Sustainable Communication

Don MacLean on how communication technology create both opportunities for and threats to sustainable development.
By: /
February 7, 2013
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In 2012, two major international conferences failed to achieve the main objectives set for them. Their respective outcomes revealed deep divisions between industrialized and developing countries, as well as the inability of traditional international governance arrangements to respond effectively to some of the principal challenges facing the world today. These conferences were the June UN Conference on Sustainable Development in Rio (Rio+20) and the December ITU World Conference on International Telecommunication in Dubai (WCIT-12).

These conferences dealt with topics that international policy-makers tend to see as only tangentially related: the promotion of sustainable development, and the regulation of international telecommunications (broadly interpreted by a majority of WCIT-12 delegations to include information and communications technologies (ICTs) and the internet). In reality, these subjects are increasingly connected.

The internet and ICTs are changing the parameters of sustainability by creating opportunities and threats that simply did not exist when the 1987 Brundtland Report and the 1992 UN Rio Conference on Environment and Development put sustainable development on the international agenda.

On the opportunities side of the policy ledger, ICTs and the internet have the potential to:


  • greatly enhance our capacity to model, monitor, and control environmental ecosystems at every level from global to local;

  • enable vastly more efficient uses of energy and material resources through the development of “smart” energy, transportation, building, manufacturing, water, agricultural, and resource management systems;

  • support the transformation of organizations and institutions in the private and public sectors through the dematerialization of products and services and the virtualization of processes and relationships;

  • help innovators and entrepreneurs create green jobs throughout the economy and sustainable social enterprises; and

  • provide individuals, families, and communities with access to information and tools that enable them to make more sustainable choices as citizens and consumers.

On the threats side of the policy ledger, ICTs and the internet have the potential to:


  • continue on their current trajectory as the fastest-growing source of greenhouse gas emissions and a leading producer of toxic waste;

  • increase the efficiency of unsustainable production processes and business practices, thereby generating increased demand for unsustainable products and services;

  • eliminate jobs and entire economic sectors as part of the process of “creative destruction” that accompanies innovation;

  • weaken the bonds of identity, empathy, mutual respect, trust, and authority that underlie social, economic, and governance relationships, and which underpin rights, freedoms, responsibilities, and obligations in all these areas; and

  • undermine public governance structures by removing the time and space that is needed for representation, reflection, deliberation, and negotiation, and by hastening the substitution of private practice for public process.

Two things are necessary to maximize the opportunities and minimize the threats presented by ICTs and the internet.

The first essential is a global ICT governance regime designed to support the technical, economic, social, and environmental sustainability of the ICT and internet sector in response to the very serious challenges it now faces on each of these dimensions. These challenges include:


  • countering cyber-crime and ensuring cyber-security in the borderless world of cyber-space;

  • protecting privacy and creating confidence and trust in the online environment;

  • managing the critical resources on which the stability and security of the internet depend in an increasingly complex international environment;

  • ensuring that there is adequate and continuous investment in the development and deployment of ever-higher capacity-fixed and mobile telecommunications infrastructures; and

  • ensuring that access to these infrastructures and the services they provide is open, accessible, and affordable.

To ensure the sustainability of the ICT and internet sector in the face of these challenges, the governance regime must itself be sustainable – it must be designed and have the capacity to accommodate and resolve the differing policies and priorities of different governments and other stakeholders with respect to these challenges. Without this governance capacity, there is every risk that it will be increasingly difficult to maintain the internet as an interconnected, interoperable global communications medium, the value of which is related to the number of devices and users it connects.

In a recent interview done as part of an International Institute for Sustainable Development (IISD) Global Connectivity Group project on “Changing our Understanding of Sustainability: The impact of ICTs and the Internet,” Vint Cerf – one of the co-designers of the Internet Protocol – expressed serious concerns about the internet’s future sustainability in the face of the technical, security, and political challenges it now faces. Similar concerns underlie the Centre for International Governance Innovation’s (CIGI) “Organized Chaos: Reimagining the Internet” project, which aims to help policy-makers and stakeholders discover what kind of internet the world wants to have in 20 years, and how to achieve it.

