“Anthropogenic climate change is now beyond dispute,” says Rockström et al (2009). 97% of climate scientists support the claim that humans are driving climate change (Nuccitelli, 2013). Beyond the mass-extinctions, extreme droughts, and flooding (WWF, n.d.) climate change harbours potential to destabilise entire regions, provoke mass migrations, and harm international security (US Department of Defense [DoD], 2014).
There have been attempts to identify a solution focusing on the concept of “sustainable development.” However, the concept of sustainable development has proven problematic, with no clear definition being concluded and no definitive plan produced.
Meanwhile, the recognition of humanity’s use of technology as a major cause anthropogenic climate change has led to the rise of conflicting philosophies concerned with addressing the issue in terms of humanity’s relationship with technology. However, Technocentrism and ecocentrism represent extreme visions of the future and offer solutions that may not be entirely realistic.
The aim of this research is to investigate and discuss the philosophies of technocentrism and ecocentrism and their respective proposed or inferred solutions to anthropogenic climate change, and to identify an alternative solution that addresses the need to change humanity’s relationship with technology and innovation. In identifying the traits, flaws, proposals, and common ground of each philosophy, the third solution – technological decentralisation – is presented. Decentralisation is investigated for merit as a solution to technology-derived anthropogenic climate change.
This writing is divided into 6 main chapters followed by a conclusion. Chapter 1 recognises the role technology has played in anthropogenic climate change and discusses the attempts there have been thus far to combat the issue. Chapter 2 discusses the philosophy of technocentrism, examples of how contemporary technologies can combat environmental issues, and a technocentric solution to anthropogenic climate change. Chapter 3, meanwhile, presents counter-arguments to technocentrism and discusses the opposing philosophy of ecocentrism. In Chapter 4, similarities are identified and additional issues addressed in pursuit of a solution. Chapter 5 investigates technological decentralisation as a solution, with limitations discussed in chapter 6.
Technology-Derived Anthropogenic Climate Change
Industrialisation since the mid-late 18th century has been driven by ever-increasing rates of scientific and technological innovation. Ausubel (1995) attributes the industrialisation of the past 250 years to the “zeal with which [the west] has systematized the learning process” which allowed for increased innovation capacity, with innovation “spurts” happening in “ever increasing intensity.”
But it is the emission of greenhouse gases resulting from this industrialisation that is causing anthropogenic climate change (U.S. Environmental Protection Agency, n.d.). The internal combustion engine is one example of a technological innovation attributed directly to climate change (Ausubel, 1995). Meanwhile, the improvements in manufacturing that industrialisation offered created a consumer society (White, n.d.), which is “largely responsible for current trends in global climate change” (Swim et al., 2011:261).
To stem any further environmental consequences of technical innovation, there have been attempts to implement policies of “sustainable development.” The Rio Summit of 1992 is one example (United Nations Division for Sustainable Development, 1992), while continued efforts by the UN to implement sustainable development can be seen in their ‘2030 Agenda’ (General Assembly Resolution 70/1, 2015).
Despite this, there are concerns about whether sustainable development is achievable or if it is fundamentally flawed as an idea. The term, it is argued, is an oxymoron “between the opposing imperatives of growth and development, on the one hand, and ecological (and perhaps social and economic) sustainability on the other” (Robinson, 2004:369-370) while attempts to agree upon a single definition have been difficult (Robinson, 2004:373).
Further, attempts so far to implement a sustainable development plan have failed to reach their objectives. Langeweg wrote in 1998 of the “slight” perspectives for achieving the 1992 Rio Summit’s goals, while more recently President Donald Trump has vowed to pull the US – the world’s second-largest emitter of greenhouse gases (Ge et al., 2014) – out of the recent Paris climate agreement (Batchelor, 2017).
Evidently, a major component of anthropogenic climate change is that of increased innovation and industrialisation, and broad “sustainable development” plans are unlikely to solve the issue. So what should the plan be? The question remains as to exactly what such a change might be, but it is clear that humanity’s use of technology, and our relationship to it, must be addressed as part of a solution (Ausubel, 1995). The following argument supports a technology-driven solution.
