We are on the path of digitalizing everything that can be digital and that is pretty much everything. There is no going back to the analog world of the past. And, many of us are already too used to the conveniences of the digital. But, a fast digitalizing world has implications for sustainability. We must understand these implications and guide the digital to work for the good of humanity, and not against it.
People seem to be in two camps on the possible impacts of the digital. There is the group that believes the digital will fix our problems and take us to that bright future. Then, there is the other group that believes the digital will take us to that dystopian Mad Max* world. Both scenarios are possible. In fact, a little from each is already emerging as our likely reality in the coming years. This duality is because, the digital can be both good and evil depending on who created it, for what purpose, and with which underlining values.
(* You may be too young to know about the Mad Max action movies. They were stories of social collapse in a desolate landscape sometime in the future. The first movie was out in 1979, with two sequels in the 1980s. There was a reboot in 2015 and the Wikipedia entry on the movie says there is another reboot expected in 2024. You can visit the Wiki page if curious)
The bright new world scenario is based on the many promises of these technologies. Remote working reduces business travel and thus the related emissions. Online education makes top universities acessible to millions of people for a fraction of their actual cost. The digital has the potential to increase participation and accountability enhancing democracy. Digital tools, like blockchain, can end food and energy waste. And with blockchain carbon emission accounting can become verifiable, making international emission reduction schemes work. And there are many personal miracles that the digital makes happen: giving vision to the blind, hearing to the deaf and motion to the invalid. We want all these improvements.
On the dystopian side there are many undesirable possibilities. The digital is power hungry. Most power grids that feed the digital systems are fossil fuel based spewing out a lot of green house gases (GHGs). These emissions from the digital will only increase because the world is unlikely to switch to all renewables overnight. The digital also has a hunger for rare metals. These come from mining activities which are detrimental to the environment. As the digital seeps into everything, we face a fast growing electronic waste problem. Although there are efforts to recycle, these don’t match the scale of the e-waste problem.
Then there are the less immediately observable measurable social impacts of the digital. Any technology is a product of its social context. This applies to the digital as well. They emerge from societies of high inequality, with many biases and prejudices. Their design, use and access reflects this societal context. On purpose or not, the digital is deepening and widening the existing social chasms. The digital also has an insidious ability to reduce choice, increase social control, and reduce human brain capacity – no one needs to remember anything when everything is at your fingertips on the internet. It used to be normal to recall from memory 10 or more telephone numbers. Nowadays we are lucky to remember our own phone number! There is always Siri or Alexa to do the remembering for us. So the digital is making for lazy brains.
in this context, how we educate engineers who design, build and apply digital technologies is critical.
They need to learn how to think using the sustainable development framework. They need to look at their technological choices through that prism. Some engineering schools have a required course on ethics. Bard.ai listed MIT, Stanford and UC Berkley in this category. Anything on “ethics and sustainability” appear as an elective. Engineering students graduate with little or no training on applying the sustainability prism. They do not have the tools to check the sustainability impacts of their innovations.
The college students today are the most sustainability oriented cohort I have seen in a long long time. This may be because they experience the climate change effects in real time. They have a desire to be fluent in sustainability thinking. But the professors who decide the curricula and the syllabi, are a different story. Most are analog thinkers teaching the digital generation.
I have personal experience with this. In early 2022, I proposed to Cornell Tech to teach a course on sustainable development. My proposed class would teach the students that sustainability prism thinking. I coordinated with the director of their MBA program to develop my course for review by their course approval committee. The committee reviewed my proposal in early October the same year. Their decision was that my proposed course was “too much policy for our students”.
This experience made me realize that the professors of this venerable school are miles behind the students. They live in their compartmentalized world they learned in the previous century. The students on the other hand, live through inter-related problems that need connected solutions. They want to understand the choices they need to make for a sustainable world, and the trade offs they will face. They want to understand the policies involved rather than to avoid such knowledge. They know that policy literacy will be a part of their career. They do not want siloed education but one that enables them to handle the problems no other generation had to face before.
Cornell Tech graduates nearly 300 students each year. They learn all kinds of technical knowledge about the digital. They also learn the related business aspects of it. But they do not learn how to assess sustainable development impacts of the digital they produce. They understand the economic viability of the technology they are creating. They know how to make it profitable. But economics is only one of the three-pillared framework of sustainability. These young people also need to understand the impact of their technology on society and on the ecosystem. And they need to consider how to balance these impacts for a sustainable future. Without this skill, I would not trust the future to them.
These young people are inheriting an unequal world, with a fast changing climate, and many social dislocations. They deserve to be better prepared to make more informed decisions. They deserve to be fluent in awareness of sustainability in their decisions. Unfortunately their professors are on a different world.