Chief executive of Forum for the Future Sally Uren

Interview: Digital technology's role in a sustainable future

Digital technology can have a transformative effect on the drive for sustainability, but solutions must avoid taking humans out of the equation.

Roughly six out of the seven billion people on the planet have a mobile phone while only four-and-a-half billion have access to basic sanitation, Uren stated in her key note address at the Future of Wireless International Conference this morning, a statistic that highlights both the potential of digital technology and the huge developmental challenges the world faces.

The Forum for the Future is a non-profit that works with large organisations to help them build sustainable practices into their operations, focussing on the food and energy sectors, but according to Uren digital technology is a key enabler underpinning all of their work.

“We would say digital technology is an amazing lever for delivering widespread systemic change,” she said. “Digital technology can provide some amazing solutions and rapid solutions to these big challenges.”

While a seismic shift in consumers’ attitudes to sustainability has yet materialise, according to Uren the proliferation of wireless and digital technology is leading to an era of ‘ultra-transparency’ where customers are both able and willing to make ethical decisions about the provenance of goods and services.

“There really will be nowhere to hide, people will begin to demand more and more information about where and how their products have been made,” she said.

“The notion that as a big business you might know what goes on in your tier one suppliers but actually you’ve got no idea what’s happening in your tier five, that just won’t cut it going forward because you might not know but your consumers can find out.”


Click on the image below for audio of the interview:

But while the rise of sharing economies, open data and social media will change the way consumers interact with businesses, digital technology is not a “silver bullet” according to Uren and greater access to information will need to be combined with changes in both policy and behaviour.

And a big challenge to those creating innovative new technology will be to avoid forgetting the human element in any new system. Uren says that the technology to solve many of the world’s problems already exists, the issue is coming up with solutions that go the “the last mile” by finding ways to engage people so that their use becomes widespread.

“I think a lot of technology has taken humans out of the equation,” said Uren.

“I think we’ve forgotten we are all sentient beings, emotional beings, and I think in our pursuit of shiny step change innovation we forget that we are just humble human beings and we need to put user interfaces back into the equation, put how we operate as humans back into the equation, because then I think we will unleash this innovation to create real change.”

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