by Oliver Bruzek, Policy officer of CompuGroup Medical (CGM), Berlin
The question of whether the comprehensive digitalisation of our society can contribute to sustainable economic activity and active climate protection, or whether it is more likely to place a greater burden on our planet, is the subject of controversial debate. Today’s high consumption of resources, especially for the production of hardware, contrasts with a considerable potential for savings in a wide range of areas. However, before any closer consideration, the following should be clear to everyone: it is pointless to even think about whether we need more or less digitalisation for climate protection reasons. It will be comprehensive and successively penetrate (almost) all areas of life. Even today, we would simply no longer be able to cope with our everyday lives without digital solutions, starting with the organisation of infrastructure and extending to production processes and trade.
Using the full potential of digitalisation
Science today cannot cope without big data and our communications would collapse. In addition, citizens consider the benefits to be so high that they simply no longer want to live without digital tools. From today’s perspective, the potential of digitalisation is still difficult to quantify or qualify. For the most part, we are still in a phase of electrification of many processes and are still in the early stages of developing and using IT-supported systems. The use of artificial intelligence has only just tentatively begun.
The benefits in the health sector
The benefits in the health sector, for example, can be illustrated in ecological and economic terms, quite independently of a purely medical consideration. Let us just take the current example of vaccine development against the Covid-19 virus. The speed at which vaccines have been developed based on data-driven research is almost ten times faster than conventional research. The saving of resources is significant. It is even easier for each of us to grasp the savings potential of digital healthcare when we think of the phenomenon of rare diseases. Although only a relatively small number of people suffer from a particular rare disease, there are over 8,000 different ones, with about 4 million people affected in Germany alone. On average, it takes about five years before the disease is diagnosed properly. This does not only mean countless trips to different doctors, but also often taking completely unsuitable drugs – which have to be produced and delivered. Digital diagnostic procedures controlled by algorithms can reduce this effort many times over, to the great benefit of the patients.
Saving resources in the manufacturing sector
In the manufacturing sector, maximum conservation of resources can nowadays only be achieved with IT-controlled systems, and the same applies to the agricultural sector. Heating and cooling systems only work efficiently with computer-controlled systems that have the highest level of economy, achieved in terms of both resource use and emissions. Without digitalisation, mobility can neither be managed intelligently nor in line with demand at all times. This applies to the control of the drives themselves as well as the networking and thus convenient and efficient coordination of means of transport. The control of energy demand as well as the precise timing of the supply of the most environmentally friendly energy sources is not feasible without IT. The result is that a reduction in energy consumption and emissions can hardly be achieved, if at all, to the extent required without the use of digital control systems, which are themselves energy hungry.
Cloud-based solutions to save energy
Therefore, the fine-tuning we need to do is first and foremost to reduce the amount of energy required to manufacture and use IT-based systems and digital products. A pragmatic approach would be to forgo, wherever possible, the part of digitalisation that requires the most resources today: the hardware. Instead of a multitude of tiny computer centres and local infrastructure, we need more cloud-based solutions and “Software as a Service (SaaS)” approaches. These must guarantee at least the same high level of security as local data storage and must not be inferior to on-site solutions in terms of availability. A high usage rate of such offers would significantly increase the efficiency itself. At the same time, we need to invest in research into new materials for hardware and create greater efficiency here as well. Results would create a significant advantage on the balance sheet. What we need is more investment in digitalisation, rather than less, and not just for competitive reasons. Doing without a new smartphone every year would then be a very personal contribution to climate protection.
“What we need is more investment in digitalisation, rather than less.”
is the global chief public affairs officer of CompuGroup Medical. Prior to this, he managed a business consultancy agency in Warsaw after having held management positions in the aeronautical sector with the Canadian company CAE Inc. and having acted as director of government relations for Airbus Industries (former EADS). Within the German parliament, he was an advisor on security and foreign politics to members of parliament and the defence committee.