Complex interaction between ICT and the environment
Information and Communication Technology (ICT) encompasses tools and processes aimed at handling data information by electronic means such as radio, television, cell phones, computers and satellite systems.
The interaction between ICT and the environment is complex, and the environmental impacts of ICT are not fully understood. However, it is widely accepted that ICT implies promising potentials as well as challenges and potential risks seen from an environmental perspective.
Potentials and perspectives
Sensors could play a significant role
The Green Technology Foresight published by the Danish EPA points to five ICT applications that could lead to environmental improvement.
Improving environmental knowledge
New - and cheaper - sensor systems could play a significant role in improving the environmental knowledge base in the future. Sensors can monitor pressure, moisture, vibration and much more. Thus, they can collect information about emissions to the environment or measure the state of the environment. The use of ICT for comprehensive data processing and modelling is another application with potential benefits.
Design of products and processes
The use of Computer Aided Design (CAD) in the design of physical products can optimise different properties and life-cycle aspects of products. In the chemical industry, the use of Computer Aided Processing Engineering can increase energy-efficiency in distillation processes. It can also limit pollutant emissions from the chemical industry. Topology optimisation is another method with potential environmental benefits, for example when applied in the design of cars and planes. Topology optimisation is a method of shaping objects with the least possible consumption of materials, while still maintaining necessary strength.
Process regulation and control
Online measurement and control of industrial processes, energy systems, building management and infrastructure systems holds very obvious potentials for environmental improvement. ICT is a key to more efficient control and regulation of energy consumption, emissions and waste production. The use of ICT in energy technologies has resulted in improvements in energy efficiency through control of lights, motors, boilers, air-conditioners and water heaters.
Intelligent products and applications
Intelligent products and applications have received the most hype and are the most broadly discussed fields of ICT applications. Under headings such as pervasive computing, ambient intelligence, and ubiquitous computing, examples of future visions are manifold. From an environmental point of view, one of the more interesting perspectives in intelligent products involves the possibility of designing products that give feed-back to the user on how to use the product most efficiently. Examples could be intelligent vacuum-cleaners and intelligent cars.
Transport, logistics and mobility
Transport, logistics and mobility is an area that is highly energy intensive due to the large amounts of goods transported as well as easier access to transport systems. The use of ICT has been discussed as a means of reducing environmental impacts in different ways. The fields of Telework (including telecommuting, teleconferencing), E-business (including teleshopping and B2B) and Transport logistics (surveillance, optimisation etc.) are particularly interesting from an environmental point of view.
Electronic waste increases
The rapid development of ICT poses new and reinforced risks and challenges. More electronic products and more widespread sensors and other devices imply increasing problems with electronic waste. Increased use of pervasive computing might also cause health problems due to electro-smog and safety problems due to interference between different devices operating in wireless networks. Beside these direct risks are more indirect risks because ITC changes rather fundamental patterns related to production, consumption and even changes the way everyday life is organised. Further research on these possible risks is needed.
More information on ICT and eco-innovation:
Technology Foresight on ICT from the Danish Ministry of Science, Technology and Innovation (in Danish):
Green Technology Foresight about Environmentally Friendly Products and Materials: http://www.mst.dk/Publikationer/Publications/2006/09/87-7052-216-2.htm