“Sustainability must be considered right from the outset”
Ulf Hoffmann talks to the FOKUS Directors Prof. Dr.-Ing. Ina Schieferdecker and Prof. Dr. Manfred Hauswirth about the need for sustainable digitalization.
Can digitalization be sustainable?
Ina Schieferdecker: Not only can it be, it must be inherently sustainable and designed to be sustainable. Sustainability must be considered right from the outset, as is the case with IT security or usability. This requires agreement at national and international level on how to deploy the digital transformation so that it’s aligned with and achieves the UN’s sustainable development goals.
How can Fraunhofer FOKUS contribute to sustainability?
Manfred Hauswirth: There are obvious areas of digitalization that can be sustainable and we are active in these. I had an eye-opening experience as a result of my involvement with industrial water. A steel mill had to be shut down because they hadn’t been given sufficient warning about the rise in temperature and level of the Rhine. At the time, they received their data by fax. You can’t shut a steelworks down like a computer; it takes several days. The loss of production then added up to a significant amount of several millions. Although this figure only reflects the commercial consequences of the shutdown, it’s useful because one of the ways of overcoming defensive attitudes towards sustainability is to show its potential economic benefits.
Ina Schieferdecker: We need to make sure that digitalization offers solutions that are future-proof, interoperable and compatible with our existing infrastructure. We certainly don’t need to keep reinventing the wheel. One of the significant contributions of FOKUS over the past 30 years has been its collaboration on international open standards and licenses, and the co-development of an interoperable, standards-based infrastructure with open interfaces and formats in the public domain, in administration and in business. Here’s another example: the energy transition can only succeed if it makes use of digitalization to manage the volatility and flexibility that renewables are subject to. I believe that, sooner or later, a carbon tax or a general resource tax will be introduced – facilitated by digital monitoring and tracing, made possible by digitalization.
Manfred Hauswirth: For me this is a classic conflict of goals, because we work with a simple cause-effect relationship. Let’s say, for example, we would like to reduce carbon emissions by increasing electromobility. However, current battery technology is not sustainable or environmentally friendly and it’s also heavily reliant on rare-earth elements, which in turn creates new dependencies.
Ina Schieferdecker: Yes, life cycle management is definitely a key element in achieving sustainability goals and digitalization is one of its most important tools. A carbon tax should not be based just on emissions, but calculated over the entire life cycle. FOKUS has already been involved in a number of carbon footprint projects. For this to work we would have to integrate a completely new mechanism in the product cycle.
How do we benefit from digitalization? By being able to apply for a passport or register our car online?
Manfred Hauswirth: Those are good examples. But here in Germany we can’t do any of that. As a high-tech nation, we ought to be ashamed at the level of paper bureaucracy that still exists here. If I don’t have a postal address in Germany, I don’t exist.
Ina Schieferdecker: That is the basic discussion we are having. Digitalization can make many things more efficient, more convenient, more reliable and also more secure – as long as we design and protect the digital solutions in accordance with our guidelines.
But you have to persuade people to go along with you, because society as a whole is afraid of digitalization.
Ina Schieferdecker: Why is that? We should be more afraid of failing the digitalization.
Many people are afraid they might lose their jobs, that work will change dramatically, or that their data could end up anywhere.
Manfred Hauswirth: But it’s already happening. I find it incongruous that we readily provide our data – movement data, voice data and biodata – to Internet companies, yet when someone suggests the creation of a register of personal data in Germany, people protest in the strongest terms. I don’t understand it. I hope that I can trust my own government more than an American Internet company.
Ina Schieferdecker: The fact that digitalization is a huge and powerful tool isn’t the problem; what we do with it is. This is why we need to talk about the direction in which social and economic systems are heading.
How important are open data portals for sustainable development?
Ina Schieferdecker: In addition to providing transparency and encouraging participation, the added value of open data lies in its capacity to deliver new or enhanced business opportunities that will strengthen the economy. Open data is the basis for smart cities and thus a prerequisite for sustainable development. And if I know that the data has already been collected, this can also save resources. Meanwhile, however, we take it further: as well as open data, the availability of broad-based, urban digital data is important because it allows us to create opportunities for optimization and added value while preserving the (data) sovereignty of the municipalities.
Can 5G boost sustainability?
Manfred Hauswirth: There are techniques used in 5G that can provide seeds for sustainability. 5G virtualizes the network – something we have already experienced with the cloud. So far, communication processing and information processing have remained separate. With 5G serving as a virtualization platform, they can now converge. 5G offers greater opportunities for communication and information sharing. As a result, no one maintains a cluster of specialist applications any more, but purchases it as software. This can contribute to sustainability because it reuses existing resources. On the other hand, information processing can be integrated into the network or carried out locally (edge cloud computing). This means that data is no longer “sent to the USA”, thereby counteracting the formation of monopolies and strengthening national data sovereignty.
Will we see the dismantling of giant data centers?
Ina Schieferdecker: No, because even more data will be produced. At the moment, cloud offerings cost almost nothing. That’s wrong, but it will take time to change.
Is the flat rate the death blow for sustainability?
Manfred Hauswirth: No. We have undertaken some important telephony projects. Consider the VoIP protocol, for example, in which FOKUS was involved and which played a vital role in making flat rates possible. From the end user’s point of view, there is nothing better than flat rates. But in a B2B context we need to move away from flat rates.
Back when people used phone booths, there was a saying: “keep it short!”
Ina Schieferdecker: Indeed. That was because the resource was scarce. Data centers are expected to consume 11 percent of global energy in 2030. And there is a lot of data junk using up valuable resources. However, if we succeed in moving away from cloud computing and if we develop more sensible, resource-saving applications with fog and edge computing, then we will have taken an important step forward.
Thank you very much for this interview.