The Technocentric Argument
The position of a technocentric is one of having complete faith in technology to solve major issues; primarily climate change. A major component of combatting anthropogenic climate change lies in making processes more efficient (Nye, 2015:9), so technocentrics believe that they are taking a more “pragmatic and collective approach” to climate change by focussing on efficiency gains and improvements in technology (Robinson, 2004). By allowing innovation to continue unhindered technology will be capable of reconciling any environmental damage (Sustainable Environment, n.d.).
This is not a new philosophy. As early as the 1920s people such as Henry Ford (n.d., in Nye, 2006:92) spoke of the machine as “the symbol of man’s mastery of the environment,” surmising the technocentric philosophy as one of mankind’s complete control over the natural world.
There is perhaps a deterministic argument to be made in favour of continued innovation and technological progress. Advancement is momentous and unavoidable, it is argued (Schwab, 2016:9), but will inevitably alleviate issues (Schwab, 2016:12) regardless of the initial motive. With profit as the main driver, issues such as greenhouse gas emissions will inevitably be lessened as a result of technological advancements made in pursuit of efficiency gains (2016:34).
Technocentrism might also be legitimised by the implications of the term “sustainable development.” Firstly, as mentioned, technocentrism puts emphasis on the need to continue the process of innovation (development), while focussing on gains and improvements in efficiency (sustainability). It could be argued then that sustainable development plans by organisations including the United Nations are inherently technocentric.
Technocentric Applications of Contemporary Technologies
The Internet of Things (IoT), estimated to reach 1 trillion sensors by 2022 (World Economic Forum [WEF], 2015:6), is expected to reduce emissions and improve efficiency thanks to the improved ability to track materials and energy use through supply chains (Schwab, 2016:65). As a consequence of such sensing power, it is predicted that a value of $2.7trillion will be gained from the reduction in waste and improvement of processes (Cisco Consultancy Services, 2014), while carbon emissions could be reduced by 9.1 billion tonnes by 2020 (Global e-Sustainability Initiative [GeSI], 2012). Evidently, IoT predictions support the technocentric idea of sustainability driven by profit.
With the information gathering capability of 1 trillion sensors, the amount of data being produced also offers potential benefits for efficiency and sustainability. Colloquially termed “Big Data” this massive pool of information – 43 trillion gigabytes by 2020 – will be used by businesses to “help drive … improved sustainability performance” (Hsu, 2014) in pursuit of lower costs and long-term profitability. The WEF report (2015:6,19) predicts Big Data to be used in “better and faster decision making” in governments by as early as 2023 and cites the United Nations Global Pulse programme as a system already utilising Big Data in pursuit of sustainability.
OpenAQ is one example of how accessible big data resources can be used to make a positive impact on environmental issues. The organisation aggregates otherwise separate air pollution data sources into one single Big Data resource that can then be used to “enable previously impossible science, impact policy and empower the public to fight air pollution” (OpenAQ, n.d.:A). Such applications include public awareness media and data modelling systems (OpenAQ, n.d.:B) evidencing how Big Data systems are already being used to combat environmental issues.
Further, the use of big data in artificial intelligence (AI) systems is predicted to offer even faster and more effective decision-making that will lead further towards sustainability (National Science and Technology Council, 2016:35). Although AI is not yet capable enough for such applications (Schroepfer, n.d., in Knight, 2016), predictions state AI decision making to be advanced enough by 2026 that it will begin to be utilised on corporate boards of directors for high-level decision making (WEF, 2015:6). Such AI-driven decision making could arguably eliminate bias through rational, data-driven decisions thanks to the “ability to identify cause and effect within data” in pursuit of profit (Singh, 2015) and, as can be seen with IoT and Big Data predictions, pursuits of profit can mean efficiency gains made from the use of better technology, minimising waste, and recycling used resources (Jones, 2003:40).
Existing technologies are already being utilised for increasing efficiency and sustainability. Drones, for example, can and are being used in the agriculture industry for tasks such as crop and field analysis, planting, and monitoring to combat inefficiency and make better use of available resources (Schwab, 2016:15; Mazur, 2016). Meanwhile, recent innovations in renewable energy technologies and energy storage/transmission means cleaner and more efficient electricity use (Nye, 2006:104; Schwab, 2016:51).
Incentives and Realisation of Technocentric Philosophy
Higher profits as a result of technological progress leads to healthier economies, which are more capable of addressing global issues (Ahlstrom, 2010; Jones, 2003:41). The pursuit of profit is not only a direct cause of sustainability but also provides the means to more capably combat issues.