The second essential for realizing the potential of ICTs and the internet is a sustainable development governance regime that takes due account of the ways in which ICTs and the internet are transforming economies and societies. This regime should support the development of policies, programs, and processes aimed at generating new pathways to sustainability through the application and use of ICTs and the internet, and deploy the full range of tools available to sustainable development policy-makers in pursuit of this objective. These tools include regulatory, incentive, subsidy, and procurement mechanisms designed to influence the behaviour and investment decisions of businesses and consumers, as well as international financing, technology transfer, and capacity-building mechanisms.

Rio+20 and WCIT-12 showed that neither of these essentials currently exists.

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Rio+20 and WCIT-12 faced issues of policy substance and governance process that pitted the governments of industrialized and developing countries against each other. At Rio+20, these issues revolved around the transition to a green economy. At WCIT-12, they revolved around governance of the internet and its impacts on economies, societies, and the environment.

The sources of division in each conference were similar: The governments of most industrialized countries upheld a forward-looking vision that is based on faith in the power of technology, innovation, market forces, and multi-stakeholder governance, and which tends to restrict the role of governments and multilateral institutions. The governments of many developing countries, on the other hand, had a more traditional view that emphasizes the ongoing importance of governments and inter-governmental processes, particularly those involving technology transfer, financing, and capacity-building mechanisms.

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Brazil's President Dilma Rousseff speaks during a closing ceremony of the Rio+20 United Nations Conference on Sustainable Development summit (Reuters).

At Rio+20, representatives of industrialized countries saw the green economy framework, with its well-articulated emphasis on technology development, economic and social innovation, various incentives for private investment, market-based solutions to sustainability challenges, public-private partnerships, and multi-stakeholder governance approaches as a new paradigm for sustainable development. For their part, representatives of most developing countries saw the green economy policy panoply that was developed in the run-up to the conference as a way of perpetuating the economic dominance of the industrialized world and the development gaps that exist between the North and South, not as the way forward to a sustainable future.

Although it has many merits as a new paradigm for sustainability, the green economy framework developed in the run-up to Rio+20 had one serious oversight that carried over into the conference proceedings. To begin generating new pathways to sustainability in the aftermath of Rio+20, members of the sustainable development policy community will need to begin taking fuller account of the transformative effects of ICTs and the internet on the economic, social, cultural, political, and environmental dimensions of sustainability. They manifestly failed to do this at Rio+20. The outcome document of the conference, The Future We Want, contains only scattered references to ICTs and the internet, and almost completely ignores the transformative effects they have had on economies and societies since the first Rio conference in 1992 and the Rio+10 conference in Johannesburg in 2002.

In his commentary on “Life After Rio,” Mark Halle, vice-president, international, of IISD, argued that Rio+20’s failure to agree to a new paradigm for sustainable development based on the concept of the green economy, combined with its failure to fundamentally reform existing governance arrangements, indicates that we need to turn sustainable development governance on its head. He suggests that, while we have been seeking top-down solutions to sustainability challenges through multilateral mechanisms, the path to sustainability is more likely to lie in local and regional solutions that are emerging bottom-up through a highly distributed and increasingly networked group of actors that includes cities and other sub-national jurisdictions as well as the private sector, civil-society organizations, and other stakeholders.

This vision and the policy and governance prescriptions it entails have much in common with paradigms that have emerged from the ICT and internet sector over the past couple of decades – paradigms that are now facing significant challenges.

In what might superficially be described as an inverted mirror image of the division that occurred at Rio+20, six months later and half a world away, the governments of industrialized countries found themselves on the defensive at WCIT-12 in Dubai. Representatives for these countries sought to protect an established telecommunications governance paradigm against proposals from the governments of developing countries for a series of radical changes that would significantly enlarge the powers of the International Telecommunication Union (ITU) and its member states in regulating not just basic telecommunications, but a much broader range of activities of the ICT and internet sector.

