Are we ready for a dematerialized world?

A good friend from Sweden recently visited me in Paris, and she was surprised that she could not find a single taxi in this capital city that would accept electronic or credit card payment. This got me thinking about our dependence on physical products and processes, despite the major technological advancements of the 21st century.

Most of us have heard of a paperless office, where virtual alternatives greatly reduce the need for physical resources. Documents and information can simply be stored digitally. Not only does this kind of "dematerialization" make our professional lives more efficient, it also saves money, space, and most importantly, the environment. So why can’t we live in a paperless or dematerialized world?

The latest research, including GeSI’s SMARTer2020 report, clearly demonstrates the transformative potential of innovations in the information and communications technology (ICT) industry. According to the report, mainstreaming ICT solutions across the economy could reduce close to 17 percent of global greenhouse gas emissions by 2020.

Examples of existing solutions and services, including in the wireless industry, range from smart grids and energy-efficient buildings to intelligent transport applications, telecommuting, e-government and e-health. These innovations can bring about large-scale efficiencies and greenhouse gas reductions for businesses and can encourage consumers to lead more sustainable lifestyles.

Yet while the potential of technology is clear and much of it, the problem is one of scale and implementation. This was the subject of a panel organized by Business for Social Responsibility (BSR) at GreenBiz Convergence Paris in June. I spoke at “How big data is driving sustainability” along with panelists from BT and Nokia.

One key takeaway was the importance of addressing the demand side of the problem. How do we get consumers to embrace technology and become part of the movement toward dematerialization? One insight was the need for companies to frame their marketing messages from a social rather than environmental perspective and to clearly demonstrate the direct benefits of sustainable options to individuals and their communities, rather than their effects on the planet at large. In other words, focus on the local rather than the global.

My co-panelists and I also discussed the supply side of the equation. One important conclusion was the need for greater stakeholder collaboration and dialogue. Businesses from major areas of opportunity, including energy, transportation and buildings, need to work with the IT industry to fast-forward the deployment of innovative ICT solutions.

In this context, BSR is well-placed to facilitate cross-sector dialogue and cooperation. For example, BSR is working with ICT companies and utilities as part of our Future of Internet Power initiative to identify and publicize best practices around low-carbon power sourcing for data centers. Additionally, the BSR Conference 2013 this November in San Francisco will address how we can harness the power of stakeholders and beyond to solve our biggest sustainability challenges. The discussion continues about how technology can help businesses and consumers live within the resource boundaries of our planet.

Molecular image by Andrey Burmakin/Shutterstock