And profit is not necessarily the only incentive for environmentally positive innovation. It has been recognised by the US DoD (2014) that the military’s investment into “smarter energy” and planning for the effects of climate change – with the primary aim of strengthening the military – had the additional benefit of helping to protect the environment. Thus it is evidenced that whatever the motivation, technological innovation that leads to efficiency gains results in sustainability and more positive outcomes for the environment.
Additionally, there is the argument that the worst is yet to come in terms of the technological impact on the environment. According to the US Central Intelligence Agency’s World Factbook (n.d.), there are only 33 nations worldwide classified as “advanced economies.” Thus the effects of industry on the climate may only continue to worsen as more nations industrialise and increase their climate-damaging potential (World Commission on Environment and Development [WCED], 1987). Further, the resulting consumerist societies – indicted above as a result of industrialisation and a major driver of climate change – might exaggerate issues further.
As economies and affluence continue to grow, the challenge is to redouble efforts to increase efficiency, reduce damaging impacts, and move towards sustainable patterns of consumptive behavior.
A technocentric solution to anthropogenic climate change, therefore, might be to increase industrial output and expedite the innovation process. After all, if innovation in the search for profit leads industry to sustainability, then a higher capacity for innovation could result in a faster transition to sustainable development. To accommodate the underdeveloped world’s industrialisation, sustainable development must be achieved as soon as possible so that these nations industrialise sustainably. The WCED 1987 report, for example, calls for a “5 – 10-fold” increase in industrial activity over the following century in order to achieve this goal.
For individuals in society, a successful technocentric shift as a solution to climate change might be indistinguishable from current trends. Technocentrism focuses on continued economic and innovative development that does not upset the capitalist economic framework that is already in place (Knox and Pinch, 200:289). Current trends in living standards may, therefore, continue unaffected (not considering any impact of environmental improvements) and a technocentric future may not result in any major social changes on the personal level.
The solution to anthropogenic climate change is a wholly technological one, then, if the technocentric argument is to be followed. Through technological innovation, motive regardless (e.g. for profit, or military capability), the transition to sustainable development through gains in efficiency will alleviate the negative environmental effects that current industrial processes are causing. Meanwhile new technologies and innovations either have great potential for positive impacts on climate change or are already having such impact, and an increased innovative capacity should expedite the creation and utilisation of such climate-positive technologies without adversely affecting current economic and social systems.
The Ecocentric Argument
20:50, an artwork by Richard Wilson, has produced evidence to suggest a natural distaste in individuals for industrial processes. The installation puts people in direct contact with that which is the cause of anthropogenic climate change – oil and (by relation) industry (Wilson, 2003). It has been observed that many of the installations’ audience are “alarmed” by the installation, testifying to an inherent moral leaning in individuals away from continued industrial progress (White, 2010) that might only exaggerate as a closer relationship between individuals and innovation develops.
There is, therefore, an opposing viewpoint with its own beliefs and arguments for how best to approach technology and humanity’s relationship with it. Ecocentrism is as far removed from technocentrism as possible. With values centred around ecology and mankind’s relationship with nature (Dictionary.com, n.d.), the two arguments/philosophies are in complete contrast.
To an ecocentric, the values and arguments of technocentrism may be somewhat discernible from that of anthropocentrism; the view that humans are “the central or most significant entities in the world … separate from and superior to nature” (Boslaugh, 2016) and that humans have a predisposition towards the destruction of, and dominance over nature, which is exacerbated by our use of technology (Bréchignac, 2011:409). It is this anthropocentric philosophy that many see as the main cause of modern global environmental crises (Xinyu et. al., 2016), with innovations such as the internal combustion engine (Ausubel, 1995) causing the whole anthropogenic climate change issue in the first place (Jones, 2003:59).
Such anthropocentric effects of technology and innovation can be seen throughout the world. Farming techniques exported across the world from Europe during the colonial era, for example, had devastating effects on local and regional environments through topsoil loss and erosion (Nye, 2006: 97). Intensifying the issue, more recent innovations in farming and agriculture designed to improve efficiency, such as pesticides and fertilisers, conversely led to the poisoning of topsoil and water systems. This drove deforestation in the pursuit of unspoilt agricultural land (Nye, 2006:98). Here it can be seen that technological “progress” in the pursuit of efficiency or profit does not inevitably lead to sustainability but on the contrary can worsen environmental industrial effects.
