German academic Tilman Santarius is a leading authority on digitisation and sustainability – initially writing about ‘digital sufficiency’ in the 2020 book ‘Smart Green World’. This 2022 paper in the Annals of Telecommunications, extends the concept to also consider the economics of ICT use.
What is sufficiency?
The idea of digital ‘sufficiency’ marks a deliberate move away from mainstream calls for the ‘greening’ of digital technology, and promises to rethink digital technology production and consumption along the lines of ‘consistency’ (‘doing things better’) and ‘efficiency’ (‘doing more with less’). Such approaches are evident in corporate pledges to improve energy and resource efficiencies of future digital products, or to bring cycles of digital production and consumption in line with natural cycles (e.g. commitments to the ‘circular economy’ or ‘cradle-to-cradle’ design).
In contrast, the idea of ‘sufficiency’ implies the absolute reduction of resource and energy demands in ways that maintain (or even improve) general living conditions and perhaps widen opportunities for everyone to lead flourishing lives. In this way, sufficiency does not promote the continuation of digital technology as we currently know it (albeit in an altered form). Neither does it infer a digital abstinence or complete renouncement of all things tech. Instead, this implies a quantitative and qualitative rethinking of digital technology along appropriately refined lines of ‘voluntary simplicity’, ‘frugality’, ‘slow consumption’, ‘downshifting’ and ‘minimalism’. As Santarius et al. (2022) put it:
“We define sufficiency as any strategy that directly aims at decreasing the absolute level of resource and energy use by reducing the levels of production and consumption. Sufficiency necessarily involves reflecting upon existing individual and societal needs, attitudes, and beliefs. And it requires changes in consumption practices as well as in production structures, infrastructures, and existing political incentives that favour consumerism and conventional economic growth”
Four dimensions of digital sufficiency
More specifically, then, Santarius et al. suggest that the idea of digital sufficiency can be seen in terms of four different dimensions:
First is the notion of ‘hardware sufficiency’. This calls for a society where fewer digital devices are produced and consumed. Any newly produced devices should be designed along robust and durable lines – resulting in long-lasting computer hardware that keeps absolute energy demands to the lowest levels possible while remaining capable of performing the required tasks. Deliberate efforts are made to ensure that the complexity and resource use of any device does not surpass the core purposes it is designed for. This ideal of sufficient (rather than superfluous) computing power is therefore analogous to the maxim of ‘not using a sledge-hammer to crack a nut’.
Practical implications of this reframing of hardware provision might include IT companies adopting radically different ‘device-as-service’ business models. This would shift IT industry agendas from marketing and selling devices to individual consumers and, instead, toward renting devices on a short-term basis across communities. This would see people returning loaned devices to manufacturers once they have been used for their intended purposes (or perhaps when the device no longer meets the requirements of the user). These devices can then be refurbished and redistributed to other people.
Second, is the idea of ‘software sufficiency’. This involves working out ways to design and develop software products that avoid non-essential data transfer, require minimal amounts of processing power and energy drain, and generally make the smallest possible demands on computer hardware. In practical terms, this might see the design of software products that do not facilitate any transfer of data other than is strictly necessarily for the core functionality of the product. Software might be designed to be run offline as often as possible, and/or not transfer data automatically to third parties.
Third, is the idea of ‘user sufficiency’ – i.e. the idea of people to using digital technologies as frugally as possible, in ways that promote sustainable lifestyles and support a decent quality of living. Such ideals might be achieved in a number of ways. For example, people might also be encouraged to embrace the idea of the working-life of digital technologies being extended through practices of maintenance and repair. This might also see the development of community-wide opportunities to share devices and acquire pre-used technologies.
People might also be encouraged to reflect on their habitual patterns of device (over)use. This might involve IT providers being required to publicise the environmental harms associated with their products – such as device manufacturers publishing ‘ingredient lists’ of the resources and origins their hardware products, or software providers including live notifications of the carbon emissions accruing from any software and system use.
Finally, is the challenge of ‘economy sufficiency’. This involves reorienting IT production and use to remain within the bounds of sufficient production and consumption levels that do not pose a threat to planetary well-being. Governments need the confidence to move quickly to ban blatantly unsustainable forms of IT such as cryptocurrency mining should be banned outright. Elsewhere, this might also see concerted efforts to “decommercialize the internet” – discouraging or disrupting third party data-scaping practices, enacting advertising bans to disrupt the profitability of the data brokering industry, and similar actions intending to decouple technology use from economic growth.
These four facets of digital sustainability each highlight various ways in which industry, policymakers and publics can begin to take concerted actions to mitigate the environmental and societal harms of excessive digital technology use. There is clearly a leading role here for civil society actors in lobbying for guidelines, raising public awareness and action. There is also a clear responsibility for IT companies and software developers to reorient their products and services around principles of hardware sufficiency and software sufficiency. Above all, Santarius and colleagues stress the need for effective responses and substantive actions by policymakers and regulatory authorities at all levels of authority and jurisdiction.
These are all initial steps that can be taken in response to what is admittedly a set of uncertain risks. Santarius and colleagues acknowledge that it is impossible to fully estimate the global impacts of ICT and exactly how damaging current forms of digital technology use might eventually prove to be in planetary terms. However, they are at pains to remind us that the planetary harms of current levels of excessive digital production and consumption are something that we cannot afford to allow to continue unchecked, and only later make sense of in retrospect. As such, moving toward a state of digital sustainably is a ‘precautionary approach’ – pre-emptively adopting reductions around our current uses of digital technology that might well not prove “indispensable to remaining within planetary boundaries”.