As I wrote recently, I'm involved in a research project that just started - "Scenarios and sustainability impacts in the information society". Beyond planning activities that went into the project during the autumn, the formal project kick-off was held a week ago. This blog post will treat the project and is based on the 6-page project plan as well as the half-day kick-off meeting itself.
The project is run under the auspices of the Center for Sustainable Communications (CESC) at KTH and it is led by Åsa Moberg and Mattias Höjer from CESC and the Department of environmental strategies research (FMS). The project will run between 2013-2015. Besides a bunch of people from KTH (where my department is represented by me and ph.d. student Malin Picha), there are also a number of CESC partners involved in the project; Ericsson, TeliaSonera, Interactive Institute, City of Stockholm, and Regional Growth, Environment and Planning at the Stockholm County Council [Tillväxt, miljö och regionplanering (TMR) vid Stockholms Läns Landsting].
As to the project, I think it is most fair to place it under the "discipline" of future studies ("future studies methodology will be used"). The two project leaders have their specialities in the areas of future studies and Life-cycle assessment (LCA) respectively and the aim of the project is to "assess the potential for ICT-solutions on a societal level". More specifically, the project aims at developing 3-4 scenarios of future ICT-societies and describe potential sustainability impacts (primarily pertaining to environmental impacts) of those various scenarios on a societal level. A requirement is to describe at least one scenario with a low environmental impact. The objective of the research project is: "How can a sustainable society be supported by ICT, i.e. reduce negative environmental impacts and promote socioeconomic development?". It is also stated (again on the very first page of the project description) that "The project will focus on one overarching question: What are the local and global sustainability implications of different scenarios of ICT societies?"
I think there might be subtle differences between the aim of the project, the objective of the project and the overarching question of the project. At the kick-off, there were several detailed questions about the specific meaning of certain words and terms, and my own question was what the difference is between a) sustainability implications of (future) ICT societies and b) sustainability implications of using ICT in (future) societies, i.e. do the ICT societies of the future differ from future societies in general, i.e. is "ICT societies" a "technical term" with a specific meaning or does it just mean something like "how we will use ICT in the future"? It turned out that "ICT societies" is not a technical term with a specific definition and a specific meaning. This question of mine might seem like nit-picking, but I was truly interested in the answer, and had the answer been that "ICT societies" refer to some specific kind(s) of future societies, I would of course have been very interested in knowing more about how those ICT societies of the future are defined and how they differ from more "ordinary" ideas and visions of future societies.
As the most important changes from a sustainability perspective are long-term, it has been deemed suitable to use scenarios in the project to identify and assess the impacts of both potentials and challenges of "harnessing" ICT to support (long-term) sustainable development. So, how will the scenarios describing possible future information societies be developed? On the one hand this is still a black box of kinds to me (even after having partaken in the workshop and helped identify trends and ideas about future societies). It seems fun and I look forward to develop future information society scenarios, but it doesn't seem particularly "scientific" to me. I got a paper written by my project colleagues on using scenarios, and I hope I will have a better grasp of the methodology after I read it. At this point I have to put my trust in the future studies researchers in the project (there are two or three) and just go with the flow and see how I can contribute. Defining scenarios is on the other hand just the kind of work that we will work on in the project during the first half of 2013, i.e. "Defining the ICT systems, ICT societies and impacts to assess". I suspect I will thus know a lot more about this pretty soon and it might be the topic of a future blog post...
The scenarios will focus on Sweden and use a "consumption perspective". That sounds innocent enough, but what it means is that the project will focus on the consumption (of services, gadgets, resources) of Swedes - both within and outside of the Swedish borders. That is, people who live in Sweden but are not Swedish citizens (such as several of the researchers in the project) are outside the scope of the project, but people who are Swedes (Swedish citizens) but live abroad could feasibly be studied in the project. Perhaps this won't make a huge difference in the end, but we had a discussion about this particular issue, and I think we might get back to it a few more times before it's perfectly clear to everyone. As of right now it seems easy to become confused and mix things up.
Some of the interesting questions the project aims to explore are:
- What can future ICT societies look like ("environmentally-drive, accessibility-driven, growth-driven" etc.)?
- What are the environmental impacts and what are the social implications of the scenarios?
- What could the paths towards sustainable information societies look like?
- What actors (stakeholders) will promote/counteract different developments? What conflicts of interest can be foreseen and what can be done about them?
- How can "conclusions" (suggestions?) regarding ICT and sustainability be integrated into long-term regional planning in Stockholm?
- How can what is learned in this project be generalized and transferred beyond Stockholm?
As to the kick-off workshop and beyond a run-through of the project (above), we also worked practically and collaboratively with brainstorming and generating future trends (and later clustering them). That was fun and we suggested a lot of different (and sometimes contradictory) trends, for example (in no particular order but my suggestions in bold style):
- metal depletion, especially rare earth metals
- higher demand of personal trips due to many global connections
- energy scarcity/higher energy prices - implications for travel, trade, manufacturing etc.
- increasing rate of ICT hardware consumption and shorter lifespans
- better tools to help people share their used/second-hand ICT devices
- more expensive gadgets/hardware
- ICT-induced unlimited global access to knowledge and entertainment
- (continued) high (youth) unemployment in many "affluent" countries leading to increased interest/need for "computing on the cheap"
- increased quality of video conferencing in terms of usability/user experience
- more computer-savvy youth/young people, but also more socially inept "otaku" youth
- improved logistics in industry
- increased general environmental awareness
- people will work more at different places
- physical location less important, online presence more important - people can settle anywhere (countryside) OR travel, move around a lot
- more efficient use of energy for computers, servers
- decreased CO2 emissions (due to harsher policies on the political level)
- ICT will make it even easier to shop (consume) by ordering stuff online
- Less emphasis on material possessions (except for smartphones and other personal ICT gadgets)
- ICT society = urban society
- ICT can lead to re-ruralization
- increased transparency of ICT footprint & environmental impact
All in all, it was a interesting, fun kick-off. I look forward to the next workshop (March) but will most probably meet the project leaders before that for discussions about my role (and my responsibilities) within the project.