Deterministic views of technology may seem misguided when considering that many technologies in the past, including the automobile and personal computer, did not fulfil expectations but were in fact much more disruptive (Nye, 2006:36-38). Considering innovations such as AI, IoT, and Big Data, are they likely to have only the positive effects discussed in chapter 2? According to Nye (2006, 159), nobody can predict all of the possible outcomes of a new technology or innovation, so it could be just as likely for these technologies to result in a negative impact on the climate/environment as they are to produce positive results. There are, after all, already predictions for AI to disrupt economies through loss of jobs (Rotman, 2015) resulting in a lesser capability to solve issues per the technocentric argument, or make unbiased decisions in favour of profit at the expense of environmental considerations.
Utopian speculations about technology in the vein of technocentrism have proven wrong in the past. As a result of the increase in automation in factories through the early-mid 20th century, for example. it was predicted by a United States Senate subcommittee in 1965 that a 21st century work week would be just 14 hours (Smith, 2015:77). Despite increases in efficiency this never came to pass and, instead, workers now work longer than they did in 1968 (Nye, 2006:37). Nye (2006:37) exclaims that technological predictions tend to be no more accurate than a coin toss, so why should technocentric positivism be trusted any more than it was in the past? If past technologies could not be forecast accurately, why is there such an apparent trust in technology to solve climate change?
One possible reason is that technological predictions are being made in expanded timeframes, on technologies whose impacts are entirely unknown (Nye, 2006:33-34). They make speculative comments on potential impacts in the long timescale of future breakthroughs, rather than on specific innovations. According to Nye predictors include inventors and “utopian writers,” suggesting a techno-cultural relationship in which culture puts technology ahead by a number of years, with cultural expectations inspiring innovation. AI for example featured prominently in cultural works through the 20th century – 2001: A Space Odyssey (Kubrick, 1968) for example – before realisation. Therefore predictions by the likes of Schwab might not be possible to debunk, as they are based in indefinite timeframes.
Additionally, there is financial incentive to be considered. Inventors need to create “compelling narratives” in order to attract venture capital investment, while entrepreneurs stand to benefit from such narratives for marketing purposes to attract a return on their investment (Nye, 2006:36). Thus predictions and forecasts for new technologies, including those predicted to combat climate change, could also harbour positive bias.
It has been discussed (paragraph 2) how the effects of a technocentric shift may be indistinguishable from current trends for individuals, but that may not be sufficient (Robinson, 2004). Some believe that industries in technocentric societies use natural resources in a selfish manner to create profit, while falsely claiming that it benefits the individual (Jones, 2004:39). The individual is encouraged to consume at “breakneck speeds” by marketing that utilises consumer data derived from their own consumption habits (Jones, 2004:39), made possible by improvements in information technology. Therefore the over-consumption that sits at the heart of the issue is only exacerbated while individuals are left behind by technological progress.
3.2 Installation in Response to Technocentrism
In response to the findings of this research, the author has constructed an installation has that highlights the issues of a technocentric philosophy. Using computer programs to sustain food plants, the piece makes literal the idea that technology can be used to control natural things. The installation is pessimistic, however, highlighting using global pollution data to poison the plant life, metaphorizing the detrimental effect that the exploitation of natural resources in the global-scale use of technology has on the environment.
An Ecocentric Solution
Therefore a post-digital solution may be an attractive option. When
- the shortcomings of technology from the past are identified;
- considering the effects that technology, industry, and innovation have already had on the environment;
- and considering the likelihood of technology-based solutions to fall short of predictions in the future,
it might seem logical to simply remove technology from the equation. Such logic may be further justified when the arguably bias motivations (e.g. financial) for technocentrics’ positive narratives on technology are highlighted.
In accordance with a philosophy putting humans on an equal footing with all other life on Earth, ecocentrics, like technocentrics, focus on the need to transition to sustainability, but suggest doing so in a radically different way. Rallying “against the ideology of growth” (Nye, 2006:104-105), ecocentrics reject the idea that higher capacity for innovation is the route to a solution. Instead, ecocentrics argue that steering society entirely away from technology and innovation could lead to a more responsible and sustainable relationship between humanity and nature (Jones, 2003:59).
