Having read yet another discouraging article on the state of our planet, a group of French filmmakers embarked on an optimistic globe-trotting quest for climate change solutions that took them to the UK, USA, Denmark, France, Switzerland, Finland and India. The result is a 2015 documentary entitled “Tomorrow” that is now playing in US theaters. The movie is meant as an antidote to the fatalism that can stem from familiarity with the scientific consensus on global warming.
Shot at a time in which prospects were not as dire as they appear today after the latest policy shifts in the United States, the documentary finds hope in innovative sustainable approaches to agriculture, energy production, finance, democracy and education. A common underlying element of all the surveyed solutions is their reliance on social, local and decentralized mechanisms. Including the inevitable interview with Vandana Shiva and an expected visit to a Finnish elementary school, the film uncovers a heartening set of initiatives, such as permaculture and the adoption of local currencies alongside conventional government-backed money.
Conspicuously missing from any of the solutions discussed in the movie are information and communication technologies (excluding the fleeting appearance of a smartphone used to pay in a local currency). This may not come as a surprise given the measurable decrease in “closeness, connection, and conversation quality” among people in local communities that has resulted from the widespread adoption of mobile phones. A city of the future ruled by smart devices seems indeed destined to be a lonely place, incompatible with the development of meaningful social programs. If we also factor in the energy footprint of producing digital devices and running telecom networks, the case for considering communication technology as a contributor to climate change appears to be well motivated.
Nonetheless, communication technology has a potentially important role to play in combating global warming. Smart phones are already used for emergency preparedness and coordination to respond to the effects of a changing climate. And, as discussed in a recent report of the Brookings Institution, the upcoming fifth generation of wireless networks may prove to be a significant asset in key areas such as water management, air quality control, energy production, transportation, and building design.
Take water management. It has been reported that two thirds of the world’s population may face water shortages by 2025. Thanks to Internet-of-Things (IoT)-enabled sensor and actuator networks, the efficiency in the use of this scarce natural resource may be improved via monitoring (e.g., of the concentration of dangerous chemicals), leakage detection, measuring home usage, adaptive irrigation tailored to measured moisture levels, and smart chillers for industries.
Leveraging the benefits of connectedness for a more efficient use of natural resources while at the same time building more resilient and sustainable communities may prove a delicate balancing act, but one that could prove critical for the future of our planet.