Ecology of data: we should use the coronavirus crisis as an opportunity to make digitalisation beneficial for sustainability

Henning Banthien

In times of upheaval, we see developmental trends in a magnifying glass. The question isn't just what the coronavirus crisis “does to us”; on the contrary, “what we do” with the crisis is far more relevant. The momentum of the crisis should be used to turn the juxtaposition and partial opposition of two very important developmental trends into a collaborative process for creating something new: We need to be building synergies from the interaction of digitalisation and sustainability! Both developments – digitalisation and sustainability – are based on similar basic principles. It therefore is no accident that both fields make use of the “ecosystem” concept. The sustainability community talks of natural ecosystems, while the digitalisation community talks of “digital ecosystems". Three examples:


Systems of sustainability, as well as those in the digital world, have been established on a decentralised basis. Modern energy supply systems established according to principles of sustainability are based on the decentralised production of energy. This reduces the need for power lines and transmission losses, for example. Decentralised Industry 4.0 solutions operate along similar lines. They reduce the data volume in centrally-hosted, energy-intensive servers because they can be managed on the “edge”, i.e. locally. Last but not least, decentralised systems are also more resilient systems. Intelligent, digital systems are excellently suited to managing decentralisation – also in terms of sustainability effects. This applies, not least, to the sustainable mobility of the future.


Ecosytems, whether they are digital or real, are networked systems. They operate on the basis of the close, productive exchange of their elements. This applies to regional, closed material cycles such as those in the regional supply of customers by farmers and businesses. This also applies to the networking of interoperable machines in terms of the Industry 4.0. It is beneficial for sustainability that it is possible to maintain machines remotely so that damage does not occur in the first place. This saves costs and resources, as points of weakness can be found in good time and high-cost repairs, or the replacement of entire machines, can be avoided. Two thoughts on the effects that digital networking could have on sustainability in the future: global flows of logistics are to a large extent managed by German software companies. How about optimising their software algorithms, not only in terms of cost, but also in terms of CO2 emissions? Or: machines from Germany account for a significant share of the world market. How could the CO2 footprint of these machines be reduced if an intelligent equipping of the machines took sustainability criteria into account?


Intensively networked (digital) ecosystems only work on the basis of cooperation and participation. Accusing digitalisation of alienating human societies is a misunderstanding. The opposite is the case: societies that are intact were always networked, cooperative systems – just as digital systems are. This is especially true in times of crisis: to rise to the challenges ahead, we don’t need more centralised, top-down communication, but more democracy and participation in transdisciplinary forums. We need a social dialogue on the right way to overcome the crisis. And that equally applies to the coronavirus crisis, the climate crisis and to digital transformation.


Henning Banthien

Henning Banthien joined the IFOK team in 1996. In January 2009 he became a Managing Partner at IFOK. Since 2015 he also serves as Secretary General of...

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