opening up new spaces for itself.

Virtualisation allows for intensive transnational networking of individuals and organisations. It can be used to make the vulnerability of individuals, groups, entire ecosystems, or the planet immediately tangible, or to convey or even anticipate real events. As it were, virtualisation can also turn negative if the mere support and expansion of physical existence turns into a comprehensive displacement of essential aspects of human life into the virtual.

Knowledge Explosion

The fifth basic characteristic is the explosion of human knowledge along the course of digital transformation. In this context, the enormous increase in data and information, which is promoted by the web, social platforms, the Internet of Things, and satellite observation, is typically named first. This enormous data growth is the driver and result of much larger upheavals: soon, all sciences will be significantly enhanced by computing, networking, virtualisation, and AI. Climate science, genetic engineering, modern physics, and materials science of today are already fundamentally based on digitalisation. As such, new connections are being identified, conjectures are proven, or even theorems are discovered and verified.

In combination with the new possibilities for the preparation, transfer, and comprehensive access to knowledge, art, culture, and to the natural environment of humans and new scientific discoveries, human knowledge could be expanded not just in terms of quantity, but also in terms of quality. Then again, the same digital opportunities contain the risks of falsified data or facts, corrupted models or analyses. Intelligent design, repairability, and automated deconstruction at the end of product lives significantly reduce the need for new raw materials and pave the way to a global circular economy. Thereby, the potential increase in knowledge can be thwarted by an increase in falsehoods. Securing the digital memory of humanity has also become a central and global challenge – this deals with giving individuals the right to be forgotten in digital space. In addition, the question arises as to how developing countries and vulnerable groups could benefit from these dynamics.

From the aggregate of digital networking, cognition, autonomy, virtualisation, and the enormous increase of knowledge that comes with it, an apparatus arises that will have an impact previously unknown to humanity – with enormous utopian as well as dystopian potential. The key question here is whether and how these potentials of the Digital Age can be used for the achievement of sustainable developments goals as well as for human development and, at the same time, how the new challenges and risks of digitalisation outlined can be contained.

Vision of a Digitalised Sustainable Society 2030

A digitalised sustainable society could be possible: one hundred per cent of energy is generated from renewable sources. Precision agriculture, which uses sensors and robots to optimally care for plants and animals as well as ensure the best possible use of fertilisers and water, protects the environment and makes it possible to provide for a civilisation of ten billion people. Intelligent design, repairability, and automated deconstruction at the end of product lives significantly reduce the need for new raw materials and pave the way to a global circular economy. Through exchange platforms, individuals develop a global awareness of each individual’s responsibility for comprehensive sustainability and humanity issues. Global commons, which are indispensable for the preservation of the natural foundations of life and for the continuation of humanity in peaceful coexistence, are protected through united efforts. In virtual spaces, polycentric networks are emerging as the foundation of global governance, based on a culture of global cooperation that allows interstate multilateralism with the participation of many people in cross-border processes.

Global minimum taxes and global competition law prevent international companies from playing off states and societies against each other. Digital platforms provide the right information for everyone, anywhere, at any time, and according to any preference, both in their personal and professional lives. The relationship between data usage and privacy is balanced, while digital self-determination is guaranteed. Data protection and data security enjoy the highest priority. Digitalisation therefore implies an enormous organisational task for all our societies. The digitalised sustainable society operates on the ‘open government’ principle. This ensures democratic participation; decisions affecting the common good involve citizens in equal measure. In addition, humans are digitally strengthened. Digital technologies promise great advances in personalised diagnostics and therapy. A life free of physical and mental suffering as well as graceful ageing are achieved by the replacement or optimisation of physical functions (‘cyborgs’).

In the nineteenth and early twentieth century, Marx and Keynes devised utopian plans for the future development of industrial societies. The real development looked quite different: class struggles, nationalism, world wars. Democracy (in Europe), European cooperation, welfare states, markets embedded in institutions – all of these advancements only emerged after the deep crisis of the first waves of industrialisation. It does not take much imagination to picture that the vision of the digitalised sustainable society could shatter all too easily. Digitalisation therefore implies an enormous governance task for all our societies. Social, normative, cultural, and political innovations will be necessary to connect digitalisation, sustainability, and human development. This is what the beginning looks like: to understand what is, to describe what should be, to develop possible bridges to a desirable future – and we need to get started right now.

Digital Sustainability Transformation

How We Must Act

Sustainability can only succeed in the Digital Age. This requires the alignment of digitalisation with the goals of global sustainability and human development. Germany should rapidly develop its sustainability strategy, its contributions to the global implementation of the Agenda 2030, and its innovation strategy.

  • Strengthening digital competences: digitalisation and the effects of the far-reaching automation related to it, especially through autonomous systems and artificial intelligence, cover all areas of society. Therefore digital literacy should be massively strengthened and linked to sustainability perspectives: in schools and universities, in politics and administration, in companies and trade unions, in civil society. This process is still in its infancy.
  • Defining target images: in order to shape the Digital Age, to exploit its enormous potential, and to minimise possible risks, a variety of social debates should be initiated, target images determined, and the necessary technological and societal change designed accordingly.
  • A sustainable digital vision for Europe: Europe, too, needs its vision for sustainable development in the Digital Age. It should therefore unite digitalisation with democracy, good human development, the fight against inequalities, the stabilisation of the planet, and global cooperation for digital sustainability.

Prof. Dr-Ing. Ina Schieferdecker (51) is Director of the Fraunhofer Institute for Open Communication Systems (FOKUS) and holds a professorship in Quality Engineering of Open Distributed Systems at the Technical University of Berlin (TU Berlin). She is the Founder of the Weizenbaum Institute for the Networked Society, the German Internet Institute. She is the President of the Association for Software Quality and Further Education (ASQF), Honorary Member of the Board of the Technology Foundation Berlin (TSB), and Member of the Scientific Advisory Council on Global Change (WBGU) to the Federal Government.

Prof. Dirk Messner’s CV can be found below his article.