In this broader area that lies outside the traditional regulatory remit of the ITU, a market-oriented paradigm has governed much of the global ICT and internet sector over the past 20-30 years. This paradigm shares many of the main structural features of the green economy framework in that it emphasizes the creation of policy and regulatory environments that encourage private investment, consumer choice, competitive markets, and economic and social innovation on the basis of liberal-democratic principles.

Within this general framework, the existing ICT and internet governance paradigm emphasizes affordable, open access to networks and services for consumers and producers, as well as the protection of fundamental human rights and freedoms and the more specific rights of citizens, consumers, creators, and competitors established under national law. In this paradigm, at the domestic level, government’s role is largely restricted to creating an enabling environment for the growth of the ICT and internet sector and engaging in ex post regulation when rights are thought to have been violated. At the international level, legally binding responsibilities are divided between the ITU and the World Trade Organization, while less formal governance responsibilities are distributed among a large number of internet governance, policy co-ordination, and standardization organizations, many of which operate on a multi-stakeholder basis.

At WCIT-12, despite the serious challenges now facing the global ICT and internet sector, the governments of industrialized countries maintained their faith in the capacity of the current, highly distributed governance paradigm to manage these challenges at the global level without recourse to a binding international agreement that would have extended the regulatory mandate of the ITU beyond basic telecommunications infrastructure into new areas related to these challenges. For their part, the governments of many developing countries took the view that these challenges warranted extension of the ITU’s mandate and greater government involvement in ICT and internet governance, both domestically and internationally.

In the negotiations that took place during the conference, industrialized countries succeeded in persuading developing countries to take many – but not all – of their proposals off the table, and to pursue them in non-binding forums. When the conference came to an end, the governments of 89 emerging economies and developing countries signed final acts containing these disputed provisions while the governments of 55 mostly industrialized countries did not. This is the first such split that has occurred in the long history of the ITU, a venerable institution that traces its roots to the establishment of the International Telegraph Union in 1865, and that was ranked alongside the U.S. Constitution as one of the world’s most enduring government institutions in a study done by Booz Allen Hamilton a few years ago. This legacy is now in peril. In the aftermath of WCIT-12, serious questions are being asked in Canada and other industrialized countries about the role and relevance of the ITU going forward.

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Over the next two years, policy processes that are now underway in the sustainable development, ICT, and internet policy domains will provide platforms for beginning to repair the damage to international relations caused by Rio+20 and WCIT-12. These processes will also provide opportunities for stimulating fresh thinking in the sustainable development and ICT policy communities about the emerging relationships between them.

In the field of sustainable development policy and governance, the process launched at Rio+20 for devising Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) to guide the post-2015 development agenda presents an opportunity to incorporate ICT and internet-related objectives at the core of sustainability policy. The ITU’s Broadband Commission for Digital Development – whose members include some of the world’s richest, most powerful, and most influential people, some of whom have vested interests in broadband network development – has already proposed that “broadband inclusion for all” be one of the high-level SDGs, and that it be supported by specific targets for access to broadband networks, applications, and services in developing countries, including broadband-based education and health care.

If the SDGs are to fully reflect the conditions necessary for optimizing the contribution of ICTs and the internet to sustainability, other kinds of ICT-related goals will be needed. Technologies are clearly important tools for achieving sustainability, but the fundamental challenges of sustainable development are challenges of human development – they require developing not only the technical capabilities, but also the social, economic, and governance capabilities that are needed for humans and other sentient beings to live better together on an increasingly crowded planet with increasingly limited natural resources. To become meaningful guides to furthering the integration of the internet and ICTs into sustainable development policy, the SDGs must include goals related to the development of people’s digital capabilities and digital literacies in each of these areas.

In the field of ICT and internet policy and governance, two processes that are already underway provide parallel opportunities for furthering thinking about the relationship between these technologies and sustainable development.

