The Information Society & Sustainable Development

From the archives: Over at our sister publication, the Journal of World Transport Policy and Practice,  we have since 1995 been trying to sponsor, bring together and publish for our international readers and practitioners working in the field, thoughtful pieces on the challenges,barriers, traps,  and accomplishments and sustainable transport from many parts of the world as part of a collaborative knowledge and consensus-building long-term effort.  Back in 1996 we published a collaborative volume under this title which you can view in full here. Just below, you have the closing chapter under the title The Information Society/Sustainable Development Symphony Orchestra.

The Information Society & Sustainable Development

A special edition of the journal which is examining alternative views concerning: Experience, Contradictions, Myths, Propaganda, Possible Truths, Visions, and the Implications for Transport, Well-Being & Community

Conclusions and Recommendations:

The Information Society/Sustainable Development Symphony Orchestra.

– Eric Britton, Paris, 4 March 1996

This closing piece is intended as a sort of musical coda — not a final definitive thumping conclusion and invitation for you to find the door, but rather a modest commentary and transitory pause to cap the multitude of themes and leitmotifs (information, views, creative ideas, proposals) that have been sounded by our guest contributors in these pages, as we move into the next (electronic) phase. (Even if you find the musical analogy amiss, I intend nonetheless to pursue it briefly here because I am hopeful that it can help put us on a more creative path for what needs to be engaged in the face of the challenges that are set out here).  Thus, to pursue our analogy most grimly, what we have accomplished in these pages is to sketch out a first incomplete introduction that might eventually be reworked and embellished  into the first movement in a creative work on the theme of society and technology (a feat of more than Wagnerian proportions, and a much higher corresponding degree of mental health). Now that we have some first rate themes and the beginnings of an assembly of musicians and patrons, our next step will be to find ways to put it all together into… The Information Society/Sustainable Development Symphony Orchestra.  But now, and quite possibly to your relief, back to business.

At this point there are three broad classes of questions that we need to ask ourselves:

A.  What is it that we have learned thus far about our topic that should be kept to the fore as we try to determine what if anything should be done next?

B.  What is it that we need to know more about before setting out on specific remedial projects and actions?

C.  Knowing what we know (and what we don’t know), what should we be doing next?

A.      Ten Things We Have Learned (and that we badly needed to know) As has been made amply clear in the preceding pages, over the last several years we have learned at least ten important things which we may now usefully bear in mind as we try to fashion some sort of agenda for action:

1.    The Information Society holds out real potential for assisting the transition toward a more sustainable way of life.

2.    It is highly unlikely that there is any path to sustainable development that does not make massive use of these new technologies and ways of doing things. This is not to claim that the Information Society holds all the answers, nor that it is going to take hold without considerable effort, support and innovation.  But rather that, given who we are and how we as rudderless human beings inevitably tend to proceed in this world, the move to sustainability is not about to be achieved without a strong and discriminating mobilization of these new technologies.  (I might add, however, that I conclude this with no especial joy in my heart, since in my personal view it might well have been more satisfying in many ways if we were to be able to find a simpler, even purer path to all that is bound up in the concept of sustainability.  But we are, of course, only human, and since we have this amazingly powerful tool at hand, we had better make the best use of it that we can.  Because if we don’t, we can kiss this planet as we know it good-bye. Pace, my good Luddite friends)

3.    The Information Society is not going to need help from “government” in order to transform the face of society.  This wholesale transformation of the economy and our daily lives is going to take place, one way or another, impelled on the one hand by technology, the other by the forces of the market economy, and the third (I was not trained as an economist for nothing) the curious collection of drives and desires that we call human nature.  Accordingly, the only significant question that remains is how are we going to permit it to happen.  Are we going to be driven mindlessly by the technology and our own inability for wise collective action? Or are we somehow going to find ways to put it to work for the broader objectives and requirements of society as a whole, including of course sustainable development?

4.    Even without some form of collective guidance, the Information Society is likely to have significant de-materialization impacts, which will work in the direct of more sustainable behavior.  However, these impacts, considerable though they will certainly be, will not be sufficient to temper the global drive to unsustainability for the planet as a whole. Far from it!  For sure! 100% guaranteed!

5.    The move toward a sustainable society will not occur by itself — even if we have an extremely powerful potential tool in the Information Society.  But it is only that — a tool, an opportunity!  The transition is thus going to call in addition for some form of collective consciousness, will, action and governance.  Without this — and we are not talking about simple cognition or knowledge here, but rather all that is needed to translate this understanding into effective action — the continued downward spiral of resource depletion, environment destruction, and heartless slashing of society into a division of haves and have-nots, is sure to continue unabated.  But what form will this new governance take?

