Technology for Good: mobilising cultural action for sustainability

This month, Julie’s Bicycle attended the World Cities Culture Summit 2018 in San Francisco to deliver a workshop on the role of technology in supporting cultural action on climate change and the environment. The following is an opinion piece by Lucy Latham, prompted by this discussion.

More than at any other time in history, technological innovation is directly impacting our everyday experiences, rapidly changing the social, cultural and economic fabric of our lives. For many, the rapidly shifting world of technology is a provocative, even divisive, point of contemplation – socially, politically and even environmentally. It raises questions on labour markets and the future of work, consumption behaviours, privacy and security, equity and access, even voting and democratic citizenship. For instance, 72% of surveyed Americans fear a future in which computers and robots can do more human jobs.[1]

In 2017, Theresa May spoke the following at Davos:

…technological advances continue to revolutionise the possibilities for humanity . . . we have to remember that the challenges we face do not outweigh the opportunities.

This kind of narrative is familiar in arts and culture too i.e. technology is rapidly advancing and we need to keep up in order to reap the benefits – even maintain our relevance. In 2017, DCMS changed its name to the department for Digital, Culture, Media and Sport, acknowledging the way the Department’s remit had evolved. Following this, DCMS announced a new £1.1m Digital Culture Network to be set up by Arts Council England to increase the ‘digital maturity’ of ACE funded organisations – a move which aims to inspire new digital cultural content, improved audience engagement and enhanced visitor experience.

So if arts and culture are gearing up to meet the fourth industrial revolution, what does this mean for the sector’s environmental efforts? On the positive side – the rapid development of digital technology has prompted the collection, analysis and modelling of vast scores of data, advancing our understanding of the natural environment and our impact on it. Our social media platforms transmit stories of celebration and challenge, with invitations to sign, vote, act and share – and impressively, one quarter of NPOs are now either on a green tariff or purchase their energy from a 100% renewable supplier (Arts Council England Environmental Report 2017/18).

In fact, the clean energy economy as a whole has grown ~8% [2] year-on-year and contributed $1.4 trillion to the global economy in 2016 alone.[3] But to what extent are these positive trends translating into global emissions reductions? Well, the picture isn’t good.

“I’m sorry, I have very bad news for you,” IEA Executive Director Fatih Birol told guests at a diplomatic function hosted by the Polish embassy in Paris.

“Emissions this year will increase once again, and we’re going to have the COP meeting when global emissions reach a record high,” – referring to the December UN climate summit in Katowice, Poland. [4]

The story of industrial development is also the story of ecological destruction, increasing pressure on the environment through activities including mining, building, farming and manufacture. Yes, technology brings promise in the form of renewable energy, but without capping and reducing global emissions, we risk prioritising efficiencies over actual reductions – merely shifting the burden. For example, in the case of digital – often championed as a tool for environmental improvement – we have to sustain an increasingly energy-hungry infrastructure, with the internet releasing over 300 million tonnes of carbon each year.[5]

Further to the above, there is also the social justice perspective of rare earth mining that we must contend – the rich mineral mines of the Democratic Republic of Congo (which supply valuable minerals to the tech industry) have come at huge cost to through exacerbated militarisation and years of conflict. With all this in mind, we must navigate the opportunities and challenges of technology with ethics and sustainability at its heart.

Below are a few tips to get you started:

  • Read Greenpeace’s Guide to Greener Electronics.
  • Switch your building to a 100% renewable energy provider – our partner Good Energy is actively supporting the cultural sector in transitioning to clean energy by offering discounted rates.
  • Batteries shouldn’t go in the bin (they leach a lot of toxicity in landfills). Set up a battery collection box in the office and take them to a local collection point.
  • Dispose Waste Electrical and Electronic Equipment (or WEEE) responsibly (anything with a plug). If it is still functional, look for community or donation schemes (e.g. Furniture Re-Use Networkor the London Reuse Network), otherwise find a recycling bank, or a distributor take-back scheme.
  • Change your website host – there are an increasing number of web hosting businesses offering reliable services powered by renewable energy e.g. Rackspace.
  • End-user devices like computers make up the largest portion of the digital footprint because of their sheer number. So turn off PCs and other ICT equipment at the end of the day/when not in use and set printers and other kit to energy-saving mode throughout the office.
  • Use the IG Tools – our free online carbon and environmental calculator to record and understand the impacts of your venue, office, tour, production, event or festival.

[1] Pew (2017), ‘Automation in Everyday Life’, Washington, DC, Pew Research Center

[2] International Renewable Energy Agency (IRENA).

[3] Advanced Energy Economy.


[5] The Guardian.