Interview with Aya Jaff

Illustration Umweltpolitische Digitalagenda

"We need figures on the ecological footprint of digitalisation"

Ms Jaff, digitalisation is currently an extremely important issue in all spheres of business and everyday life. However, you highlight its negative impacts for the environment. What's your motivation?

No one can turn a blind eye to climate change, especially since the Fridays for Future movement appeared on the scene. My generation is fully aware that a lot needs to change. In my private life, everyone around me is already taking steps by not eating meat or avoiding plastic waste, for example. In the tech sector, however, there is still a lot to do, for instance, when it comes to data storage. Server farms consume vast resources. And demand will continue to grow dynamically. Artificial intelligence is extremely data-hungry and we are just barely getting started in this area.

"Streaming has replaced flying" is today's rallying cry. Do you think that giving up technology is the right response to the environmental problems of digitalisation?

I think it is hard to tell people to write fewer e-mails and text messages or to stop travelling the world. For one thing, it would be a step backward and a lot of opportunities would be lost. We would miss out on gaining new input, sharing ideas and having access to information. Instead we need to cultivate creativity and more ambition to tackle the challenges and develop new technologies that find solutions to the climate and environmental problems! It's important that we start with development right now because smart solutions take time.

So we don't need new rules and regulations?

In some cases, there's no alternative. Manufacturers, for example, should be required to design mobile phones and tablets with individual parts like the battery that can be replaced. We need the right to repair. But generally speaking, I prefer incentives to bans. Incentives should be created to encourage start-ups and companies to develop technologies with as few resources as possible The Digital Policy Agenda for the Environment is an important step in the right direction because it attracts the necessary attention for the issue.

How do we create digital literacy and raise awareness of the implications of the new technologies?

If we want to see real change, we need to actively involve the younger generation in the discussion. And by this I mean start-ups as well as the young people currently participating in demonstrations. The only way to effectively raise awareness of the issue is when the established players in the energy sector successfully collaborate with young players. If everyone just does their own thing, we won't get very far. Which is why I think policy-makers need to set the course. The goal is for digitalisation to drive the energy transition forward, not stop it.

What do you see as the biggest challenge in making digitalisation environmentally friendly?

Reaching the masses with environmentally sound alternatives. For this to happen, these alternatives have to be at least as good as the technologies currently in use. So, for example, more resource-efficient search engines like Ecosia have to deliver results at least on par with Google. This means that we need to become more innovative in the tech sector. Simply appealing to people's conscience is not enough.

Do you have an example of this kind of innovation?

The Boston-based start-up CATALOG has come up with a way to store data on DNA molecules. Just a single gram of DNA can store 215 petabytes of data, that is 215 million gigabytes. DNA can store roughly a million times more information than a conventional flash drive. It is also more durable, more secure and only uses minimal energy. I am working to get start-ups and companies excited about exploring these kinds of new ideas.

What will it take to successfully win them over?

Policy-makers and researchers need to provide reliable data on the ecological footprint of digitalisation as soon as possible. We don't yet know enough to date about the exact breakdown of resource consumption. But we need numbers so that people get an idea of the repercussions and trends, and policy-makers can formulate appropriate regulations based on this data.

How can we set a course for the megatrend of digitalisation that also benefits the environment?

To achieve this, policy-makers, industry and consumers have to take responsible action together. This will then become a key factor for success: companies that are able to capitalise on digitalisation to make their products and processes more environmentally sound will benefit in the long run. People are aware. And as consumers, they have market power. This is already clearly evident in the fashion industry and in the choice of energy suppliers.

Have companies already realised this?

It is slowly trickling down, although big players have a harder time linking digitalisation and sustainability. They should seek inspiration from smaller companies and from other countries. In April, for example, I am travelling to Botswana, which has a very vibrant start-up scene. And the people there are already feeling the effects of climate change today. I can imagine that they think about sustainability and digitalisation differently than we do in Europe. To meet the challenges of the future, we can’t lose sight of the big picture.

Aya Jaff is a programmer, trader, entrepreneur and author. Her first book, "Moneymakers" will be published in April 2020. Since February, she has been writing a column called "Tech for the Future" for the digital magazine t3n that focuses on resource-efficient approaches to the future of technology.