As research by Jessica McLean et al. (2022) shows, digital technology does not often feature in how environmental sustainability is understood within higher education institutions. Despite the obvious environmental consequences, digital operations are rarely part of university strategies and plans around sustainability actions. Neither is technology use foregrounded in how individual teachers and students perceive the environmental impact of their work. While issues such as campus travel, energy drain and even financial investments prompt enthusiastic responses and inventions, making changes to digital technology consumption remains something that seems out-of-sight and out-of-mind for even the most climate-aware administrator or professor.
Drawing on interviews, survey data, and observations in Sydney University, Mclean’s team found that energy use and digital devices were rarely thought of as part of the university’s carbon footprint. For example, there was little awareness of the university’s reliance on wider digital infrastructures beyond the immediate campus (e.g. remote data centres and servers around the world) or the resource depletion and waste issues inherent in the mass production of digital hardware.
At best, it tended to be assumed that sustainability benefits will accrue from the ‘smartification’ of university campuses – most often this took the form of presumed reductions in energy use and other forms of what McLean et al (2022) term the ‘smart-sustainability fix’. As the authors conclude:
“This research highlights the ways in which our digital geographies can be forgotten in our efforts to be sustainable. … One of the key challenges for addressing digital sustainability is the intangible and invisible nature of digital infrastructure” (p.7).
That said, the study did find teachers and students to generally resent Big Tech firms’ reliance on planned obsolescence and the pressuring of individual consumers into regular (and expensive) device renewal. In this sense, there were signs of interest in developing on-campus opportunities to engage in device repair and reuse schemes.
At the same time, the paper reminds us of the potential of raising on-campus awareness of digital sustainability issues and initiate tangible actions when it comes to addressing issues of environmental sustainability and digital technologies. Universities are essentially ‘owner-occupiers’ of what could be considered a small city, making the university campus a ready ‘living lab’ where scalable changes might be initiated and refined.
As such, it could be argued that there is space for those of us working in the higher education sector to work out ways of raising awareness and interest in realising this potential of the university as a place to champion issues of digital sustainability. As the author conclude: “an urban university is an ideal place to build conversations about making the digital sustainable” (Mclean et al. 2022, p.2).
McLean, J., Maalsen, S., & Lake, L. (2022). Digital (un)sustainability at an urban university in Sydney, Australia. Cities, 127, 103746.