circular light exhibit
PHOTO: Kate Ausburn

“When I was working for Ruter (a Norwegian public transit company), one of the key principles was that people should travel with us without having to think,” said Beth Stensen, CEO of Netlife, a Norwegian digital design agency. “And I asked why? What’s so bad about thinking? What’s so bad about helping people think about the choices that they’re making? And making them aware, and educating them along the way about the impacts of the different choices that they’re making?”

Supposing Ruter helped people think about their health, about walking or cycling instead of taking the bus or tram. That’s not “good” for Ruter but it’s good for people, good for the planet. We want to walk across this planet with as light a footprint as possible. The lighter the footprint the less pollution.

When we use technology we’re wearing boots, boots made of plastic, metal, silicon and practically every rare earth material that ever existed. And it seems that in digital, so much of the technology is there to help us create. “We are fighting against a massive system of production, of consumption,” Stensen stated.

Modern tech is an accelerant of the production of things deliberately designed not to last, deliberately designed not to be fixable, deliberately designed not to be recyclable. I don’t think it’s a coincidence that the global warming has exploded during the very same timeframe as information technology exploded. If we don’t create a circular economy for technology we have no hope of properly addressing climate change.

The circular economy is about responsibility, maintenance, care, sharing, reuse. You make it, you own it. We must take responsibility for the things we do in digital. Not simply to create and launch but also to maintain, improve, archive, delete. Without responsibility there is no accountability and without accountability there is inevitably waste.

As Stensen explains, we must make “people think of everything they put out there from a circular fashion, rather than a linear fashion. There needs to be responsibility for those of us who produce things that we say: 'I take responsibility for this. I will make sure I will follow this to its end.'"

Netlife has always been focused on making the most important stuff, and not just putting anything out there. That is key. We need far more careful thinking and far less careless acting. We live in a frenzied tech world of doing, of relentless speed, of constant change, and yet when you stand back, what of value, what of worth is actually changing? How much of this relentless change is actually just a wild process of relentless waste. How much of what you do actually ends up being useful for a long time?

If we want to slow down the waste, one of the best ways is to slow down. Up to a point, speed has great value, but by the laws of physics, greater speed burns exponentially more energy, creates exponentially more waste, and is exponentially more dangerous to ourselves, those around us, and to the planet.

Related Article: Embracing Sustainable Digital Design