There are precedents for societies rejecting technological progress. The Sakoku period of Japan, during which the country shut its borders to the outside (primarily western) world (BBC Radio 4, 2013), saw a rejection of the production and use of firearms as the feudal lords and samurai class reverted to more traditional means of combat (Nye, 2006:17; BBC Radio 4, 2013). Modernly, Amish communities continue to hold onto traditional means of living, rejecting technological “conveniences” and instead aiming, among other things, to live in harmony with nature (BBC, 2009). Evidently it is possible for societies to reject innovation in order to either live more traditionally or as part of a more ecocentric philosophy.
Issues with an Ecocentric Solution
But the abandonment of technology or innovation, however, is not likely to be a practical solution. Individual technologies and the direction of innovation may be nondeterministic (Nye, 2006), but technological progress itself might not fit this idea. Technocentrics might describe the “momentous changes” brought on by technology as inevitable (Schwab, 2016:9), but without being specific about any individual changes or technologies, this inevitability might be a tenet of modern society.
In the 21st century, technological innovation is not something that can be abandoned or reversed, for it plays too big a part in how the world runs. The internet, often referred as among the greatest technological achievements in history (Schank, 2000:51; Katz & Rice, 2002:2), is a technological innovation that is estimated to be worth $4.2trillion to G-20 economies, with internet activity accounting for up to 8% of GDP in some economies (Dean et al., 2012). Innovation itself is also tied closely to economic growth. India and China’s unprecedented growth in GDP since the 1980s is attributed to their innovation capacity (Peilei, 2011), while a drive for technological change is seen as responsible for the US’s steady economic performance (Steil et al., 2002). Just as no factory can “turn back the clock and return to pre-computer operations, unless its competition did so as well” (Nye, 2006:124), economies are too dependent on technological innovation and growth for individual nations to abandon it.
Identifying a Middle-Ground solution
It would seem, then, that neither a purely technocentric, nor a purely ecocentric approach to technology is likely to solve the issue of technology-/industry-driven anthropogenic climate change, or the answer to unlocking true sustainability. There is no realistic option for a solution that doesn’t involve technology, but an expectation for technology to deterministically advance to a state by which it naturally solves issues seems just as unrealistic. Instead, it would be better to recognise that no such conflicting philosophy is correct (Robinson, 2004:382), and that the major similarity between the two philosophies is a need for a fundamental shift in societal norms, political policy, and morality; such a shift is necessary for finding a solution (Robinson, 2004:378; Nye, 2015:14).
One major issue standing in the way of a solution that addresses technological issues could be a lack of socio-political motivation. Robinson (2004:377) suggests a lack of popular support for climate action in industrialised nations, with people and governments favouring policies that support business over interventionist policies, such as environmental regulations. But there is a strong willingness among the global general population to find a solution, with the majority of people from around the world accepting climate change as either a serious or very serious problem (Wike, 2016). It is recognised that the direction of technological innovation is determined by values held by people and cultures (Nye, 2006:7; National Academy of Engineering, 1991:4), therefore in simply recognising climate change as an issue, societies should have the potential to enact change
But the extent to which citizens of the world are able to determine, facilitate, and be involved in the innovation process might be insufficient. Speaking to the Royal Society in 2002, Prime Minister Tony Blair spoke of the need for a “renewed compact between science and society.” He called for a closer relationship between science/innovation and the people so that the benefits of science and unstifled innovation can be better “exploited” to “transform” the future with regards to issues like the environment. There is widespread recognition of the need to involve all of society in the innovation process.
The combination of government and business is insufficient. Without at least the tacit support of civil society, even government, industry and the NGO sector acting together cannot get us [to sustainability].
Thus, a closer relationship between people and innovators, which involves society in the innovation process, should lead to a greater capacity for technological innovation to solve problems that said society puts value in solving, such as climate change.
This closer relationship between people, technological-environmental issues, and innovators is a topic that is at the heart of a series of projects called Biomodd. The projects call upon local people to collaborate and exchange ideas in the pursuit of innovative solutions to the problem of technological and natural coexistence (Biomodd:C, n.d.). Creating symbiotic relationships between living organisms and computer technology, Biomodd installations have in the past taken form as interactive pieces. This coalesced in the participation of individuals so that social interactions produce biological growth and development (Vermeulen, 2010; Maranan & Vermeulen, 2015), provoking discussion about the potential for collaborative innovation to better the environment through technology.
