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“Tech will save us…” – Really?

Photo © Melinda Nagy/Adobe Stock

We’ve heard it for years. From climate change deniers in particular and from politicians, business people and (almost) everyone else. While denying reality, many claim tech will fix it anyway. Wishful thinking indeed, but the premise is correct. Tech won’t fix it, but tech may actually save us.

We’re all guilty and we’re all hoping. Many of us – myself included – have shaken our heads uncountable times when confronted with the ignorance from the climate change nay-sayers, thinking ‘this is indeed hopeless – unless some technology marvel appears and changes everything’.

Hoping, but not really believing. Not that positive things don’t happen on the tech side. Weekly – or at least biweekly – we’re reading enthusiastic reports from inventors and researchers that supposedly will either save the world or change the direction fast – in important ways. Then come the caveats – such as money/funding, some missing piece of tech or something else that make the target elusive, literally far away if not impossible. Carbon capture being one of them. Effective no doubt, but extremely expensive, big, slow and with a significant carbon footprint in itself during construction. It’s likely that the world will suffocate long before carbon capture is capable of making a difference outside the balance sheets of some big companies.

But don’t give up. There are enough smart people out there understanding the real threat and using their resources for the common good instead of a narrow balance sheet. And here’s what brought back some optimism recently: Data.

So simple, so available, so abundant, so underutilized. Important understanding right in front of us and we just don’t see it because we’re not looking. The keyword is understanding. We seem to possess so much understanding about what we cannot do and so little about what we can do – easily. And it’s all in the data.

Inspiringly discussed in a Wired Magazine article recently (Data Science: On the Front Lines of Battling Climate Change), data can actually save the world. Using available data profoundly changes two important things: Our understanding of what we – you and I – can do, and our collective attitude towards (big) change. The latter has been revisited a number of times in the media recently and seems to be slowly sinking in: The green change isn’t expensive, it’s good business for everyone. What’s expensive is keeping the old ways on life support.

Even the UN is promoting this message, which is supported by unequivocal data. What’s surprising is how hard it is for so many to accept this reality. It seems like industrialists, investors, politicians and many others feel threatened by the fact that the future is different from history. That ‘oh sh.., we were wrong, that’s bad for my image’ attitude. But they – we – weren’t wrong. We were living in different times and had different metrics, resources and tools. And honestly, how surprising can it be that the future is different from the past? We’re in 2022, we know that coal and oil etc. have to go, the sooner the better. How hard can it be to understand that searching for and developing new oil fields is bad business? An interesting (and important) dichotomy to be revisited at a later day.

Back to the data and how using them effectively may change the equation – and the situation. It’s all about understanding – even at the consumer level. If I’d known before that transparent bottles have a 50% higher emission footprint than green bottles, I may have chosen Carlsberg or Heineken over Corona. If I’d known that the exact same product may have very different emission profiles depending on the country of origin, I would have made different choices. In product design, seemingly minor changes may have enormous effects on lifecycle emissions. And so on.

It’s all data, data analysis and data science. The knowledge is easily available because we have the data and the technology to process, analyse, combine and present them. And here’s the thing: When we – the market – understand this, it becomes a competitive issue. We – you and I – will make a difference by the choices we make every day. This power is nothing new, but using it consciously for a purpose, is new.

So – here’s the thing with data: With moderate smartness in processing, they can reliably predict our own extinction. They can also – again using moderate smartness in processing, with high reliability point out ways to avoid it. Even help us compare the alternatives. And here’s the icing on the cake according to the expertise: We’re currently using much of the same data to ‘run the world’ so to speak, which means they’re hard to refute. You cannot seriously accept and rely on data in one context and refute them in the next.

In the end it’s not ‘tech is saving us’, it’s ‘we are saving us’. Tech is the tool, data is the resource, data science is the ‘driver’ or ‘enabler’. Perfect timing indeed. By combining available data and available technology in smart ways, like the nonprofit CDP organization in the Wired article does, choices become clear or clearer, decisions easier, the urgency of the situation even more explicit than the signs we see every day.

In other words, the fight for a sustainable future is about using what we have, not waiting for elusive tech miracles. And accepting reality – such as ‘we’re running out of time’. In short, a new mindset.

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