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On digitalization and sustainability transitions

Digitalization is now ubiquitous across society. Large parts of the world’s population use multiple Internet applications every day. Digital technology is further expanding into food production (‘precision farming’), electricity (‘smart grids’), housing (‘smart homes’), healthcare (‘health apps’), mobility (‘smart mobility’), peer-to-peer services (‘sharing economy’) and banking (‘online payments’). The prediction that digital technologies will account for 20 percent of total electricity use in 2030 (Jones, 2018) poses a huge challenge to render the digital transformation also a sustainable one. Given the relative lack of research from a transitions perspective, we call for theoretical and empirical work on digitalization in the context of sustainability transitions.

The researchers conclude that digitalization will have profound effects on energy, materials and ecosystems, resulting from digital consumer products and the use of digital technology in food, energy, healthcare and mobility. It is unclear whether the increased electricity and rare material use due to digitalization will be compensated by efficiency gains and sustainable behaviors fostered by digital innovations. The key question for transition research, then, holds which new digital technologies may help to speed up sustainability transitions and what institutions are required to foster such innovations. To answer these questions, we need engaged scholarship with designers, entrepreneurs, NGOs, unions, consumers, and governments.

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