Is Decentralisation of Technology and Innovation the Answer?
A solution which involves all of society in finding solutions to global problems like climate change, while simultaneously stifling issues that allow climate inaction to continue, could be one of decentralisation. Technological decentralisation in this context means a move away from a top-down approach to innovation in which new technologies are produced in a concentrated fashion, to a more distributed system in which innovation can happen more organically in reaction to local problems (Eggimann, 2016), thus creating more efficient and sustainable systems for problem-solving.
Technology is a root cause of many environmental issues, but as discussed in Chapter 3.3, humans and technology are inseparable, so technology must be a part of the solution. The underlying similarity between a technocentric and ecocentric future is a fundamental change in society, recognised by Robinson (2004:378) as a necessity. Technological innovation must shift in the direction of solutions rather than causing problems, and in Chapter 4 it was shown how such a shift must involve, and can be determined by, individuals and societies. Decentralisation is one such change.
The carrying capacity of the Earth – what the planet is capable of providing in terms of resources – is not a fixed limit, but rather a “social construct” determined by societal needs (Nye, 2006:108). Hassan (2001) therefore describes the need to “move towards new ways of meeting human needs” and suggests a movement towards technological and innovative decentralisation as a means of achieving sustainability and raising the carrying capacity of the Earth. Roszak (1969, in Nye, 2006:29) meanwhile calls for decentralisation in order to overthrow the “technocracy” which in its centralised state ignores the concerns and values of the people.
A centerpiece of any strategy to achieve sustainability must be the accelerated development of local capacities in science, engineering, and health throughout the world (Hassan, 2001:73)
Further, because of the disconnect between society and the scientific and innovative processes many see a system in which industries are able to redouble their commitment to “traditional products” at the detriment of new innovations (Nye, 2006:140-142). One example of this might be the fossil fuel industry, which many see as actively standing in the way of sustainable innovation through “racketeering” (Nuccitelli, 2015) and political special interests (Nye, 2006:140-142).
Therefore a move to decentralisation and the abandonment of business and government in technological and sustainability matters may be the shift that is needed for technological solutions to be found. Berry (n.d., in Nye, 2006:145) calls for “a revolt of local small producers and local consumers against the global industrialisation of the corporations” which may also have the benefit of halting the effects the consumer “unwittingly” has on the environment (Nye, 2006:145).
A decentralised approach to innovation should facilitate a transition to sustainable development. It is recognised that individuals around the world are rich in knowledge that can be applied to solving problems, but that these people are ignored by the centralised innovation systems, and that making everybody a “creator” will assure sustainability and meet sustainable development goals (Florey et al., 2017).
Decentralisation has already proven to be an effective solution to technological problems. A study into the benefits of decentralised innovation systems in African agricultural communities (Pamuk et al., 2015) cited the premise that “centrally managed … development visions do violence to complex local interdependencies,” (Scott, 1989, in Pamuk et al., 2015:100), that solutions can be better found to local problems when utilising local skills and knowledge. The study found that decentralised approaches to innovation yielded more promising results for local agriculture when compared to traditional, concentrated, central innovation systems (Pamuk et al, 2015:123-125). Decentralised innovation can therefore be proven to solve problems more effectively than conventional top-down approaches.
Meanwhile, A key tenet of the organisation OpenAQ (discussed in chapter 2.1) is one of empowering individuals (“the public”) to fight air pollution, not just institutions or governments (OpenAQ, n.d.:A). The service aggregates primarily government and institutional data sources but is free-to-use and published openly to promote collaboration and innovation (OpenAQ, n.d.:B). The host of effective and/or popular grassroots-led data-driven applications that have been made possible is evidence of the potential positive environmental consequences that decentralising data-driven innovation can result from.