6.    We have learned what not to ask of government and the public sector.  It will be useful to review these well documented blind allies if only briefly here, as a handy checklist against poorly advised action on these matters:

  • The public sector is almost always a poor entrepreneur and/or manager.  So let us be sure that we don’t do anything stupid like trying to set up a “Sustainable Development Delivery Corporation” or anything of the kind as a discoverer, producer and purveyor of any eventual sustainability products or services that may appear on the horizon.
  • The public sector has not proven itself to be a certified public genius when it comes to selecting winning technologies, setting fine-grained standards for their development (particularly in new and fast breaking areas of activity), or figuring out ways for bringing them to market.
  • The Command-and-Control function (also known as policing) is a very dangerous policy path indeed, and must be used lightly and most carefully if at all (and in close partnership with the full range of concerned actors — and no just those best equipped to lobby for their interests).
  • Government as the privileged partner to big business (and vice versa) is neither a healthy, desirable, nor even a particularly effective path for the work that now has to be engaged.  (This is not to rule out the fact that large industrial and business groups have many important contributions to make — but it is to warn that they must not be allowed to dominate the processes of discussion and decision.
  • Government as banker, and in particular as a source of taxpayer funding for larger projects and groups, is also a dangerous game in an area of policy and practice that is rife with pitfalls and many old bad habits.  Even where such largesse is explained away by neo-Keynesian and similar arguments of creative public finance, this should not be taken as a reason for not putting such proposals to the harsh light of deep and penetrating independent analysis.
  • Finally, central government as a source of all wisdom is a path which must now be once and for all put behind us.  There is an unfortunate tendency and age old for public sector institutions to publish or otherwise announce statements of problems and solutions which are then treated with all too much reverence and solemnity.  However, in the areas which are of concern to us here, almost everything which has thus far been published or promulgated by government sources, national or international — no matter how well intentioned — is at best only tentative and incomplete, and in all too many cases badly lacking and even quite spectacularly misleading.[1] All such statements must be subjected to extensive critical analysis and not be allowed to circulate and be reverentially cited and used for policy purposes without extensive independent citizen review.

7.    The role of government in making the transition: In the drive toward a more sustainable society, there are many many things that our public institutions can do to help accelerate the much needed transition.  Here are a few:

  • Learn to interact more creatively with a far larger range and  number of partners and cooperating institutions — to encourage and enhance creative adaptation, experimentation, and the variety of responses to these challenges in many and various ways.
  • Enhance the ability of those most directly concerned to find and implement new and imaginative solutions to their own problems (individuals, employers, neighborhoods, labor unions, community groups, cities, regions, etc.).
  • Identify and help remove barriers which are presently hindering both innovative and more conventional responses to these problems
  • Identify the more blatant pitfalls and “blind alleys” which are presently receiving attention (and possibly public moneys), whether in terms of global policy approaches or specific measures
  • Stimulate, support (as a catalyst, not as the sole financial source) and underwrite innovative (including non-conventional) projects and approaches which are consistent with the guidelines set out here
  • Develop and make effective use of new concepts of networking — both to improve the knowledge base for dealing with these issues and to facilitate the international flow of information and cross-everything collaboration.
  • Encourage and support striking demonstration projects — which involve those groupings, etc. that are directly concerned and which demonstrate new approaches which may provide useful models for enterprises and groupings in both the public and private sectors.
  • Ensure that these innovations are fully and fairly monitored, evaluated and reported on in a public manner — with techniques of feedback and analysis that allow the needed time and flexibly for success
  • Communicate through the full range of available means and technologies the accomplishments and shortcomings of both the best and the worst of what is going on
  • Lead by Example — Government agencies and now have a unique opportunity to scrutinize and redefine all aspects of their own working structures, operating practices and relationships in order to take best advantage of the technologies and associated structures and practices of the Information Society, in order to behave in a genuinely sustainable manner.  Those governments and leaders, who make cull user of these technologies and become more sustainable in the details of their daily practices and choices, are going to provide the most valuable and useful ally for the cause of sustainability. Likewise, public servants and institutions who fail to modify their behavior cannot be expected to play a  real role in making this transition — quite to the contrary!

