Sustainable Digital Society – priority description

Climate change and other anthropogenic impacts on the environment are a persistent and growing threat worldwide. Whilst digital technologies have potential to bring about social, economic and cultural benefits, increasingly, they are associated with growing ecological burdens and social divisions. This sociotechnical priority focuses on the use of digital technologies to address anthropogenic environmental impacts and improve environmental sustainability, whilst considering the ongoing impacts associated with the creation and use of the digital technologies themselves, to ultimately create a Sustainable Digital Society.

This priority encompasses not only the development of new technologies, but new digital business models focusing on environmental and social impacts, as well as economic benefits. New forms of governance and new types of supply chain will be needed to enable businesses and societies globally to implement new and more sustainable processes, whilst ensuring all members of society have agency with regards to sustainability.

Examples of high-level research questions include: How can novel digital technologies be used to shift patterns of consumption and foster more sustainable ways of living and economic arrangements? How can we explore the tensions between the push for increasing digitalisation and the associated energy costs and environmental impacts? What sociocultural and policy challenges must be addressed in order to enable the widespread adoption of sustainable technologies? How can policymakers and businesses understand the needs and preferences of large numbers of individuals via digital technology? How can digital technologies be made sustainable end-to-end – from conception through to design and development, to maintenance, upgrade or evolution, and decommissioning?

An ambitious outcome would be for digital technologies to enable a re-imagining of the current organisation of global societies into alternative, more sustainable arrangements in all aspects of everyday life, and to empower the public as a force for positive change across governments and businesses. To ensure that research undertaken creates a more sustainable future, it must be situated in deep understanding of the how social and digital actors come together. Research in this area will, therefore, require an interdisciplinary and global approach, combining technical research with research across the social sciences, business, humanities and the arts.

The coming together of academia, industry, the public, charities and policymakers, as well as international collaboration, is key to creating a Sustainable Digital Society. This priority is linked to Responsible Research and Innovation (RRI). Applicants must should demonstrate evidence of their consideration of the environmental impacts of their research activities, and how these impacts will be mitigated.