Any successful solution for transitioning to sustainability must not only address environmental issues, but must also address social and economic concerns in equal measure (Robinson, 2004:378). Decentralisation as a means of achieving sustainability is a solution that addresses all three. In environmental terms, it is discussed above that a major aim of decentralisation is one of increasing the carrying capacity of the Earth through more intelligent and efficient use of technology, and that decentralised innovation has the potential for expediting sustainable development goals. In social terms, decentralisation provides the means for communities to more effectively address local problems (Pamuk et al., 2015), should lead to higher quality education (Blair, 2002), and allows individuals to retain and improve their technical skills and knowledge. Finally, in economic terms, decentralisation focusses heavily on the innovative capability of individuals and local communities, thus more closely linking them to the benefits of technological progress, and reducing the wealth divide between communities and countries, as discussed above.
In harnessing the power of decentralisation, Biomodd projects (discussed in chapter 4) constructed in different locations have taken different forms due to the adoption of local skills and knowledge. This utilisation of local methodology and culture exemplifies the potential for problems to be solved differently and more appropriately for local issues, and represent the people and culture that created them (Vermeulen, 2010; Maranan & Vermeulen, 2015).
There is, however, need for consideration as to what extent decentralisation occurs. The division of labour, or skill specialisation, is made possible by large markets, large-scale production, and the cooperation and availability of a limitless labour force in a capitalist society (Shaikh, n.d.; The Editors of Encyclopædia Britannica, n.d.). This highlights the relationship between a centralised economic system and the potential for people to specialise. Therefore if decentralisation were to occur to the extent of people or communities becoming self-sustainable, there might be a risk of limiting peoples’ chance to specialise in other fields.
Capacity Factors for Decentralised Innovation
Willingness in the Public to Embrace Decentralisation
But for decentralisation to happen and for it to be an effective solution, people must arguably embrace technology. Schwab (2016) writes that a major determination of progress is the extent to which people embrace new technology and innovation, thus progress towards decentralisation could also be measured in people’s adoption of decentralised technology and their involvement in innovation. Technological revolutions – like a sustainable energy future – can only succeed if the opportunities it offers are seized upon by the general public (Lilliestam and Hanger, 2016)
Fortunately, it is has been shown that the general public will seize upon such revolutions as decentralisation. Since its inception, the web has become ever more centralised, with “a staggering percentage” of internet traffic flowing through “a small set of corporations” (Kopstein, 2013). This centralisation sat at the core of the Net Neutrality debate, garnering attention from all tiers of the political system, from the general public to President Obama of the United States (Mechaber, 2014), who all demanded a fairer, less central handling of the internet.
Lack of Technical Ability
Another significant issue standing in the way of the decentralisation of technology and innovation might be a simple case of ability. Schwab (2015:45) writes that “talent … will represent the critical production factor. Scarcity of a skilled workforce … is more likely to be the crippling limit to innovation.”
We live in a society exquisitely dependent on science and technology, in which hardly anyone knows anything about science and technology.
For decentralisation – and thus sustainability – to be achieved, effort must be taken to ensure that the world’s population have the technical capability to drive innovation themselves. Hassan (2001:72) identifies education as an essential element of a successful transition to sustainability, but states that “the quality of education worldwide is inadequate.” However, there is potential for the lack of technical knowledge and ability to be a self-solving problem. As society decentralises and its relationship with science and innovation becomes closer, benefits should be felt in education (Blair, 2002). Thus, as the shift to decentralisation begins, and the relationship between society and science and innovation grows closer, the resulting benefits to education should further increase said society’s capacity for decentralisation and innovation.
The Role of the Internet in Capacitating a Decentralisation Movement
Technological innovations themselves can improve the capacity for individuals to be involved in the innovation process, and for technological decentralisation to be achieved. “New developments in information and communication technology,” writes Robinson (2004:382), are providing the means for communities to “engage in alternative futures.” And, while it can be argued that access to information and media has not in the past led to a more democratic or decentralised approach to technology, the internet may be different due to its ability to connect the individual to the innovation process (Nye, 2006:150-152). The internet is allowing people to choose what kind of future they want for their community, and unlike media of the past also provides people with the technical means to make those societal changes (Florey et al., 2017).
Economic Incentive for the Individual
Ecocentrics focus on the human aspect of sustainability, recognising the economic impacts that technology, innovation, and industrialisation are having on the people of the world. The rise of workers’ unions and industrial action in the industrial age were the means for workers to demand “their fair share” of the result of progress (Nye, 2006:112), evidencing the natural disparity between centralised innovation and any resulting benefits to the wider population. It is also recognised that current technological trends pose the risk of exaggerating the disparity between the fortunes of developed and underdeveloped nations (Schwab, 2016:46). Decentralisation may, therefore, have the additional benefit of reducing wealth or quality-of-life disparities by more directly connecting people to technological progress.