A series of ITU meetings and conferences (including the May 2013 World Telecommunication/ ICT Policy Forum on internet governance, the 2014 World Telecommunication Development Conference, and the 2014 Plenipotentiary Conference) presents opportunities to begin resolving the differences between developed and developing countries on issues related to internet governance that came to a head at WCIT-12. Among other things, the process for resolving these differences should include rethinking the current framework for ICT and internet governance in light of the sustainability challenges it faces, as well as its potential contribution to sustainable global development going forward.

In addition to these ITU events, the public meetings of the Internet Corporation for Assigned Names and Numbers (ICANN), which take place three times a year around the globe, the annual meetings of the United Nations Internet Governance Forum, as well as the process that begins in February 2013 to review the results of the 2003-05 UN World Summit on the Information Society (WSIS+10), provide opportunities to begin integrating sustainable development principles and objectives much more fully into international frameworks for information society development.

It will not be easy to take advantage of any or all of these processes to begin changing the way sustainable development and ICT policy-makers think about the challenges they face, the policy options for responding to these challenges, and the governance processes that are likely to lead to the most effective results. In each domain, as the results of Rio+20 and WCIT-12 show, shifts are necessary in the paradigms that have guided international governance for the past two decades.

Work done by members of the Global Connectivity Group and their colleagues at the International Institute for Sustainable Development suggests that the way forward is two-fold.

The overall challenge facing the sustainable development policy community is to more closely align its substantive policies and governance processes with the structural changes ICTs and the internet are enabling in the economies and societies of developed and developing countries, and in their relationship to the environment. Mark Halle’s suggestions for turning sustainable development governance on its head through the development of a highly distributed, networked, multi-stakeholder sustainability governance architecture in which intelligence is located at the edges seems a promising beginning, not only to repairing the damage done at Rio+20, but also in building bridges to the elements of the ICT and internet policy community that already operate on similar lines.

The overall challenge facing the ICT and internet policy community is to re-examine the principles underlying its substantive policies and governance processes within a framework that aims to achieve technical, economic, social, political, and environmental sustainability within the ICT sector and throughout economies and societies, and that draws on insights generated by the sustainable development policy community, among other sources.

Some of the work needed to incorporate sustainability principles in ICT governance has already begun. Technical standards are being developed at the ITU and in other forums to increase the energy efficiency of ICT equipment, networks, and devices, and to reduce the greenhouse gas emissions and e-waste generated by the sector. Work is also underway to develop technical standards and network resources for smart energy, transportation, building, and manufacturing infrastructures, as well as for smart sensor networks and other elements of the “Internet of Things” – technologies that promise major gains in energy and material efficiency throughout the economy and society, but that will not themselves lead to sustainability in the absence of more fundamental transformations.

The more challenging task facing the ICT community will be to develop standards, policies, and practices that enable and facilitate the transformative effects of ICTs and the internet on the knowledge, goals, values, and behaviours of individuals, families, and communities, as well as on social and economic structures, so that their activities become more sustainable. This is particularly a challenge for internet organizations, which, unlike the ITU, have so far been largely absent from international discussions about the relationship between ICTs, the internet, and sustainability.

Insights from the sustainable development policy community that could assist the ICT and internet community with the task of transformative governance might include more attention, by a sector that is often overly optimistic about the capacity of its technologies to solve all the world’s problems, to the “precautionary principle” that lies at the heart of sustainability thinking. Another thing that could assist with this is the selective application of “adaptive policy-making” models, of the kind IISD and others are developing, as a complement to market mechanisms, to help policy-makers and stakeholders manage change and govern complexity in environments where economic, social, and natural forces interact in unpredictable ways.

The work done by the Global Connectivity Group for Sustainable Development and IISD also suggests that it is essential to build bridges between these two communities, and to create spaces where dialogue between them can take place – both on the ground, where ICTs and the internet are beginning to be applied to support sustainability, and at higher policy levels where (as Rio+20 and WCIT-12 so clearly demonstrated) there is a critical need for governance innovation and better connections between these very different fields.

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