8.    The path from the Information Society to our Herculean goal of sustainability must pass through new forms of interactions and partnership which focus on at least five critical paths to the future.  Each requires building new links and relationships between all parts of the complex thing that we call the Information Society and…

  • The transportation sector (and its many potentially creative links both as an area of activity where new telecommunications and information technologies can be put to good use, and as an activity sink where they can substitute for unsustainable physical movements.
  • The energy sector (both in general and as the central partner of the transport sector).
  • The world of work and enterprise — jobs, employment, unemployment, dignity in daily life, security, a role in society, value creation, innovation, etc.
  • The world of learning and education — which should not in an Information Society even for one minute be confused with such much narrower and demonstrably insufficient concepts as “training”, “worker preparation” or even “practical education”.
  • New ways of building knowledge, creating coalitions, and organizing citizen participation in the process of governance.

9.    These five links or paths to the future of a sustainable society cannot be left here without further and forceful additional elaboration.  I am not saying here that it is going to be “useful” to take these linkages into account in fashioning a response strategy to the challenges of sustainability.  Rather I am insisting, without reservation, that it is going to be absolutely imperative that all five be given leading positions in the transition strategy. Unless we achieve massive breakthroughs on the transport, energy, work, education, and governance fronts — there will be no sustainability.  There will, most certainly, be a lot of talk about it, many studies done, research programs financed, conferences convened, media squeaks aired, and eventually a lot of disparate and at times even effective and encouraging individual actions and remedial program, but the sustainability challenge will have been missed!

10.The insights and leadership needed to make the transition to sustainability is unlikely to be forthcoming from the existing panoply of institutional, social and political arrangements. Innovation is badly needed in the area of governance if these challenges are to be met.  I do not of course expect that this will be treated as great good news by those whose first allegiance is to defending the status quo.  On the other hand, I do not see this either as any reason to take to the streets with club in hand or otherwise wish devoutly for some form of cataclysmic revolution.  Rather, I see it as a call for new forms of knowledge building, consensus development, and informed and responsible leadership which at least in part (in fact, in large part) can be facilitated through that combination of things that spring to mind when one hears the phrase Information Society.  These technologies and procedures, judiciously combined and wisely used, just may provide us with the means that are essential for us to adjust our behaviors and become responsible again — responsible in our daily life choices and responsible from a planetary perspective. From this base, we can now proceed to a consideration of what we need to know more about before taking action.

B.      What More Do We Need to Know Before Acting? Prudence is a great good thing, and certainly essential when it comes to considerations which are as complex, troubling and sweeping as sustainability. It is certain that there are indeed a large number of significant knowledge gaps, which we shall need to address and fill in this important and in many ways quite unexplored sphere of human activity and individual, social and planetary needs.  However, I would now like to offer a comprehensive summary of everything we must learn before beginning to take the first really large and ambitious steps in the direction of a more sustainable society.

THERE IS NOTHING MORE WE NEED TO STUDY OR LEARN TO BEGIN TO ACT RESPONSIBLY! WE ARE READY TO START NOW.

Which brings us to our final conclusions and recommendations.

C.      What Can Usefully Be Done Next? Studies, reports, debriefings, conferences, and “more research” have been the main tools of trade of university educated policy advisors over the last three or so decades. All are of course highly respectable and have their uses — but also their limits and abuses. Given these limits and that the issues that concern us are, by and large, complex and systemic, and further that they involve reconciling the positions of groups and interests which are usually far from identical and often highly conflicted, we must be prepared to try other less “academic” approaches to knowledge-building, communications, conflict resolution and, finally, to the mobilization of opinion and resources that is now required. Instead of always accepting automatically that the right next move is to generate yet more paper (and that in a society that increasingly won’t read, never mind act on what they read!), may I propose in closing that we should in the future be giving more importance to such things as …

1.         Standing around and watching carefully what is really going on

2.         Insisting always on the use of simple language

3.         Looking for ways to heighten the impact of words (written or spoken, and which does not always necessarily mean even more words)

4.         Not excluding humor, wit, jokes, irony (& even the possibility of bad taste, if that’s what it takes to increase the level of critical thinking and creativity) from policy discussions

5.         Using photographs, photo essays, film, architectural renderings, video scenarios, cartoons, posters, drawings and other forms of lively graphic expression and characterization — to impart greater depth and impact to the issues and realities being faced

6.         Using these techniques to illustrate alternative futures and policy options, in ways which render them striking and understandable.

