Technological innovation is intoxicating. Digital technologies have evolved so quickly that technologyprophets are predicting a 'digital disruption', in which vast material bounty is created at such low marginal costs that big business and government melt away to reveal a new, environmentally friendly collaborative commons. Building on phenomena like Moore's law, digital technologies are seen as both exponential and foundational - as 'general purpose technologies' they form the basis of a whole class of innovations, which expand as fast as digital increases in speed and falls in cost.
Other general purpose technologies, like electricity, created similarly utopian visions. These are easy to criticise, but the change created by digital technology, both real and imagined, increasingly shapes our sense of the possible.
The future is already here
As William Gibson has remarked, the future is already here, it's just not evenly distributed.
In France, camera equipped, self-piloting drones monitor maize crops' nitrogen levels, producing data used to automatically adjust fertiliser spraying. A third of all rice fields were sprayed by unmanned helicopters in 2010 in Japan. These tools lower fertiliser and pesticide use without adding labour costs. The rapidly falling cost of computing means that, in a few years, technologies like these could help raise crop yields in the developing world, increasing food supply while limiting the need to convert wild land to agriculture.
In California, similarly new uses of big data are being used directly for conservation. By correlating crowd-sourced data about bird migrations and satellite photos showing when farmers flood their rice fields, the Nature Conservancy found it could pay farmers to create 'pop up' wetlands. These work by adjusting flooding times to ensure migrating birds have an insect rich temporary wetland to visit for a few weeks. Habitat loss is a huge cause of wildlife decline, but clever land management like this might protect the ecosystem services that wildlife needs without having to forego food production.
Technology could even address its own waste stream. Forthcoming research we've been doing in partnership with Google shows that the environmental impact (and cost) of electronics can be dramatically cut if components like screens and motherboards are reused - but the big barrier has always been the cost of manual disassembly. Enter the robots: an Australian research group has built a robotic disassembler that can remove displays and circuit boards from e-waste, potentially making them available for reuse. It learns how to disassemble using artificial intelligence, meaning it will only get faster and cheaper as computing power improves.
Virtual reality check
It's tempting to think that all this innovation means that environmental advocates can stop worrying. But that's unlikely unless policy making gets a lot smarter. Technology shapes the choices we have but it doesn't determine them.
Drone optimised fertiliser and pesticide application might increase agricultural yields at low environmental cost, but it won't guarantee that we'll actually spare any land for nature. The green revolution hugely increased food production, but humanity's response was to increase its population and shift to more land intensive, meat rich diets. We might optimise rice paddy flooding for birds but, if we don't ensure land is protected elsewhere, the birds may have nowhere to migrate to. Smart disassembly robots might be faster and cheaper than people, but even they can't unstick glued-together smartphones.
Even the much ballyhooed 3d printing revolution, which genuinely promises to decrease production waste and enable spare parts to be printed on demand, could just as easily create impossible-to-recycle composites, with different materials printed on top of each other in near-microscopic layers.
Digitally aware environmental policy
Digital technologies are magnificent tools, and we should embrace them. But they're much more likely to create a greener Britain if society sets goals and helps to guide how they are used. Politics is notoriously slow at understanding technological change. Policy makers need to get better at assessing the risks and opportunities of the digital era. Here are three ways they could start:
First, digital technology can help to solve old problems faster than anyone expects. This means policy needs to be quicker to adapt and policy makers can be less pessimistic about digitally-driven change. For example, IT-enabled demand response kept the lights on during last years' 'polar vortex' in the US, when old coal power stations stopped because their coal stacks had frozen solid. But the UK's capacity market - dreamt up in 2010 - privileges analogue-era coal over digitally-enabled demand response.
Second, digital technology can provide fast feedback on how policy is working. This should encourage experimentation. Policy makers are reticent to act because they worry about perverse consequences which take forever to undo. Rapid, digitally-enabled feedback on how policy is working could make for more agile governance. For example, promoters of the Thames Tideway Tunnel have emphasised that the alternative proposed by opponents, widely deployed sustainable drainage (SuDS), is too uncertain to be reliable. But in a world with cheap sensors and rapid feedback, why not just try SuDS out and see how it performs?
And, finally, digital technology can bring new voices into policy making. Most famously, it prevented public forests from being sold off (twice). But so far, clicktivism has tended to reinforce the short termism of politics, which generally makes for poorer environmental policy. The challenge for politicians and activists alike is to translate digitally developed interest into the offline discussion needed to inform better policy.
A people-powered, digitally-enhanced democracy is much more likely to lead to durable green policy than the deterministic, 'technology makes change' model, which lowers faith in politics and results in weaker and poorer decision making.
Digital technology is revolutionary, but the revolution it creates should be one of our making, not that of the machines.