How sustainability is shaping the future of tech innovation – and viceversa

How sustainability is shaping the future of tech innovation – and viceversa

While tech development has been long considered a thorny issue for sustainability, recent innovations have focused on creating a greener future for our planet.


In 2023, as the impact of the climate crisis on our planet and our lives becomes ever more evident, those working in technology and innovation know that sustainability is more than a nice-to-have – it’s an urgent requirement.

Innovation in the tech sector in recent years has been heavily influenced by a desire to do better in terms of reducing our global carbon footprint and alleviating the damage already done to the environment.

“While tech innovation has been happening at an unprecedented rate and scale, creating products that are novel, profitable and may be useful to some extent, it has historically been driven by commercial objectives, without really targeting the broader sustainability challenges we face, and in some cases even adding to the burden of these challenges,” Nick Voulvoulis, professor of Environmental Technology at Imperial College London, told Euronews.

“As it is now recognised, environmental degradation diminishes the capacity of the planet to sustain economic development, and sustainable economic development and environmental protection therefore cannot anymore be in conflict, as both are needed for improved human well-being,” he added. “This means that tech innovation cannot omit the issue of sustainability, but again innovation alone is not enough.”

The ‘biggest single opportunity for sustainability’

While this drive to combine innovation with sustainability is in part led by the scrutiny of a society that is increasingly preoccupied with the climate emergency and aware of its inherent risks, in part, it’s been the job of governments and public institutions to promote these positive, sustainable innovation efforts.

At the European Union level, sustainability and tech are part of the bloc’s idea of a “twin transition” which aims to combine the digital revolution with the continent’s green transformation, the European Green Deal.

“These might seem like two distinct issues, but really, they are twin challenges: neither can succeed without the other,” the European Commission writes. “And, they are both equally important for Europe’s future.”

Digital innovation allows us to optimise our energy use, consume less, replace our power sources and even save some carbon emissions when a meeting or conference can be held virtually online, saving a gas-fuelled trip to the office.

But the EU is carefully negotiating the relationship between sustainability and tech innovation to make sure that one doesn’t hinder the other. It’s a fine line to walk.

Digital technologies currently use 8 to 10 per cent of the EU’s energy consumption, according to data from the Commission, and emit 2 to 4 per cent of our greenhouse emissions. While these appear to be small percentages, they’re actually pretty big numbers.

“This could either be the biggest single opportunity for sustainability in the history of human civilization, or it could be the biggest risk,” David Jensen, coordinator of the UN Environment Programme’s (UNEP) Digital Transformation Task Force, said at the Amazon Web Services summit last year.

What we really want to see, he said, is “sustainability being embedded directly into the digital transformation process itself.”

A vision for a sustainable future

That this is an increasingly important requirement for tech innovators was proven at this year’s European Inventor Award, an annual competition which celebrates and rewards the work of trailblazing researchers and inventors in Europe.

Run by the European Patent Office (EPO), the European governing body that grants patents to new inventions, this year’s award celebrated experts who put their talents and skills to work to create sustainable technological innovations that not only help humanity, but the planet too.

One of the participating teams, French inventors Patricia de Rango, Daniel Fruchart, Albin Chaise, Michel Jehan and Nataliya Skryabina, won the ‘Research’ category with the development of a technology able to easily compress, store and transport hydrogen in the solid form of a disc.

Hydrogen plays a key role in the clean energy transition, being three times more energetic than fossil fuels. The only problem is that it normally takes up more space and requires more energy to be compressed and stored.

The technology created by the three scientists is able to make storage and transportation easier  – a crucial factor in combatting climate change.

“The quest for green, renewable and abundant energy is one of humanity’s primary concerns,” the French team said at the award’s ceremony on 4 July. “Hydrogen has great potential but its storage and distribution raise questions of logistics and safety. This award sets us on a path to a decarbonised future, applying our hydrogen storage solution on an industrial scale.”


More work to be done

While there has been a wave of technological innovation in the form of renewable and other green technologies, ranging from the Internet of Things (IoT) to green hydrogen and electric vehicles, Voulvoulis said that their deployment has not been to a scale that can ensure sustainable economic growth aligned with sound environmental stewardship and social development.

“Transformations to sustainability involve fundamental redirections of current human-environmental interactions, requiring coordinated policy, technology, behaviour and market interventions,” he said, “in order to deliver interconnected changes to social practices, business models, regulations and societal norms, an intentional process designed to fundamentally alter the components and structures behind our current unsustainable ways, a paradigm shift enabling the transition to sustainability.”

While there are already initiatives in place for the digital revolution to happen in a sustainable way, governments need to strengthen them, according to Voulvoulis, “in light of recent geopolitical disruptions and environmental threats confronting the most vulnerable with an unprecedented combination of food, fuel and finance crises.”

With positive feedback loops kicking in as consumers become increasingly familiar with the new paradigm, green infrastructure built, complementary innovations coming to market, and more favourable policy and regulatory frameworks put in place, Voulvoulis said, “change can eventually start impacting the overall configuration of the system, allowing the emergence of sustainability” in the entire tech innovation sector.

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