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can digital technology help us better protect resources?


The ecological transition is underway. SUEZ met two digital experts to better understand the role played by new technologies in this transition. Daniel Kaplan, co-founder of the Next Generation Internet Foundation (FING) and Alysia Garmulewicz, CEO of Matterscape and Professor of Entrepreneurship in High Technology are answering the subject.



Daniel Kaplan, Co-founder of Fondation Internet nouvelle génération (FING)/Imaginizing the Future

Credits: Daniel Kaplan

A virtuous digital sector is (maybe) possible

In response to the question “can digital technology help us protect resources?” there is currently little doubt: no, it cannot. Not so much because it consumes resources itself, without seriously considering their lifecycle (although this is, of course, the case), but mainly because it is the symbol and central tool of an economic system completely founded on the acceleration, rapid obsolescence and concentration of all business indicators concerning the creation of shareholder value. Can it be any other way? Yes, but not without intent and significant change.
Going beyond the limits, integrating the limits

Fundamentally, the technological perspective expressed by digital solutions is, first and foremost, about pushing boundaries. Either crossing them or knocking them down to find an infinite source of energy, go beyond scarcity, dematerialise, “live for 200 years”. And because this is the way desire works, every boundary that is knocked down opens up the view of the next one in line.

The environmental, or resource, perspective, on the other hand, asks us to integrate limits: contain (ourselves), reduce and, of course, link up the components of systems that are intended to be as enclosed as possible.

The circular economy supported by digital technology aims to reconcile these paradoxes and is, so far, failing. Why? Because in an economic system entirely focused on profit, everything that is dematerialised, eco-designed and “circular” is analysed in terms of productivity gains and is immediately reinvested in the creation of new products and in the growth of production and consumption.

Alternative digital technology?

If we are to find new solutions, we need to expand our view of digital technology beyond its IT function (to create efficiency that is reinvested in growth) and capacity for dematerialisation that, in reality, simply shifts materiality.

The diverse forms of the collaborative economy provide an interesting solution to the necessity of meeting demand and reducing environmental impact. Although studies play down their environmental benefits, they do at least show that they can exist. This economy can also relate to energy itself, as suggested by several projects that aim to boost not only local energy production but also energy exchange through the peer-to-peer models for which internet was originally designed. This is the vision of economist Jeremy Rifkin, experienced in France by the Hauts-de-France region through Rev3, an initiative that fosters a more sustainable, connected and collaborative economy at a regional scale. Or the Dutch energy cooperative Qurrent, which provides low-cost green energy to its community members.

On an even bigger scale, we now know that the autonomous electric vehicle will only have a positive environmental impact if it is widely shared (rather than owned) and if it is part of both a multimodal mobility network and a decentralised system of energy distribution and storage.

The comeback of “commons” in the political and economic debate is led by players from the digital industry and the environmental sector. Both identify what is needed and try to implement it, sometimes on a huge scale (the mapping database Open Street Map and its applications, for example, showing roof orientation data on Open Solar Map or documenting biodiversity).

A common feature of these practices is to involve “consumers”, often through very small acts (use of a shared vehicle) and sometimes in a more involved way (crowdfunding a solar park, measuring air quality, managing a community garden). Digital technology can help tackle the constant challenge of the environmental cause, the perceived disconnection between individual acts and global interactions. And the field of Civic Tech, these technological tools for civic engagement and participatory democracy, is working energetically to reconnect people through collective action.

Apart from these “commons”, there is another way of preventing efficiency or shared gains being wholly reinvested in further growth: inventing other forms of value measurements. One such example is the revival of “alternative currencies”, on which digital platforms heavily reply. Many of these currencies explore virtuous lifecycles of value: some lose value over time, others provide an alternative value to exchange (e.g. based on time or the number of objects exchanged, independently of their monetary value).

It is from these fragile springboards, or even in the cracks between them, that a fertile connection between digital technology and environmental concerns can be built.

Alysia Garmulewicz, Co-Founder and CEO of Matterscape and Professor of High Tech Entrepreneurship - Credits : Alysia Garmulewicz

Credits: Alysia Garmulewicz

Digital fabrication in a digital world: sowing the seeds for a circular economy

Digital fabrication has the potential to radically redistribute the locations and scales of production. The implications this has on resources is critical to understanding how we may harness these technologies for the benefit of transitioning to a circular economy.

Digital fabrication: leveraging the circular economy

Digital fabrication is a revolution in the science and production processes. This revolution is not just about the tools–3D printers or laser cutters or CAD software. It is about what you can do with them. Digital fabrication is disrupting the very systems of production and fashioning them in its own image. Just as the internet democratised the production of digitised information goods like videos and music, digital fabrication is ushering in a world where anyone, anywhere, may have the means to participate in producing physical goods like machines, electronics, furniture and clothing.

As digital fabrication technologies enable a more distributed manufacturing landscape, we see the exponential growth of community-scale centres of production. 3D printing, laser cutting, CNC milling, molding and casting, and electronics production allow the design of high performance products in Fab Labs, makerspaces, and hackerspaces worldwide. Yet these highly distributed centres of production primarily use plastics, ceramics and metals supplied by large industrial companies through centralised production and global distribution. Small players face high barriers to market entry. Individuals do not have a chance. Digital fabrication is a 21st century revolution being grafted onto the supply chains of a 20th century industrial age.

As industrial materials production has high emissions from intensive processing and transport costs, the opportunity to meet the growing demand of an increasingly distributed manufacturing market with more localised, sustainable sources of materials holds promise for the transition to a circular economy.
Choosing sustainable materials in open source

In nature, organisms create high performance materials with simple, abundant nutrients. These include structural proteins like collagen and keratin that help build our bones and ligaments, polysaccharides like cellulose, and lignin that are basic building blocks for plants, chitin that forms insect skeletons and the shells of crustaceans, and common minerals like silica and calcite that help form tough ceramics like teeth and shells. Because life, including us, shares this set of material building blocks, it allows materials to be sourced and cycled from local habitats to the global biosphere.

This palette of nutrients is what inspired Materiom, a materials library and database for digital fabrication. Planned to launch this year, the platform will offer recipes for plastics made from algae, starch and proteins, and composites made from natural fibers, common minerals and clays. Following an open source innovation model, recipes contributed by our member community will be licensed as open source to encourage replication, improvement, and sharing.

If we are to transition to a circular economy, a new approach is needed to source and cycle resources. Digital fabrication opens the door to a nature-inspired paradigm of production. With Materiom, our goal is to provide the recipe book for a new generation of manufacturers.

This article was published in the fifth issue of open_resource magazine: “The resource management in the digital age