At the digital crossroads


Zibran Choudhury


Digital – it seems so middle of the road, so normal, even for those behind the curve, but we are on the cusp of a 4th industrial revolution (4IR) with powerful new technologies that could either produce complex societal challenges or an opportunity to address the world’s environmental crises.

After the rousing opening plenary which included a sing-along to Ode to Joy to shake off the morning cobwebs, it was into ‘The Digital Revolution – Environmental opportunity or the end of the line?’ to explore if we are equipped for the this revolution.

Chaired by Claudia Neubauer of Fondation Charles Léopold Mayer, who started by sharing examples the cluster of 4IR technoligies including artificial intelligence,  robotics, blockchains, the internet of things, and neurotechnologies.

‘Whatever issue we are working on, we will be touched by one of these technologies,’ explained Claudia before adding that we are at a digital crossroads. How will we handle this technology? Will it cause disruption? How will it impact our goals, values and politics?

Benjamin Combes of PwC started by explaining why artificial intelligence and blockchain are considered revolutionary tech despite it being around a while. It’s because we are now ‘dealing with and applying it to biophysical systems. Traditional policy and market responses haven’t been enough. There is an enormous amount needs to be done in the next 30 years to address the world’s environmental challenges.’

So what would this technology bring to the to these non-linear environmental systems. According to Combes, a lot. Artificial Intelligence in particular would bring huge productivity gains, optimise systems, maximise efficiency as intelligence evolves from automated to autonomous. Benjamin championed the transparency of blockchain and simultaneous access to information, likening it to everyone accessing and amending a Google doc.

Jim Thomas, Co-Executive Director at the ETC Group queried how a lot of this technology isn’t about dealing with data and we need to think about digitisation in the fields, and apply the internet of things to agriculture which will be a $14 billion industry by 2026.

Thomas also illustrated the sheer scale and impact of technology on the environment, stating the ‘cloud’ is not actually weightless and the energy consumption has implications – four silicon wafers produces 88 cubic feet of hazardous gases and uses 1,140 kilowatts of electrical power. Jim believes synthetic technology is the next step, where we will use living things and DNA, to hold and transfer data.

‘There will be a tsunami of data – ones are prepared will ride the wave, others will be swamped.’ said Jim and added we need to create a culture where we can discuss technology and the discussion has to be from the ground up.

Benjamin added that organisation’s like the OECD are helping to manage the structural change but we need to square the circle in regards to working with international organisations, adding design will be vital and technology like blockchain will give people and communities agency.

Keiran Goddard of Association of Charitable Foundations questioned, ‘It’s not the first time technology has been presented as the tool to for liberation. As funders, shouldn’t our focus on be on the community.’ Cassie Robinson, Head of Digital Fund, at The National Lottery Community Fund, also questioned ‘Is big tech companies really where civil society should be?’

In response, Jim Thomas said, ‘Philanthropic arms of tech companies are getting bigger quickly. If you need to do it properly with deep learning you need a super computer – and where do you get that from?’

A fascinating discussion, which inspired, or left delegates with the weight of feeling like digital dinosaurs as the 4th industrial revolution looms large.

Zibran Choudhury is Communication and Circulation Officer at Alliance magazine

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