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The digital revolution: at humanity's expense?

“The digital transformation must be aligned with ecology”

On June 8th, 2021 |
3 min reading time
Jacques-François Marchandise
Delegate General of the Fing
Key takeaways
  • For Jacques-François Marchandise, the digital solutions meant to serve the ecological transition are often counterproductive, and likely to worsen the problems they seek to solve (5G, carpooling, mass deployment of sensors and real-time measurements).
  • Moreover, the manufacture of devices represents 70% of the carbon footprint of the digital industry in France.
  • Increasing the reparability of products is therefore one of the key issues to improve its environmental impact in the long term.
  • Jacques-François Marchandise offers insight into how the digital revolution - which lacks a precise goal but has significant resources - can truly serve the ecological transition.

Is dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy an ally of the eco­log­i­cal transition?

For the moment, it is not. Peo­ple like us in dig­i­tal lack basic cul­ture on envi­ron­men­tal issues. Even if “green IT” is a very promis­ing avenue, which aims to increase the ener­gy and envi­ron­men­tal per­for­mance of IT sys­tems and net­works, there is still a lack of invest­ment. In fact, our solu­tions often aggra­vate the prob­lem they are try­ing to solve. We are devel­op­ing smart­phone appli­ca­tions, increas­ing sen­sors, real-time mea­sure­ments, AI pro­cess­ing and the use of data cen­ters. But no arti­cle has proven that these reme­dies are not worse than the orig­i­nal evil. 

The abil­i­ty of dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy to con­nect sup­ply and demand (match­ing) is often pre­sent­ed as an eco­log­i­cal fea­ture. It allows for the shar­ing of goods trans­port, premis­es, but above all it facil­i­tates car­pool­ing. That said, here too, the effect can be per­verse. It has been observed that dig­i­tal appli­ca­tions have strong­ly encour­aged a modal shift… in the wrong direc­tion! A study by ADEME showed that if car­pool­ing had not exist­ed, 63% of peo­ple would have tak­en the train1, a much more eco­log­i­cal means of trans­port than the car. This is a typ­i­cal exam­ple of the “rebound effect”: if I buy a hybrid car that con­sumes less, I will actu­al­ly tend to dri­ve more, which will can­cel out the pos­i­tive impact.

Yes, para­dox­i­cal­ly, 5G is ten times more ener­gy effi­cient than 4G5.

Over­all, inno­va­tors who take care of the envi­ron­ment must no longer be heroes. They need to be able to earn a liv­ing, and this can be achieved through con­sumer engage­ment, but also through a reori­en­ta­tion of pub­lic fund­ing. We will have to move from an econ­o­my of use to an econ­o­my of func­tion­al­i­ty, which will allow prod­ucts to be repaired and improved over the long term.

More­over, some sec­tors are very involved in the search for eco­log­i­cal solu­tions, for pure­ly eco­nom­ic rea­sons. Data cen­ters need to reduce their ener­gy bills, mod­ernise their equip­ment and make use of waste heat [pro­duced but not used to be prof­itable]. Oth­er play­ers have also under­stood that repairabil­i­ty has become a dif­fer­en­ti­at­ing mar­ket­ing argu­ment that younger gen­er­a­tions are sen­si­tive to. This is the case, for exam­ple, with the house­hold appli­ance brand SEB, which offers repair cours­es for its appli­ances and a large num­ber of spare parts for sale.

You said ear­li­er that the gen­er­al pub­lic cer­tain­ly doesn’t need 5G. Aren’t we final­ly inno­vat­ing for the sake of inno­vat­ing, at the expense of the planet?

The exam­ple of 5G is emblem­at­ic, because it is the first time that there is doubt – even with­in the indus­try6 – about the use­ful­ness of an inno­va­tion. The prob­lem is the same as for Big Data: do we real­ly need a con­nec­tion every­where and all the time, or so much data col­lect­ed and processed in real time? 

In con­crete terms, we need to review our def­i­n­i­tion of inno­va­tion so that it is no longer at the expense of humans and the plan­et. We are in the process of liv­ing through two major rev­o­lu­tions that do not yet inter­sect suf­fi­cient­ly: the dig­i­tal tran­si­tion, which has con­sid­er­able resources but lacks a goal; and the eco­log­i­cal tran­si­tion, which has enor­mous ambi­tions but few resources. It is high time that the dig­i­tal tran­si­tion was put at the ser­vice of the envi­ron­ment. Say­ing that “tomor­row will be more dig­i­tal” is not a human horizon!

