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Information Habitat:
Where Information Lives


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Information & Communications Technologies:
Critical Foundation for a Sustainable Common Future

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In the twenty-one years since the initial PrepCom for the UN Conference on Environment and Development, no industry has come close to the exponential growth, rapid technological innovation, widespread adoption and affordability than the information & communications technology (ICT) sector; nor has any industry in human history so rapidly transformed the path of development and the global financial, economic and social landscapes./1

However, the significance of ICT in relation to sustainable development has gained scant attention, yet its growth and evolution continues to have profound impacts on a wide range of processes critical to the transition to a sustainable common future - including opportunities for access to information and citizen participation in decision-making/2, technology transfer, access to education and health care, real-time monitoring of industrial processes and of the environment, early warning systems for natural disasters and disaster relief.

The second key concept in the rarely-cited second sentence of the Brundtland Report's definition of sustainable development/3 - i.e. "the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment's ability to meet present and future needs" - provides a valuable framework for understanding ICT's significance for sustainable development. That ICT has enabled unprecedented new, networked forms of social organization is undeniable, and the very idea of limitations has been transcended in a digital environment in which the constraints of the material world - imposed by the laws of conservation of mass and conservation of energy - no longer apply, for information has zero mass, zero physical size and takes virtually zero time to travel. Free access to knowledge is key to sustainable use of the environment.

The combination of the characteristics of information and rapidly increasing computing power, storage capacity, bandwidth, affordability and portability/4 has provided unprecedented access to knowledge - the key to a sustainable common future.

The recognition in the Brundtland Report of the interlocking nature of the crises relating to sustainable development/5 represented a major breakthrough in understanding; in this regard, advances in ICT have made possible analyses, models and presentations based on massive sets of data from the nature and specifics of relationships between the different sectors in ways that were not previously possible.

Green Economy

Institutional Framework for Sustainable Development

Conclusion

This paper barely begins to do justice to the scope of actual and potential relevance of ICT with respect to sustainable development, a green economy and an institutional framework for sustainable development. It is essential that greater attention be given to this issue, for example through the establishment of an Ad Hoc Working Group on ICT and Sustainable Development./10

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Submitted by Information Habitat: Where information Lives, NGO in Special Consultative Status with ECOSOC that pioneered and supported the use of information & communication technology by the UN NGO community, beginning with preparations for the 1992 Earth Summit.

For comments and feedback, contact Robert Pollard, Founder & Information Ecologist at ecologist@information-habitat.net

Notes

1. When the UNCED preparations began in March 1990, the World Wide Web did not exist. It was not until August 6, 1991, a few days before the 3rd UNCED PrepCom, that Tim Berners-Lee posted a short summary of the World Wide Web project on the alt.hypertext newsgroup, announcing the debut of the Web as a publicly available service on the Internet. Twenty years later, the number of web pages has been estimated to be more than 1 trillion.

2. See the Rio Declaration on Environment and Development, Principle 10, UN Conference on Environment and Development, Rio de Janeiro, June 1992.

3. "Sustainable development is development that meets the needs of the present without compromising the ability of future generations to meet their own needs. It contains within it two key concepts: the concept of 'needs', in particular the essential needs of the world's poor, to which overriding priority should be given; and the idea of limitations imposed by the state of technology and social organization on the environment's ability to meet present and future needs." (emphasis added). Our Common Future, Chapter 2: The Concept of Sustainable Development, World Commission on Environment and Development, Geneva, 1987.

4. While the spectre of a growing 'digital divide' had been a major concern for many, the rapid expansion of mobile phones and smart phones - with computing power and data storage far in excess of PCs used during the UNCED preparatory process - in the developing world is rapidly making it possible for the divide to be bridged.

5. "Until recently, the planet was a large world in which human activities and their effects were neatly compartmentalized within nations, within sectors (energy, agriculture, trade), and within broad areas of concern (environment, economics, social). These compartments have begun to dissolve. This applies in particular to the various global 'crises' that have seized public concern, particularly over the past decade. These are not separate crises: an environmental crisis, a development crisis, an energy crisis. They are all one." Our Common Future: From One Earth to One World, World Commission on Environment and Development, Geneva, 1987.

6. The Wealth of Networks: How Social Production Transforms Markets and Freedom, by Yochai Benkler, Yale University Press, 2006. In keeping with the spirit of Benkler's analysis, The Wealth of Networks was released under a Creative Commons License.

7. See, for example, Wireless and the Environment: A Review of Opportunities and Challenges, BSR & CTIA, October 2011.

8. See, for example, Corporate Value Chain Accounting and Reporting, World Resource Institute & World Business Council for Sustainable Development, September 2011.

9. See http://www.opengovpartnership.org.

10. A similar Working Group was proposed in the Information Ecology recommendations, in Towards Earth Summit II: NGO Recommendations for Actions and Commitments at Earth Summit II, Non-Governmental Organization Background Paper, June 1997. New York, NY.