Effects of Information and Communication Technology on Sustainable Development

The examination and consideration of the diverse impacts of Information and Communication Technology (ICT) on Sustainable Development form the basis of all measures and actions that can be taken to produce more sustainable ICT-based products and services.

Due to the complexity of the topic, a classification of the different and very complex interdependent effects can help to make things clearer and easier to understand.

The following paragraphs summarize the state of the art of scientific research, where the effects of ICTs are classified into three categories: first-order effects, second-order effects, and third-order effects.

First-order Effects: Effects of ICT Supply

First-order effects, also called direct effects or effects of ICT supply, cover the effects of the physical existence of ICTs on Sustainable Development. Usually, these directly occur from production, use, and recycling/disposal1, 2:194.

Second-order Effects – Effects of ICT Use

Second-order effects, also called indirect effects or effects of ICT use, cover effects on Sustainable Development that result from using ICTs. Using ICTs has the potential to change other products, services, or processes, which may result in an increase or a decrease of positive or negative effects on Sustainable Development1, 2:194.

These effects can be classified into induction effects, optimization effects, and substitution effects3:147.

Induction effects can be observed, if an ICT-based service or product increases the demand for another product or service, e.g. online shops may increase the demand for parcel delivery, which in turn increases transportation and traffic2:194, 4:298.

Optimization effects occur, if an ICT-based service or product is used to optimize another product or service with regard to sustainability criteria. The first example, is a software for life cycle analysis or material flow management that can be applied to reduce the material and energy intensity of production processes. The second example is an optimized route planning system for trucks that additionally considers the weight of the truck in conjunction with the hills and valleys on possible routes to find the shortest and less fuel consuming route2:194, 4:298.

Substitution effects can be observed, if a service offered by means of ICT replaces a physical product, e.g. e-paper, e-books, teleconferencing, or telework. Due to the fact that a high density material and energy intensive physical product is replaced with its less energy intensive and mostly immaterial ICT-based substitute, this is also called dematerialization. Dematerialization results in a reduction of material and energy intensity of production, transport, consumption, and recycling or waste disposal2:194, 4:298.

Third-order Effects – Systemic Effects of ICT

Third-order effects, also called systemic effects of ICT, are medium and long-term effects on Sustainable Development that result from adaptive reactions of societies to the availability of ICT-based services and products. This covers structural changes in societies and organizations as well as changes in people's lifestyle. Due to the manifold interdependencies between the different actors within a system, systemic effects are hard to predict or examine1, 2:194–5, 3:147, 5:20–1.

Rebound effects are systemic effects that occur, if substitution and optimization results in degrees of freedom that are used up to generate further quantitative growth. As a result, you have produced more with the same amount of material or energy but without achieving any savings. This shows that increasing efficiency does not necessarily result in any overall savings6, 7:13–4.

Increasing efficiency is necessary but not sufficient to reach the goals of Sustainable Development7.

  1. Göhring, W.: The Memorandum “Sustainable Information Society”. In: Minier, P., Susini, A. (eds.): Sh@ring. proceedings of the 18th International Conference Informatics for Environmental Protection, EnviroInfo 2004, October 21-23, 2004, CERN, Geneva (Switzerland), pp. 278–286. Éditions du Tricorne, Genève (2004).
  2. OECD Information Technology Outlook 2010. OECD Publishing, Paris (2010). http://www.oecd.org/sti/ito
  3. Hilty, L.M.: Information technology and sustainability. Essays on the relationship between ICT and sustainable development. Books on Demand, Norderstedt (2008). http://deposit.d-nb.de/cgi-bin/dokserv?id=3125286&prov=M&dok_var=1&dok_ext=htm
  4. Naumann, S., Dick, M., Kern, E., Johann, T.: The GREENSOFT Model: A Reference Model for Green and Sustainable Software and its Engineering. SUSCOM, volume 1, issue 4, pp. 294–304 (2011). doi:10.1016/j.suscom.2011.06.004
  5. Hilty, L.M., Coroama, V., Ossés de Eicker, M., Ruddy, T.F., Müller, E.: Scientific Survey (WP8). The Role of ICT in Energy Consumption and Enregy Efficiency. St.Gallen (2009). http://ict-ensure.tugraz.at/en/index.php/ensure/content/download/264/1276/version/6/file/ICT-ENSURE+Survey+-+ICT+for+Energy+Efficiency+-+Hilty.pdf
  6. Hilty, L.M., Köhler, A., von Schéele, F., Zah, R., Ruddy, T.: Rebound effects of progress in information technology. Poiesis & Praxis: International Journal of Technology Assessment and Ethics of Science, volume 4, issue 1, pp. 19–38 (2006). doi:10.1007/s10202-005-0011-2
  7. Hilty, L.M., Lohmann, W.: The Five Most Neglected Issues in “Green IT”. CEPIS UPGRADE, volume vol. XIIvol. , issue 4, pp. 11–15 (2011). http://www.cepis.org/upgrade/media/hilty_2011_41.pdf
Further reading in German language:
  • Dompke, M., Geibler, J. von, Göhring, W., Herget, M., Hilty, L.M., Isenmann, R., Kuhndt, M., Naumann, S., Quack, D., Seifert, E.K.: Memorandum nachhaltige Informationsgesellschaft. Fraunhofer-IRB-Verlag, Stuttgart (2004). http://publica.fhg.de/eprints/N-20549.pdf