We are mov­ing in this direc­tion. The num­ber of projects aimed at com­bin­ing dig­i­tal and ecol­o­gy is increas­ing. More than 350 com­pa­nies have joined the Plan­et Tech’­Care move­ment, which aims to give them tools to reduce the envi­ron­men­tal foot­print of dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy7. In the same way, Reset 20228, a col­lec­tive action sup­port­ed by the Fing, starts from the rather gloomy assess­ment I just made, while show­ing how we could start from scratch and cre­ate a more human and resource-effi­cient dig­i­tal world.

Interview by Juliette Parmentier
5https://​cis​.cnrs​.fr/​w​p​-​c​o​n​t​e​n​t​/​u​p​l​o​a​d​s​/​2​0​2​1​/​0​3​/​F​I​N​G​-​5​G​-​G​D​R​-​V​1.pdf[/pi_note], but it is seen as an envi­ron­men­tal haz­ard. Why?

It is exact­ly the same rebound effect that will come into play. Despite its tech­ni­cal per­for­mance, the busi­ness mod­el for the deploy­ment of 5G in France implies mass usage in order for oper­a­tors to break even. They have made mas­sive invest­ments in net­works, anten­nas and licens­es, and they are in a high­ly com­pet­i­tive mar­ket that is squeez­ing sub­scrip­tion prices. So they are look­ing to make mon­ey by attract­ing more users – even if 5G is only real­ly rel­e­vant for a few indus­tri­al or dig­i­tal play­ers (video games, autonomous cars). They are mul­ti­ply­ing their adver­tise­ments for the gen­er­al pub­lic, promis­ing them an unlim­it­ed and very high speed con­nec­tion thanks to the band­width gain. This will sure­ly result in a shift from ADSL to mobile 5G, which will be bet­ter but much more demand­ing, and require a renew­al of the smart­phone and ter­mi­nal fleets. Most of the pol­lu­tion is done at the time of man­u­fac­tur­ing, so this is the oppo­site mes­sage of dig­i­tal sobriety!

Accord­ing to the French Sen­ate, the man­u­fac­tur­ing of ter­mi­nals accounts for 70% of the car­bon foot­print of dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy in France2http://​www​.sen​at​.fr/​e​s​p​a​c​e​_​p​r​e​s​s​e​/​a​c​t​u​a​l​i​t​e​s​/​2​0​2​0​0​6​/​r​e​d​u​i​r​e​_​l​e​m​p​r​e​i​n​t​e​_​e​n​v​i​r​o​n​n​e​m​e​n​t​a​l​e​_​d​u​_​n​u​m​e​r​i​q​u​e​_​u​n​_​e​t​a​t​_​d​e​s​_​l​i​e​u​x​_​i​n​e​d​i​t​_​e​t​_​u​n​e​_​f​e​u​i​l​l​e​_​d​e​_​r​o​u​t​e​_​p​o​u​r​_​l​a​_​f​r​a​n​c​e​.html[/pi_note]. The recy­cling rate is also very low, with 18% of cell phone met­als recy­cled in 20193https://​www​.insee​.fr/​f​r​/​s​t​a​t​i​s​t​i​q​u​e​s​/​4​2​3​8​5​8​9​?​s​o​m​m​a​i​r​e​=​4​2​38635[/pi_note]. Do we need to reduce the num­ber of devices we use, or are there oth­er solutions?

There is a ten­den­cy to make the con­sumer respon­si­ble. But should they bear the bur­den of cor­rect­ing all the dys­func­tions of the indus­tri­al and com­mer­cial sys­tem, as well as the lack of clar­i­ty in pol­i­cy options?

The solu­tion lies in the repairabil­i­ty of prod­ucts, and it requires that man­u­fac­tur­ers get more involved, by using eco-design and life cycle analy­sis meth­ods. Dig­i­tal tech­nol­o­gy can be a pow­er­ful ally in this process. Just look at the changes enabled in the food indus­try by the Yuka appli­ca­tion [which allows con­sumers to scan food and cos­met­ic prod­ucts to analyse their com­po­si­tion], which uses the open source data­base Open Food Facts. The food indus­try was sure­ly the least will­ing to evolve before con­sumers forced it to do so thanks to Yuka. One could imag­ine a sim­i­lar appli­ca­tion, designed to eval­u­ate the repairabil­i­ty and lifes­pan of cer­tain objects. This is well under­way in France, with a repara­bil­i­ty index com­ing into effect on Jan­u­ary 1st 2021 for a large part of house­hold appli­ances and elec­tron­ic prod­ucts4https://​www​.ecolo​gie​.gouv​.fr/​i​n​d​i​c​e​-​r​e​p​a​r​a​b​ilite


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