Further, the replacement of centralised industrial systems should help society to retain technical ability much more effectively than presently able. It has been recognised that industrialisation and innovations that lead to efficiency, such as automation, result in a loss of technical skill for the individual (Nye, 2006:112-113). Such processes leading to the loss of technical ability in individuals could, therefore, be negated when they are able to retain, advance, and apply their skill in solving local issues and driving local innovation, further helping to sustain a decentralised society’s innovative capacity.
As discussed in chapter 1, anthropogenic climate change is an issue derived from humanity’s exploitation of natural resources for technological progress. The international community has settled on a policy of “sustainable development” to overcome the causes and effects but, perhaps due to the contradictory nature of the term, doubts have been cast about the feasibility of such a policy affecting actions.
With no plan in place, there is room for conflicting philosophies to each attempt to address the technology-derived nature of the climate change issue by focussing on how best to change our relationship with technology. Technocentrism, seen in chapter 2, makes the case that, given freedom to do so, innovation will progress technology to a state by which it no longer causes this issue, and may in fact begin to solve it. Ecocentrism however, in chapter 3, argues that the best way to counter the harmful consequences of technological progress is to reject technology or progress itself.
However, the literature discussed in this study seems to indicate that neither philosophy provides a viable solution. The reality of technological progress may not be as deterministic or inevitable as technocentrics might present it. Such a future may be presented by technocentrics with bias, or with no timescale in mind. Or, as has been seen with technological societal predictions, these predictions may simply be proved wrong. An ecocentric future, in which society as a whole rejects the ideology of growth, is also unlikely. The economies of the world are simply too dependent on technology and innovation to reject it completely.
What both philosophies propose, and therefore agree upon, is that a fundamental change is needed in the relationship between society and technology, which academic study reflects. There is a need for a closer relationship between society and science and innovation, corroborated by policy makers and academics in chapter 4. It is also clear that when societies value solving problems, such as climate change, this will typically influence innovative direction favourably. But the current relationship between society and science/innovation communities is insufficient, despite the majority of individuals globally recognising climate change as a problem.
So this type of innovative, socially-engaged decentralisation is proposed by this writing as the change in society that the literature discussed – by policymakers, academics, technocentrics, and ecocentrics – agree is necessary. Technological decentralisation presents a means for sustainable development in the middle ground between the two opposing philosophies. It is also able to involve individuals at all levels of society in localised technological innovation.
Ecocentrics call for a rejection of the ideology of growth. Decentralisation addresses this in terms of centralised innovation and progress, instead putting innovation back in the hands of local people to develop only as necessary. Meanwhile, just as proposed by technocentrism, there is a focus on efficiency gains and sustainability at the heart of decentralisation. As a result of the closer relationship between society and innovation people can more efficiently react to local issues. Meanwhile, a reduction in the impacts of a consumerist society should result in an increase in the carrying capacity of the earth.
In the case of the net neutrality debate, it has been seen that societies can be demanding of decentralisation in technological matters, and in this case there are incentives (economic) to do so. And as discussed in the case of African agricultural communities, decentralisation has been proven to more effectively address local technological problems than a centralised, top-down innovation system. Finally, this democratised approach has the ability to address not only environmental issues, but also has the potential to affect social and economic concerns through benefits in education and the retention of valuable skills otherwise lost in a centralised innovation society.
The major determining factor for a successful transition to decentralisation, a lack of technical skills and knowledge, should be overcome once society is committed to the shift. The internet, as a decentralised form of mass-communication, is already providing the means for individuals to become involved in major societal movements and to take part in innovation, and in committing to decentralisation societies should see a benefit to education that should further increase their capacity to innovate.
It is worth noting the scope to which the discussion of decentralisation in this context is limited. This discussion is focussed primarily in terms of the relationship between people/society and technology, and not in terms of society completely. There are implications of decentralisation in legal, governmental, institutional (list not exhaustive) terms, such as copyright law and patent systems, smart city policy, and open-source technology policies that are not discussed here due to scope, but are part of a much larger discussion of decentralised innovation.
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