7.         Polls, surveys, feedback monitoring schemes which improve awareness of the diversity of needs and views

8.         Creative use of small samples (cheaper, faster and sometimes even more accurate)

9.         Imaginative linking of quantitative analysis with more vivid information concerning the real impacts on individuals, families, firms & communities

10.     Socioeconomic analysis, studies and portrayals of actual daily life experience

11.     “Day in the life of … “ profiles, scenarios, stories, rapportages & other “literary” treatments

12.     Books and articles on these challenging issues aimed at informing and involving the general public (as opposed to only the usual specialist or academic readers)

13.     Editorials, columns and op-ed pieces (carefully written) to hammer the key points home

14.     Games, educational and others, using a wide variety of media

15.     Contests, competitions to elicit broader, more vigorous and more imaginative participation in all stages

16.     More brilliant use of “commercials”, spots, etc., to achieve educational and social objectives

17.     Events, books, images, programs aimed at informing and socializing children

18.     Finding ways to involve children actively both in the collective learning experience and in the solution process

19.     Use of the school system as a resource, to carry out surveys, mini-studies, demonstrations, parent education and activism on these issues, etc. 2

0.     Using town halls, libraries, museums and other public places including the streets themselves as centers of exposition and public debate

21.     New techniques of knowledge building (including opening up of the policy process to public participants in new and more far-reaching ways)

22.     Active networking at all levels of society, and using an increasing variety of media

23.     Electronic bulletin boards, networking, conferencing, new group work/groupware techniques

24.     Use of simulations, artificial intelligence, etc. to encourage depiction, emergence, and collective consideration of broader solution sets

25.     Innovative techniques of conflict resolution (including iterative adversary programs using video, audio and other feedback techniques)

26.     Town meetings & other fora of debate, consensus building & group decision

27.     Process-oriented projects involving the semi-structured use of things like brainstorming sessions, roundtables, confrontations of opposing points of view—all oriented to attain specific objectives

28.     Cross-project and cross-country support by policy gurus, networks & public interest consortia

29.     Demonstrations of new ways of doing things (properly prepared, carefully monitored & flexibly fine-tuned for results)

30.     New partnerships with radio, television and the media, which increase public awareness of both issues and trade-offs, as well as direct public involvement in the solution process

31.     Active investigation & learning from post mortems of project experience, both successful & other

ou may wish to think of these as instruments in the “Information Society and Sustainable Development Symphony Orchestra”.  But we shall need more than just instruments to make music.

*          *          *

And of course this does not tell us what has to be done next in terms of specific measures or remedial actions. The above can help us to understand better how to organise and work to develop more creative insights and make the most responsible and effective decisions concerning what these policies and approaches might be — and how we can then get the kinds of input and support that will be necessary to translate them from good proposals into palpable and creative reality.

The preceding articles have suggested a number of the measures which are worthy of our attention now, and while the list is too long to be engaged here, it would be unfortunate to miss this opportunity to stress once again the importance of a massive rethink and overhaul of our taxation system, which after all is one of the most important determinants of how effort and resources are being distributed throughout our societies.

Our present system is at present ineluctably moving in the direction of becoming just about as bad as it can possibly get, if our objective is to encourage honest and open behavior on the part of our citizens; enterprise, industry, thrift and inventiveness on the part of individuals; economy in the use of natural resources; environmental protection and ecological awareness; equality of opportunity; greater responsibility toward future generations… in short all those things which taken together make up this strange word, sustainability.

We know that there is a great deal of work to be done, but we shall have to leave these issues — promising and important they are — for another day.  With a certain sense of optimism and possibility, despite the enormity of the challenge.  Because the number of those who care, are willing to try to understand, and are then willing to act is growing every day.

*          *          *

Which brings us to the end of this first ink-on-paper stage of the problem solving process which has been engaged here.  It will now be necessary to move from this rather tame and academic beginning out into the real world of tough challenges, shared responsibilities, expanding awarenesses, action and new partnerships.

You, dear reader, may in addition to your other activities and paths also wish to bear in mind the possibility of continuing and enlarging upon this exchange by occasionally consulting the World Wide Web site for the New Mobility Agenda which has been set up as at least one of the available avenues of collaboration.  This you can do by going to http://www.newmobility.org/ By starting there, and by moving out in concentric circles, as only the Net and the Web permit, you will quite quickly begin to identify groups, programs, sources of information that will take you much further than this short printed document could ever hope to achieve.

Eric Britton, Paris, 4 March 1996


[1] It would be possible to pass a number of these misguided documents in review here, but this might not be the best moment since we are not so much interested in pointing fingers at old mistakes at this point as in mobilizing ideas and  partners for new approaches.

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